by Bairbre Flood
‘Ken [Saro-Wiwa] is such an inspiring person. He believed in the people and he stood for the people til the very end, and he didn’t get swayed by any government or bribery or corruption.’- Christeen Udokamma Obasi. ‘He’s my inspiration because I’m a human rights activist as well.’
Obasi’s poems Anticipating and Know Where are published in a new collection: I Am A Man Of Peace: Writings inspired by the Maynooth University Ken Saro-Wiwa Collection (edited by Helen Fallon, and published by Daraja Press). They feature in a podcast series which speaks to ten of the young people shortlisted in the school category of the Maynooth University Library School Poetry Podcast.
‘Often times profit is more important to the government and big businesses than the impact they have on the people of the country,’ said Conor Walsh, winner of the 2020 school category with his poem, Bystander. ‘People think they are a bystander, but they can do more. And they should do more.’
Environmental issues are at the core of many of the poems in this collection – and all the students felt climate change and pollution to be among the most pressing challenges facing us.
Eva Paturyan’s The Sun Shines Down is concerned with ‘how much of what we’re doing now is destroying all the beautiful places’. And Maeve Byrne’s Melt is driven by the fact that ‘if we don’t take the initiative now, global warming will be irreversible within a few years.’
Zofia Terzyck with her Elements Of Life notes how the elements allow us to get a deeper intuition of how the universe works ‘so I found when it comes to environmental destruction (which is what I was going for in this poem) it was a good way to piece it together – because that’s how the universe works.’
For others, the links with what’s currently happening in Nigeria are concerning. Both Obasi and Elizabeth Akinwande Zion talked about the #EndSARS movement and the corruption endemic in the present day Nigerian government who opened fire on peaceful protestors in October 2020.
Zion (who’s currently studying Social Justice, Politics & International Relations in UCD) also spoke about her prose poem The Bight of Biafra:
‘It was a catastrophic event in history that people don’t hear too much about. And the story that I wrote is a person leaving the country in search of a better life.’
Like many of the students, Áine Dooley first heard about the competition from her teacher ‘and in turn that led to me diving into Ken Saro-Wiwa and his life’ she said. Her poem, Pollution, aimed to explore the idea of Ken Saro-Wiwa as an eco-hero:
‘But I think everyone has a chance to be an eco-hero in their own right. Any big or small contribution will go a long way in helping us fight climate change and global warming and hopefully changing the environment for the better.’
Jay Vergara, whose poem Humans Greatest Sin won the 2019 competition, believes that ‘we have the power to speak up about things and bring awareness.’ He goes on:
‘There was a climate change protest in Maynooth and most of them were young people and people from my school – and I wasn’t surprised. It’s our planet. And we should be taking care of it for our future generations.’
For some of the students, writing is something they take up now and again, while others like Zion are part of Fighting Words (‘I’m very grateful for their mentorship’), and Dooley is in the process of writing a screenplay. ‘I’m a big fan of Greta Gerwig’, she said.
Ceri Arnott, a member of Amnesty International, observed that ‘in writing, it’s important to think about how different people feel and the different circumstances people are in’.
‘Arts and writing is really one of the best ways to express if we’re unhappy with a situation,’ she said. ‘And to get our point across.’ Her poem, Baking Banana Bread, skillfully plays on the idea that while the younger generation are being called on to fix environmental problems, they’re also stuck with role models who created those problems in the first place.
Throughout the podcast, they talked about how creative writing helps with mental health, and how, as Marykate Donohue puts it, ‘articulating the injustices can help you see the solutions,’
Author of Amends, Donohue said, ‘It allows me to understand what’s going on in the world…I read a quote which said ‘poets write the words they wish to hear’ and I think that’s very true. You write not just for yourself, but to understand.’
Zion is also experimenting with writing in Yoruba (which she’s learning), and Terzyk (who was born in Poland) observed that her dual identity gave her a different way of looking at the world, and lends nuance to her writing.
‘It gives me different influences,’ she said. ‘My brain is kind of understanding of both areas and it helps my writing.’
Poet Jessica Traynor (latest collectionThe Quick) who judged the entries, and has led several writing workshops both in Maynooth University and online wrote the following:
‘On reading this year’s entries I was delighted to see such a broad spectrum of cultural experiences reflected, so many clever and often unexpected engagements with questions of environment, and such passion for human rights issues.’
With their poetry, these students assert a different world of creativity – and their concern for human rights and environmental protection are a hopeful indicator for us all.
‘I’ve always, always wanted to give back to Nigeria’, said Zion. ‘As a person of the diaspora – just to try and change things from where I am in Ireland.’
Listen to all three episodes, produced by Bairbre Flood, here
Edited by Helen Fallon, I Am A Man Of Peace: Writings inspired by the Maynooth University Ken Saro-Wiwa Collection contains essays and poems by contributors from different parts of the globe. It includes essays by Dr Owens Wiwa, Noo Saro-Wiwa and Sister Majella McCarron (OLA) who donated the death-row letters she received from friend and fellow activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, to Maynooth University Library.
Learn more about the Maynooth University Ken Saro-Wiwa Collection here.