$300 billion. That’s the figure typically mentioned as Nigeria’s oil money that has been misappropriated, disappeared. The celebrated Nigerian writer and activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa?who attempted to expose the environmental degradation in his country’s Delta Region?was hanged by the last military dictator, Sani Abacha (a monster by any measurement), for his “political” activities. Oil has become woven into the fabric of Nigeria’s recent history, mostly with negative results because of greed and destruction to the environment, which has rendered much of the land in the oil area unfit for human occupation.
Out of this context, Helon Habila (another honored Nigerian writer) has written his most important work, taking the reader into territory previously untapped by other writers, beginning with the seductive title: Oil on Water. We all know?are taught as children?that oil and water do not mix. If you have any doubts, then read Habila’s mesmerizing novel, rooted in the works of Graham Greene and, sadly, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I say “sadly” because I’d like to believe that some time Africa will get beyond the exploitative stage, but Habila’s novel is not very optimistic about that. Yet writer has his finger on the pulse of the social and political inequities that plague the country of his birth.
Even at the beginning of the story, things look pretty bleak. The British wife of one of the oil executives has been kidnapped and taken by militants into the Delta for ransom. Two Nigerian journalists, Rufus and Zaq, are sent by their respective newspapers into the area to get a story about the kidnapping but, also, to help negotiate the woman’s release. They’ve been hired by her husband, fully aware of the danger they face: local people, the militants who have been destroying pipes and oil rigs, and the soldiers who pursue them. After he has tempted them with a large amount of money, the Englishman tells them, “Your job is simple. Just confirm she’s alive, take pictures and we’ll take it from there. It should be easy. You leave in two days, early, and by sundown you’re back.”
Thus, money has already trumped their journalistic goals, as Habila implies that hardly anything happens in Nigeria without the exchange of cash. The militants hope to get several million dollars so they can continue their activities. Although Rufus and Zaq hope they’ll get good stories out of their adventure, it is clear that without the added cash incentive from the woman’s husband, they would not have ventured into such dangerous territory. And although they may be somewhat na?ve about this, the journalists also believe that since the militants rely on publicity to keep their operations going, they won’t be harmed.
Early in the story, Habila mirrors Heart of Darkness as Rufus and Zaq are guided through the Delta by a boatman and his son, entering the mangroves in brackish water: “?the foul smell of the swamps replaced by the musky, energizing river smell, and at such times we’d become aware of the clear sky above as if for the first time. But the swamps and the mist always returned, and strange objects would float past us: a piece of cloth, a rolling log, a dead fowl, a bloated dog belly-up with black birds perching on it, their expressionless eyes blinking rapidly, their sharp beaks savagely cutting into the soft decaying flesh. Once we saw a human arm severed at the elbow bobbing away from us, its fingers opening and closing, beckoning.” When they get closer to their destination, the evenings become particularly eerie: gas burning at the rigs in the distance, the air so polluted they can hardly breathe. These are, after all, the conditions of living in the area.
Habila brilliantly captures the environmental collapse, but no better than in the story of a local chief, who had pleaded with his villagers unsuccessfully not to lease their lands to the oil companies. “Well, they had made an offer, they had offered to buy the whole village, and with the money?and yes, there was a lot of money, more money than any of them had ever imagined?and with the money they could relocate elsewhere and live a rich life. But Chief Malabo had said no, on behalf of the whole village he had said no. This was their ancestral land, this was where their fathers and their fathers’ fathers were buried. They’d been born here, they’d grown up here, they were happy here, and though they may not be rich, the land had been good to them, they never lacked for anything.” But their story didn’t end their. Other villages sold out to the oil companies. Soon they were surrounded by pollution. Then, the chief was taken away, disappeared like so many others who resisted, and the next thing the villagers were told was that their chief had signed papers with the oil companies before he died.
Oil on Water is a harrowing story. In a flashback we learn that Rufus’s own family encountered serious consequences when a pipeline in their own village exploded. Habila’s descriptive passages of flames everywhere and sometimes even whole islands going up in fire conjure up images of hell, inescapable, everywhere, and?worse of all?sacred lands of the Delta people rendered uninhabitable. Finally, Rufus learns that even the kidnapping of the English woman is not what he had been told it was, but that discovery and many others you will have to make for yourself.
Even the words of one of the militant leaders as he lets Rufus free so that he can return to Port Harcourt and write his story offer little hope for the situation in Nigeria’s hell: “Write only the truth. Tell them about the flares you see at night, and the oil on the water. And the soldiers forcing us to escalate the violence every day. Tell them how we are hounded daily in our own land. Where do they want us to go, tell me, where? Tell them we are going nowhere. This land belongs to us. That is the truth, remember that. You can go.”
Quite an inspired story.
Oil on Water
By Helon Habila
W. W. Norton, 239 pp., $14.95
Charles R. Larson is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.