Review: Oil on Water by Helon Habila
Title: Oil on Water
Editor: Habila, Helon
Length: 224 pages
Genre: Fiction, International
Publisher / Year: W. W. Norton and Company / 2010
Source: Amazon Kindle Store
Why I Read It: I really enjoyed my first read by this author, Measuring Time, and wanted to try another of his works.
Date Read: 12/12/10
Dear readers… we now have a male in my list of top five favorite authors! (For the record, the entire 5 is now: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila, Dubravka Ugresic, Slavenka Drakulic, and Assia Djebar.) I haven’t read the full works of any of the listed authors yet, but I’ve absolutely loved what I have read and am slowly working my way through their other books. Habila is certainly a worthy addition to the list and after reading two of his books I seriously cannot recommend him enough.
But yes, back to the book
A young Nigerian journalist is recruited to go speak with the kidnappers of the wife of a British oil engineer. A reporter who he always looked up to, Zaq, is going, and Rufus wants to prove himself to his managers as well as to Zaq. Things don’t go exactly as planned and the two journalists end up on a long trek through the oil filled delta in search of the British woman and her kidnappers. The story is a look at the oil industry, government and industry corruption, environmental disasters, inner strength and resilience, and ultimately the state of Nigeria today.
One really important thing in this book was its discussion of oil in the Niger Delta. The Gulf oil spill earlier this year had Americans up in arms about the environmental impacts of oil and what it does to the environment. They tried to organize boycotts (of course boycotts of one oil company doesn’t work – they do work together, but that is a whole other issue), lobbied against the company, and more. What many people fail to realize or care about is that spills like that are common in other parts of the world, and local people instead of getting a say are instead kept down through often brutal means.
In the book Habila talks about the poisoned wells, the poisoned rivers and streams, the dead and diseased fish, the health issues faced by villagers, how villagers were tricked or forced off their land and how entire villages are now nomadic, roaming from place to place in search of somewhere with no pollution that they can survive. None of this is done in a preaching manner, it is just common place and Rufus is coming across these things in his searching for the kidnapped British woman. It is sobering and also so sad to read about because though this is a fictional book, the situations are, I imagine from all that I’ve read to date, so real.
The other thread that pops out to me as interesting and worthy of thought and discussion is that of the kidnappings and vandalism of the pipelines. There was a fascinating conversation between Rufus and the British oil engineer in location 1619-1635 where the foreign engineer is talking about how the villagers don’t understand that they are damaging their own resources when they vandalize his company’s pipes and Rufus is trying to get him to understand that they really do understand. During the conversation Rufus says:
I don’t blame them for wanting to vandalize the pipelines that have brought nothing but suffering to their lives, leaking into the rivers and wells, killing the fish and poisoning the farmlands. And all they are told by the oil companies and the government is that the pipelines are there for their own good, that they hold great potential for their country, their future. These people endure the worst conditions of any oil-producing community on earth, the government knows it but doesn’t have the will to stop it, the oil companies know it, but because the government doesn’t care, they also don’t care. And you think the people are corrupt? No. They are just hungry, and tired.
I thought that Habila did an excellent job of humanizing these people who are so often vilified. They kidnap and steal, but they also are given nothing and no help, and all their sources of sustenance (food and water) have been poisoned. What else can they do? Sometimes, especially in this day and age of mass media, it can be easy to look at only one side of a story. And the side that we see is usually that of the large government and corporation who we support. We need to remember that people matter and that we need to find out the facts and the big picture.
In this situation neither the army nor the kidnappers are perfect or great people, and we are left with a lot of ambivalence and unsure who really is the better of the two. It is easy to see the corruption throughout the entire system and how it affects each layer in society. There is no easy answer or solution, and there is a lot left to the reader in the end. I found the novel complex and well written. It jumped back and forth in time, following their narrative and then jumping back to explain how they got to where they are now. I found this worked really well for the story and kept you guessing as to what they knew and what would happen next.
I don’t know if I managed to adequately share how excellent this book is, but please do give it a read. It is one of my favorites of the year and I can’t recommend it enough.