30 pages 1 hour read

Ken Saro-Wiwa

Africa Kills Her Sun

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1975

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Summary: “Africa Kills Her Sun”

“Africa Kills Her Sun” is a satirical short story by Nigerian author Ken Saro-Wiwa. Published in 1989 in the anthology Adaku and Other Stories, “Africa Kills Her Sun” takes the form of a letter, written in first-person present tense by the main character, Bana. Bana recounts his adult life—his career change, crimes, and remaining moments before execution—to his childhood girlfriend, Zole, whom he has not seen or spoken to in 10 years.

Bana begins the letter informing Zole that this is a goodbye. Unlike his colleagues, Sazan and Jimba, who are currently sleeping on the floor, Bana does not consider this goodbye letter to be useless or pitiable. Writing the letter is a celebratory act in the face of death. Bana does not reveal that he is in jail awaiting execution but hints that something monumental will happen the next morning.

Bana waxes nostalgic about his childhood memories with Zole and their time spent outdoors, full of pleasure and curiosity. Whenever he has faced hardship, these are the memories he returns to despite the fact that Zole may have forgotten about him. Because he uses these memories to bolster him in hard times, Bana sees logic in his decision to write to her the night before his death.

Bana asks Zole for a small favor, though he does not reveal what it is. He assures her that sharing his thoughts and feelings with her in the letter will help him feel at ease before his execution so that he can enjoy it along with the crowd that comes to witness his death.

Bana then discusses the prison guard, whom he has bribed to deliver Zole’s letter and who always confuses the names of the three condemned men. He sees the guard as a criminal and prisoner in his own right, as is the High Court Judge for their service to a corrupt state. Tomorrow, when Bana and his friends are executed, they will laugh at this guard, and they will laugh at the High Court Judge.

Bana asks if Zole has heard of his story in the newspapers and bemoans the fact that the people across the country are both immune toward and excited by violence and injustice. While these people may question their government’s actions, they will do so quietly at home, drinking beer and watching outdated European and American television shows. Because of the distance between the people and those like Bana, the nation will forget these stories of injustice.

The High Judge will not forget Bana and his friends, however, for they concocted a plan that truly befuddled him. They are armed robbers, charged with a crime that is punishable by death, but they all pled guilty and demanded that their execution be carried out as soon as possible. They chose this tactic because they did not want to receive differing sentences, nor did they want the lawyers to have the satisfaction of indulging in their own empty cleverness, playacting at justice. By choosing death, the men felt they were answering to a higher moral authority than the court. With this plan, the prisoners rendered the High Court Judge powerless, forcing him to follow the law and sentence them to death.

After confessing to Zole, Bana explains what led him down this path of robbery, wanting to both be honest and excuse himself to her although he does not want her sympathy. He tells an anecdote that took place when he was in the Merchant Navy: One day he met a sex worker and was surprised by her admission that she chose the career of sex work. Her answer triggered him to examine whether he had really chosen to be in the Navy or whether he had taken the first opportunity available. Upon arriving home, he quit his job and took an administrative position at the Ministry of Defense. Aghast at the corruption he witnessed at the Ministry, he fought the higher ups, and they fired him. Afterward he chose to become a robber. While he imagines Zole rebuffing him for his decision, he makes the case that he is in good company, as his fellow robbers include presidents, ministers, and all other officials. For example, the newspaper that published the story about his sentencing also covered the story of a government official who stole seven million naira ($1.2 million US at the time). Unlike these servants of the state, he is willing to own up to his actions and be condemned. He believes more experienced, highly educated people should become bandits to elevate the profession, just as experienced, highly educated people have done a much better job of running African countries than their less sophisticated predecessors.

In another life, Bana muses ironically, Sazan and Jimba could have been successful as presidents like Idi Amin, police inspectors, or 16th-century British colonists like Sir Frances Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh. In this life, however, Sazan and Jimba live anonymous lives and are punished as criminals.

Bana, Sazan, and Jimba vowed not to kill, but their recent robbery went wrong. The police Superintendent, whom they had bribed, did not fulfill his part of the bargain of keeping the police escort away from a van transporting workers’ salaries. The young accomplices who carried out the mission shot the police officer after being fired on, and the officer died. They had to relinquish the money to the police Superintendent, but instead of letting the boys be charged with murder, Bana and his associates took the punishment on themselves. They rob from the rich to support their crew, who otherwise have to stand in bread lines. Bana does not feel guilt for his choice of profession. Essentially, all jobs in the country involve robbery as their foundation; this has been the case in the past and will continue in the future.

It is now dawn. Everyone, including the guard, is asleep, and darkness pervades. Bana and his friends could escape the cell if they wanted to, but they choose not to, for in this world, life is imprisonment and only the ignorant are happy. Bana and his friends will be free in death. His letter is all he leaves to posterity.

As he thinks about his journey to the place of execution, he notes that everything negative is associated with blackness: the Black Maria that will carry them to the site, diseases like black death and black leg, and the Black Hole of Calcutta. He rhapsodizes about the sea’s majestic qualities and his time in the Navy, but this quickly devolves into imagining his death, his body being eaten by sharks that will be caught and sold for profit. The execution will take place in the Stadium so the crowds can watch. The crowds will overflow the Stadium, and some will have to climb trees and stand on roofs to watch.

He imagines what will happen at the execution: Wearing dirty clothes, he and his friends will be tied to stakes with the other prisoners before the firing squad. They will reject blindfolds if offered them so they can witness the scene. He and his friends will laugh at the priest and call him a hypocrite. As the priest prays, the shots will fire, and then there will be silence. Bana will miss Zole and his friends, but he will be glad to finally be rid of his empty life. The crowds will go home, as from a sporting match, and talk about it for the rest of the evening. Bana’s body with be thrown with the others into a mass grave. The newspaper will report the incident factually, along with a photo. The paper printed the photo of a man from a previous execution who still held his walking stick after he had been executed. Bana wants Zole to find a photo of him like that and have a stone sculpture made from it to place on his grave.

Sazan and Jimba wake up, surprised that Bana has stayed awake all night. They are curious about the letter he is writing, but Bana refuses to read it aloud, saying it is a love letter. The friends never knew Bana had a girlfriend; Bana had not mentioned Zole before because “she was not important before this moment” (301). Sazan would like to write his thoughts down too, but there is no time. Bana asks for privacy to finish the letter and pass it off to the guard. Sazan asks that Zole not bring children into this harsh world, and Jimba asks her to shed a tear for him.

Bana concludes his letter with the most important part, the epitaph. Zole will have to set up a grave for him since he won’t have his own. He ponders what would be a fitting epitaph for his life and whether the tone should be dramatic, cryptic, or matter-of-fact. He recounts a story he read as a child about an African leader who, crying atop the grave of a lieutenant, stated, “Africa kills her sons.” Despite much effort through the years, Bana has been unable to decipher what this statement meant. Now, on the day of his execution, the memory of the story comes back strongly. He decides that he wants his epitaph to be “Africa Kills Her Sun,” a variation of this sentence, because it is thematic: “That’s why she’s been described as the Dark Continent?” he asks Zole rhetorically. “Yes?” (302). He is now finished, his heart light. He bids Zole farewell and ends the letter as he hears the guard’s keys opening his cell.