It’s a popular question these days, mostly because the closest we get to oil is the pump at the nearest gas station. But at ground level, in a place where there’s no safety, no regulation, and no hope of the wealth being shared, it’s entirely possible that the residents reverse the question.
Helon Habila takes us deep into Nigeria, where the promise of oil wealth has long been transmuted into the reality of oil industry. The countryside is locked in a battle between lawless militants, many of whom say they’re fighting to share in the supposed prosperity, and the lawless military which is supposed to protect the oil infrastructure. Caught in the middle (as usual) are the ordinary people who want to stay on their ancestral lands, worship at their shrines, and fish their waters.
The journey into this particular heart of darkness is narrated by Rufus, a young journalist looking to take his first step into the big time. An Englishwoman, wife of a petroleum engineer working in-country, has been kidnapped, and the kidnappers want to open negotiations by proving she’s alive. They issue an open invitation to the country’s media, and Rufus is among those to take up the challenge. Along with several other reporters, including his idol Zaq, Rufus heads upriver for the meeting.
Nothing goes as it should, and Rufus becomes a firsthand witness to the brutality of both sides, and to the devastation of the environment. The water is choked with oil. Dead birds and fish are everywhere. Abandoned drilling rigs overshadow villages. Gas flares light the night sky. No place is safe because the military suspects everyone of helping the militants, and the militants suspect everyone of helping the soldiers. Raiders from both sides descend at will, stealing food, burning homes and boats, interrogating, even torturing and murdering random residents in sight of their neighbors and families. Rufus, searching for what Zaq calls “the perfect story”, barely survives to return to his home in Port Harcourt.
The story behind the story, the true story, is the result of the ubiquitous oil drillers. Using the implied promise of jobs and the practical demonstration of power, these men and the Company they work for represent the worst vestiges of colonialism left in the world. Even as they rape the land, buy the leaders, and ship money and oil out of the country, they live lives of ease in their city strongholds. Like oil and water, they do not–they cannot–mix. But they are vulnerable to the blackmail and terror raids of the militants, and the kidnapping of Company employees has become the militants’ most lucrative industry. When Isabel Floode disappears, her value to the various factions skyrockets and a miniature war breaks out as everyone tries to get their hands on her. But even her kidnapping isn’t what it appears to be, and the deception has fatal consequences.
Habila immerses the reader in the chaos, heat, disease, and distress of the Niger Delta, where the rivers and waterways braid in myriad paths and where each turn may yield danger or comfort. He also writes much of the dialogue between Rufus, Zaq, and the people they encounter in the pidgin of the Delta, which houses a multitude of ethnic groups and languages. While the language may seem odd at first, context and growing familiarity make it easy to comprehend, and even to get some sense of the cultures that lie behind it. I suspect, though, that those interested in learning about these cultures or reading Mr. Habila’s book aren’t the ones who need to understand that “our” oil carries a much higher cost than we see at the pump.
Check the WRL catalog for Oil on Water
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