I always thought ‘Oil’ means ‘Money’ then I read Oil on Water. With his 3rd novel published by Penguin in 2011, Nigerian writer Helon Habila has cemented the indisputable Nigerian authority amongst the writers emerging from the continent. He flirts with the genre of thriller while unveiling cut-from-reality grimness of the Niger delta, through the eyes of Rufus, the protagonist. Keen and young Rufus and fallen from grace, veteran Zak are journalists sent from Port Harcourt, on a trail to find whether the European Oil company executive’s wife who got kidnapped, is alive.
Not just Helon’s detailed etch-imagery-on-your-heart story telling but also its philosophical punch got me turning the book’s 216 pages, non-stop. Sample what Zak teaches Rufus about their adventure trail, “Remember, the story is not always the final goal...The meaning of the story is, and only a few lucky people understand his!”
They come across series of events and people which unveil the underlying darkness in the oil rich and otherwise as-poor-as-it-can-get region, navigating polluted rivers flanked by exploded and dormant oil wells, in search of “the white woman”. Braving brutality of both government
soldiers and militants, they are dependent on the kindness of strangers, their only shield being ‘from media’.
Rufus’ narration takes you back and forth between his own life and that of Zak, it inter weaves the dread brought to the region by oil companies and their lack of consideration towards the locals, resulting in high militancy in the region. It paints acute devastation caused by petrodollars trenching the villages around Niger delta, in cringing depths – how the villagers who are excited to get that never stopping ‘orange flare’, resultant flood of luxuries like TV, Fridge etc, are oblivious to what follows that rush. And all they get is toxic pollution and contamination which saps the entire region of life. Entire villages have to pack and go overnight for there remains no crop, no water, no birds and no life forms sustain – it’s dark and sorry.
This is as much a personal story as it is political or global. The suspense about kidnapping is an interesting twist. I admire Helon’s deftness at giving a full blown view through a sneak peak using A&P. The book shortlisted for Commonwealth Writers Prize (2011), Orion Book Award (2012), was runner up for PEN Open Book Award (2012).
To me, the book is a lesson on ‘why oil and militancy are conjoint twins in the world, today’, and the fact that – Oil is Black!