9 Sept 2019

On the Road: The Maynooth University Ken Saro-Wiwa Travelling Exhibition.

Fourth place post in the Conul Training and Development Library Assistant Blog Award 2019. This post is by Louise Walsworth Bell, working as a Conservator at Maynooth University Library.

Personal photograph of Ken Saro-Wiwa
By kind permission of Noo Saro-Wiwa
I’m a conservator at Maynooth University. I’ve worked here for 18 years and continue to be amazed and inspired by the sheer breadth of the collections held in the Library and their relevance to the issues of today.

It is both an honour and a challenge to work preparing travelling exhibitions. These allow us to bring our unique materials to the public. I was thrilled to be involved in the Ken Saro-Wiwa Travelling Exhibition: ‘Ringing the Ogoni Bells’, which went on its first national tour in January, first stop: Athy Community Library.

The Ken Saro-Wiwa Archive is an incredibly inspiring and varied collection. At its core are the personal letters from Saro-Wiwa to Sister Majella McCarron (OLA).

These letters and poems are available on open access as Silence Would be Treason.

Letter from Ken Saro -Wiwa to Sister Majella Mc Carron dated 35/7/1994
Copyright Maynooth University Library
Ken Saro-Wiwa was an author, poet, playwright, and environmentalist from the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Concerned about the environmental destruction of his homeland Ogoni, he established MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People).

Sister Majella McCarron
Copyright Maynooth University Library
Sister Majella McCarron, originally from Fermanagh, worked as a missionary in Nigeria. She provided invaluable support to the Ogoni people and Ken Saro-Wiwa in the struggle to highlight the environmental destruction of their homeland. The then Nigerian military government arrested Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues and placed them in military detention. From there Saro-Wiwa wrote to Sister Majella, his letters smuggled out in breadbaskets. Sadly, despite Sister Majella’s effort and international outcry Saro-Wiwa and his eight colleagues were executed in November 1995. In November 2011, Sister Majella donated the archive to Maynooth University. The correspondence is further enriched by photographs, poems, and audio recordings.

Photographs showing destruction of Ogoni Lands in the Niger Delta 1990’s
Copyright Maynooth University Library
Photographs showing Irish protests: Afri Famine Walk and Sister Majella speaking at the Afri Walk
Copyright Maynooth University Library
I find the letters particularly poignant in that they are one-sided. While Sister Majella retained the correspondence she received, her letters to him are sadly lost… yet the 28 letters in our archive capture a real sense of the man, his true literary talent and the issues for which he campaigned.

With travelling exhibitions, we don’t send the originals. The Special Collections and Archives Team reproduce these items to scale for loan. We are not pretending that the items are original, but it is important that we harness the power of the visual in drawing readers into the contents of a collection. Ken Saro-Wiwa’s talent is as identifiable as his handwriting.

Excerpt from one of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s last letters to Sister Majella McCarron. Undated.
Copyright Maynooth University Library
As a conservator I am regularly asked to work on items; stabilising them for access or exhibition, rehousing collections that are compromised by their current condition and preparing works for digitisation. It is key in this work to maintain a sense of the item itself, not to remove the character that an object’s life has imprinted upon it… to maintain the authenticity of what the collection offers: uninterrupted and intact. However, I rarely get to read the items that I am working on. I could tell you what damage they have suffered in minute detail and what treatments I undertook to counter this, but the content itself may pass me by entirely.

As I worked on the facsimiles, trimming each reproduction to the edge of its page or support I was drawn into the depth of this collection. At the time of writing, Saro-Wiwa was on death row and yet his words reach beyond the page and his lifespan and speak to us directly. Whatever demons he faced in that time of uncertainty, he believed in peaceful protest, he believed in the Ogoni people and the importance of their culture and beyond all, he believed that the struggle for environmental justice is wholly worthwhile.

Equally, the sense I have of Sister Majella through her recordings on the Maynooth University Library Ken Saro-Wiwa Audio Archive helps place the plight of the Ogoni against an Irish backdrop, adding such a rich relevance to the collection as a whole. Creating public awareness of the collection is an honour and in this time of environmental challenges remains as relevant today as it was at the time of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s life.

The exhibition ran for six weeks in Athy. It was opened by the Lord Mayor of Kildare, Seán Power, with Sister Majella McCarron as guest of honour.

The exhibition will travel to Wexford, proposed dates are:

  • Gorey: 25 May – 4 June
  • Wexford: 10 – 30 June
  • New Ross: 1- 13 July
  • Bunclody: 15-31 July
Ken Saro-Wiwa’s cap
Copyright Maynooth University Library


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