African Library: Oil on water

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Oil on water
Author: Helon Habila


Pollution (in the sense of contamination caused by certain industrial processes) could be said to be the central theme of this novel by the Nigerian author Helon Habila (his third). Pollution of the Niger Delta waters and land through environmental degradation is only the most obvious kind that the novel depicts; what the author makes us realise is the human corruption of greed, irresponsibility and wanton violence that precedes the pollution of river waters and land – of which the oil-smudged natural scenery is merely the manifestation. While this text is evidently written in the aftermath of the November 1995 execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa (the Ogoniland activist) by the Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, its implicit political accusations implicate not only the obvious targets (international oil companies’ neo-colonial predation; Nigerian leaders and businessmen who allow this by accepting the spoils of bribery; the lawless gun-toting warlords and their henchmen on all sides, whether army and police, or the militias with whom they play their nasty, bloody war games in the waters and on the islands of the Niger Delta), but also the local and international media who provide the stages on which the antagonists strut and rant.

Habila, a poet as well as a prize-winning novelist, has been a journalist in Lagos like the main character (Rufus) of his novel and the latter’s main companion, the by turns cynical and wise, life-hardened Zaq – a man in sad moral and physical decline, but a hero of crusading, innovative writing in his prime. Habila’s text is narrated throughout by Rufus, idealistic and enthusiastic to begin with, eager to make a name for himself in the competitive field of newspaper journalism and a long-time admirer of the great Zaq; at first ignorant of the latter’s more recent fall from grace. The narration is low-key, as if somewhat muted in tone and as if composed in the immediate aftermath of the series of shocking if enlightening experiences undergone and discoveries made by Rufus the fledgling reporter. Though the experiences described tend to be bleak, with the atmosphere that is evoked of a predominantly brooding, menacing, frightening kind, Rufus’s mostly matter-of-fact recording of his impressions and memories does at times allow a poetic lyricism or an alleviating tenderness to creep into his voice – like the occasional shafts of sunlight piercing the swirling mists over the Delta waters or the patches of clear water in between the murky, ill-smelling channels or shores full of oil-covered garbage or rotting creatures and remnants.

Here is one example of the Niger Delta riverscape and its shores as evoked by Habila:

The next village was almost a replica of the last: the same empty squat dwellings, the same ripe and flagrant stench, the barrenness, the oil slick, and the same indefinable sadness in the air, as if a community of ghosts were suspended above the punctured zinc roofs, unwilling to depart, yet powerless to return. In the village centre we found the communal well. Eager for a drink, I bent under the wet, mossy pivotal beam and peered into the well’s blackness, but a rank smell wafted from its hot depths and slapped my face; I reeled away, my head aching from the encounter. Something organic, perhaps human, lay dead and decomposing down there, its stench mixed with that unmistakable smell of oil. At the other end of the village a little river trickled towards the big river where we had left our boat. The patch of grass growing by the water was suffocated by a film of oil, each blade covered with blotches like the liver spots on a smoker’s hands. (9)

Offsetting this kind of horror is the history of the establishment and maintenance of an island shrine by one of the very few local communities resistant to the lure of (short-lived) oil wealth, established in response to the violence and the other viscous fluid – blood – that taints the Delta’s waters (as their priest explains to Rufus):

The shrine was started a long time ago after a terrible war – no one remembers what caused the war – when the blood of the dead ran in the rivers, and the water was so saturated with blood that the fishes died, and the dead bodies of warriors floated for miles on the water, until they were snagged on mangrove branches on the banks, or got stuck in the muddy swamps, half in and half out of the water. It was a terrible time. The land was so polluted that even the water in the wells turned red. That was when priests from different shrines got together and decided to build this shrine by the sea. The land needed to be cleansed of blood, and pollution.

– And what of the sculptures?
– The sculptures came later. As the priesthood grew, some became specialists in mud and wooden figures. These figures represent the ancestors watching over us. They face the east, to acknowledge the beauty of the sun rising, for without the sun there would be no life. And some face the west, to show the dying sun the way home, and to welcome the moon. And each day the worshippers go in a procession to the sea, to bathe in it, to cry to it, and to promise never to abominate it ever again. [….] and ever since we have managed to keep this island free from oil prospecting and other activities that contaminate the water and lead to greed and violence. (129-30)

Even while one recognises that this small haven of sanity, ecological purity and communal morality cannot be a model for a modern state interacting internationally on the world stage, it provides a vision of the tiny minority of inhabitants of the region who have managed so far to stave off the forces ravaging and depopulating the area and prevent it from becoming something like one vast industrial wasteland and pool of rot.

There are other factors depicted in the text as offsetting the decay (in its social as much as in its environmental dimensions) and devastation characterising the oil-pervaded waters of the Delta and the dominant political cultures of the region. Rufus’s own basically decent and caring nature is shown (for example) in his concern for Zaq, whose poor health and alcoholism cause him to succumb gradually but inevitably to a variant of dengue fever, and Rufus’s sensitivity to the feelings of his only sibling, his sister Boma – and in the sense of responsibility he also shows towards the gnarled local fisherman in whose boat they are transported, and for the latter’s boy, who accompanies him, since these two, too, are drawn into the encounters with dangerous and violent men that characterise the journalists’ pursuit of their story. Then there are the local fishing communities that resist the cunning attempts of the oil company representatives and corrupt, profiteering politicians to “persuade” them to sell prospecting rights and ancestral lands – at tremendous cost, such as the detention, torture and death of their leaders for opposing the take-over of local land and waters. There is also a doctor who tries to report the consequences for the health of local communities of the oil flares and water pollution to national and international authorities and, when this fails to ignite urgently needed disciplinary measures, nevertheless remains and attempts to alleviate (for the local fishermen and their families) some of the worst consequences. Rufus falls in love with a nurse, Gloria, a good woman who works on the shrine island, where his sister eventually decides to stay.

The shape of the narrative is not linear, since Rufus’s story transfers at unpredictable moments from the venture into the Delta waters (a myriad of intertwined waterways, islands, mangrove roots and clumps of debris, lit in many places by the unending, flickering light of the huge gas flares that burn above the oil wells) by him and Zaq (and between the different stages of their journalistic quest, in the sense that he sometimes bewilderingly reverts to an earlier stage of it and then returns to the story’s present only to flip back again) and certain earlier periods of his life, such as his childhood (also in a seaside village in this region) or the beginnings of his professional life in Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria. Rearranged more chronologically, the narrative indicates that Rufus’s own young manhood is overshadowed by an oil-related tragedy. When Rufus’s father lost his job with an oil company, he insisted that the then fifteen-year-old boy move to the nearest big city, Port Harcourt, and acquire a city trade or profession, sending him as apprentice to a photographer from whom the youngster learnt little since he was forced to work as his employer’s family servant. “Graduating” with a diploma, he went home to discover that his father was hoarding illegally bought petrol in a shed, was drinking heavily (and smoking), and that the family fortunes had declined markedly. He was sent away again, this time to Lagos, where he gained a toehold in journalism after earning good marks and getting his diploma from the School of Journalism. Not long afterwards, his father lit a cigarette too near his oil drums and caused a conflagration, laying waste the village where they stayed. A number of people died and Rufus’s family was destroyed – his father was imprisoned for many, many years, his mother returned to her village, his sister’s face was terribly disfigured and the man who saved her life (Rufus’s best friend’s father) died in the process. Even though Rufus’s best friend, John, loved and married Boma, she became obsessed with her disfigurement and this eventually caused John to leave her. John’s life and family are thus indelibly marked by the presence of oil and the mostly destructive effects its extraction has on local communities even before the main narrative begins. Even his entry into journalism is facilitated by the most heartfelt piece he ever wrote – an electronically posted account of the tragic events in his home village, which earned him a modest fame.

The main narrative is triggered by one of the many kidnappings that happen in the Niger Delta, as they do in so many of the world’s trouble spots; a form of piracy by means of which the underlings in mostly Third World societies can exert some leverage on and extract money from the wealthy. In this case the (apparent) kidnap victim is the British wife of a highly regarded chemical engineer in one of the major oil companies, a man called James Floode – but all is not as it seems, as Rufus will gradually discover. The background to this particular event as sketched by the novelist is that the militiamen who effect most of the kidnappings through their cohorts and then demand huge and usually meekly paid ransom money for returning the kidnapped persons unharmed, also use these kidnappings to invite groups of journalists to interview them in order to justify their actions. The militia leaders tend to present themselves as the champions of the local environments and the old folkways of fishing and farming; “civilized” people who want the world to see them as unjust victims of ethnically biased governments and uncaring international capitalists. While some of the men that Rufus and Zaq encounter (the second-order or lower-ranking members of the militias) appear to be burningly sincere in the validity of their anti-neo-imperial cause, the main rebel leader they encounter is depicted as a sinister and ruthless man who uses the veneer of moral legitimacy to maintain his own kind of terrorist hold over local communities and the men who willingly serve or are co-opted into joining his group. Various units of militiamen also compete for “turf” and other resources. The brutal and ruthless “Professor”, the incongruously named militia leader whom Rufus and Zaq encounter, is matched in wanton misuse of power only by “the Major” – the commander of a military unit who is stationed in the Delta and consumed by a near insane determination to exterminate opposition to the harvesting of oil in the region; regarding local communities with profound and vicious distrust or extreme contempt. We do learn, however, that the background to his extremism is an event in his family history. His only child, a brilliant young woman completing her medical studies, was abducted and gang-raped off campus. The main perpetrator was a fellow student who “had to provide” a victim in order to be allowed into a campus fraternity. Years later the Major took revenge by kidnapping this young man and shooting him in the genitals. The military had to be seen to punish the Major, hence his posting to the remote Delta outpost to take up the dangerous war of soldiers against the militiamen (“rebels”) resistant to oil exploitation in the region.

Nevertheless, Habila indicates the dire consequences for village communities who merely want to get on with their lives, but are now caught in the crossfire between (or among) the warring parties – involving a great deal of macho, bloodletting posturing – as they continue the vicious competition for ascendancy over the region. The locals’ fishing waters and farmlands have become dangerously uninhabitable battlegrounds or wasteland covered in oil spills and various other forms of industrial pollution. It is the wantonness of the armed men on both sides that is so appalling – and the lack of any sane control or attempt to achieve a political solution and move on beyond the conflict. Like a veritable colonising or invading power, the state’s agents (soldiers and their commanders and the oil executives they give free rein to) treat the area’s fisherfolk and peasants like dangerous savages to be subdued and intimidated, rather than people entitled to live peacefully in their ancestral lands and waters. The soldiers distrust the locals’ supposed insurrectionary tendencies and suspect all of them of being in cahoots with the militiamen – who also often give them a hard time or bring “punishment” down on the peasants’ heads for what the ruthless militiamen have done.

Here is Rufus’s eyewitness account of how the soldiers burst upon a once peaceful village:

… a single gunshot rang out. For a moment everyone froze. As I turned to ask the old man what was going on, a terrified market woman suddenly appeared in front of me, her eyes blinded by fear. The next minute I was flat on my back and her considerable mass was pinning me to the dusty ground, then she was up on her feet and away, agile, almost airborne. Long afterwards I remembered her marketplace smell and her unseeing eyes above mine, and the moaning, terrified sound coming continuously from her mouth, a sound she was unaware she was making.

– They are here! The soldiers are here! They came out of the sheds and houses and passages, wielding whips and guns, occasionally firing into the air to create more chaos. A man ran out of a hut and came face to face with a soldier; he raised his hands high in surrender as, with a single motion, the soldier reversed his rifle and swung the butt at the man’s head. The man fell back into the doorway and the soldier moved on to another target. I was saved from a broken jaw, or a cracked skull, because I was still on the ground trying to regain my wind. Karibi [the village chief] and his friends, now joined by his son, stood motionless, shoulder to shoulder, watching the pandemonium unfolding towards them – like a wave that had started from far away in the sea and was now unstoppably headed towards them on the shore, gaining strength and fury as it came. Over ten soldiers surrounded the smithy, facing the silent, defiant men. One of the soldiers, a sergeant, stepped into the shed and pointed his rifle at Karibi. – You, come with us. His men rushed forward and grabbed Karibi, who didn’t struggle or say a word. The other men watched, glaring at the soldiers but saying nothing. They pinned his hands behind him and dragged him away through the wide village street. In the distance a woman wailed at the top of her voice, calling to God over and over: Tamuno! Tamuno! (12-13)

This kind of writing is more than reportage, though it does delineate informatively (among other things) how the military interact in the Delta with local citizens and the indigenous leaders. Clearly the supposed “forces of law and order” are (if the exposure is valid – and it is so disturbing, of course, because it “rings true”) the agents of “chaos”, “pandemonium” and brutal but state-sanctioned terrorism. What gives such a passage the power it has are its implicit compassion and indignation; its evaluative force.

Few viable villages remain in the Delta, and those who do, know that their future is precarious. Like Rufus’s father, the old boatman wants his boy to get out of the Delta and move to the city – the only place where he sees the youngster achieving a liveable life under their present circumstances. He begs the two understandably reluctant journalists to take the boy back with them once their Delta assignment is over, seemingly unaware of how likely the boy is to be sucked into a criminal urban underworld. But with things as they are in the Delta, where “[c]ommunities like [theirs] had borne the brunt of the oil wars, caught between the militants and the military, and the only way they could avoid being crushed out of existence was to pretend to be deaf and dumb and blind” (33), he sees no alternative. The old man is not (like the young men who succumb to the lure of modern appliances and slick city ways of dress and speech, who push their elders to sell out to the oil companies) enamoured of urban “prosperity”, but he knows his son has potential and is intelligent and he is aware that he can no longer offer him a family legacy – a boat and fishing skills are irrelevant in these toxic waters where the fish are dying and where the speedboats and helicopters of rebels and the military are now constant, menacing presences. When fishing communities take steps to exclude the oil prospectors from their areas, their valid self-protection measures become (in an exact parallel with colonial incursion) the excuse for arresting local leaders and confiscating their lands. As formerly, in the days of the slave trade, it is African complicity and greed that fits like a hand into the glove of international [“Western” or “Asian”] predation. Africa remains for all too many merely land to be looted, not cherished. Those who are loyal to the continent (like the peasants, fisherfolk or some conscientious members of the educated elite) are few and under siege.
Zaq at the outset of his and Rufus’s (and initially, several other journalists’) eventually extended and many-staged journey, attempts to teach Rufus that much more than a journalistic scoop or “story” is at stake for a great journalist. What this is, he declares enigmatically, is “the meaning of the story” (5, emphasis added). Both these men (particularly Zaq, because he still has standing as an investigative journalist, and Rufus more accidentally and opportunistically) get roped in to answer the invitation of a particular group of militiamen, led by “the Professor”, as they will discover, to interview the kidnapped British woman, Isabel Floode, and her captors. But they do not reach their intended, initially unknown destination, because the militiamen fall victim to a surprise attack by soldiers and are forced to flee. The place where this happens is the shrine island. The journalists find some dead bodies and take photographs of fires and other evidence of damage caused by the battle, but almost all (including Rufus) then simply return to Port Harcourt or Lagos to file their reports and photos. Rufus does well with this story, but feels obliged to return to the shrine island where Zaq had remained – too ill even at that stage to tackle the return journey.
When Rufus finds Zaq again the latter is hardly improved in health, but when he hears that he (Zaq) has been sent a great deal of money (and Rufus the same amount) to continue the search for the still missing woman, paid by her husband, he is immediately keen to do so. They engage the old canoeist, Tamuno, who still has his young son with him, to take them deeper into the Delta in pursuit of the rebels who are holding Isabel captive. The bewildering insanity of the men battling in the Delta – where shooting, bloodshed and mayhem become ends in themselves and not efforts to resolve matters or reach a stable outcome – is vividly depicted in this novel. Readerly confusion as to the exact sequence of what happens before and after what contributes to the power of this impression. Habila additionally weaves several sub-plot strands into the overall fabric of the text, such as the account of Zaq’s own rise to fame through crusading and innovative (as well as conscientising and humane) writing and his sad, subsequent professional ruin, or indicating the marital and extramarital complications that characterise the Floodes’ household and that cast a very ironic light on the disappearance of Isabel Floode. Habila is profoundly concerned with the quality of social and public life in Nigeria (particularly in the Delta region and in the urban centres of power, Lagos and Port Harcourt) as these are affected or infected by numerous political and commercial transactions at national and international level. Deep into the novel Rufus again cites Zaq: “In his lecture that day in Lagos, Zaq said that the best stories are the ones we write with tears in our eyes, the ones whose stings we feel personally” (135). Clearly, even though his novel fiercely indicts the evils of his motherland and the way men with power are wreaking havoc under the cloak of legitimacy, Habila’s searing indictment of this neo-colonial state (as he depicts it) is written (one feels) as if with tears in his eyes. It is this quality that makes Oil on Water a moving and memorable text.
It has been suggested by some who have encountered this novel that in it Habila is writing back to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness because here, too, the motif of a journey by boat upriver in central Africa takes the protagonist into the heart of (moral) darkness where he discovers the extent to which a European presence has created that darkness in or brought it to Africa. I agree to a minor extent with the suggestion of such an echoing, but would add to it that more importantly, Habila’s novel can be seen as responding to chronologically layered evocations of African conditions and that Achebe (whose recent death led one anew to recognise the magnitude of the literary steps he took to counter the simplistic conceptions of African conditions and societies put out by others) is more important here to Habila than Conrad is. Habila’s novel could be read as an examination of the post-colonial disintegration or the “falling apart” of African societies – which in some ways is still proceeding. Like Achebe, though with reference to a contemporary technology-dominated neo-colonialism – more commercial than political and cultural – Habila demonstrates Africans’ own part in the creation of inhumane conditions and destruction of communities, and he is humanely balanced in depicting men and women of conscience alongside various villains; while even the villains’ lives have humanly complex dimensions that alleviate, if not absolve them from their responsibility for the constitution of a condition of horror in parts of Africa.
To read a text like this is not comforting, but books like these are made necessary by the realities of our time. Even now, in April of 2013, violent encounters between militants and police on patrol in the Delta are being reported and a 2009 amnesty is feared to be collapsing, while (according to a Reuters report by Tife Owolabi) “kidnapping, piracy, large-scale oil theft and pipeline sabotage still occur on a near daily basis” (cited in the Cape Times [South Africa] of April 8, p 2).


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