Rufus, a young journalist on his first major assignment, travels into the troubled oil-rich Nigerian Delta, hoping to land his breakthrough news story: interviewing the kidnappers of a British oil engineer’s wife and proving that the captive is alive. The dangers lurking among the oilfields and the pipelines that meander snake-like across the Delta’s waters cannot deter him, especially as he is in the company of his much-admired former mentor, the erstwhile prominent reporter, Zaq.
Helon Habila’s new novel, Oil on Water is a confidently crafted and absorbing, in parts totally gripping, chronicle of human ambitions, tragedies and failures, but also of love, friendship and perseverance of the human spirit. Evoking the rich and beautiful yet fragile environment of the Delta, that is slowly being devastated by the greed for oil and money, Habila perceptively guides his different narrative strands into a poignant story that is profoundly personal even where he raises broader political and societal concerns.
Habila weaves his story in a non-chronological way: it flows back and forth in time, reflecting the reporters’ meandering voyage through the vast intricate river delta. We first meet Rufus and Zaq on the ninth day of their quest. In flashbacks we learn about their back stories and, over time, that of other memorable characters. Past events are hinted at early on… Now, they are on their own, traveling by slow canoe, dependent for guidance and safety on a local fisherman and his young son to find a safe place to stay while charting their next steps. However, their time among the mangroves and later on a very special island of worshippers, is suddenly interrupted… and they have to leave their journalist role behind and use all their talents to stay alive.
Observing events through Rufus’s eyes and mind, the author takes us behind the news headlines and deep into the complicated quagmire of the violent conflict between the opposing sides and their claims for oil, land and control. Emotions run high, suspicions and fear are constant companions. Not only are deadly accidents common from fires and illegally tapped oil pipes, the local military units, tasked with protecting the oil business’s interests, are known for excessive, vicious force when confronted by any type of resistance, passive or not. The militant “rebels” also have a reputation of violence and kidnapping as a means to raise the money for their ongoing struggle against the government authorities and the oil companies. The local population of fishermen and farmers, with memories of a simpler and healthier life and happier times, are caught in the middle, but also tempted by promised riches from the oil wells on their shores.
Habila is an accomplished storyteller as well as a poet, having won numerous awards in both fields. His imagery is vivid, at times cinematographic and his lyrical language comes to the fore in particular when he connects the reader with the atmospheric seascapes of the Delta. “Midriver the water was clear and mobile, but toward the banks it turned brackish and still, trapped by mangroves in whose branches the mist hung in clumps like cotton balls. Ahead of us the mist arched clear over the water like a bridge, our light wooden canoe would be so enveloped in the dense gray stuff that we couldn’t see each other as we glided silently over the water.”
Despite the oftentimes violent events that Habila describes, he softens their impact with his sensitive characterization of people, who rarely are totally evil or totally good, they are human beings. A less rounded and skilled storyteller could have succumbed to the dangers of taking on a didactic preaching tone. Not so. While Habila has definite deep concerns on his mind he never allows these to take over or skew the balance in this richly imagined story of complex human beings in a many-sided challenging situation. To me, the late writer and journalist Ken Saro Wiva, the human rights activist and, until his execution in 1995, foremost non-violent defender of the rights of the indigenous Delta populations comes to mind as a likely and strong inspiration for the author. Some commentators have referred to Habila’s novel as a modern-day version of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. For me that appears surprising and somewhat misleading on both accounts.