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Nigerian author Helon Habila mixes oil and water in new novel

For all the public outrage directed at government agencies and BP over last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Americans and others across the world have largely remained silent when it comes to the environmental destruction wreaked by the oil industry in the Niger delta. The United States imports 40 percent of its crude oil from Nigeria, and according to reliable estimates, the Niger delta has suffered spills over the past half century that are 50 times the size that of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

Helon Habila. Photo: Flickr/BBC World Service

However, unlike in the United States, the Nigerian government has never called upon oil companies to improve their safety procedures or to provide meaningful compensation for those whose lives and livelihoods have been altered by the oil extraction.

In the absence of any government accountability, Nigerian journalists have taken it upon themselves to act as de facto watchdogs – often at great personal and professional risk. In 1995, environmental activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by a military tribunal for speaking out against the government.

Nigerian novelist Helon Habila comes out of this tradition, where politics and literature are closely intertwined. In Habila’s latest book, “Oil on Water,” the rookie journalist, Rufus, treks into the foggy backwaters of the Niger delta in search of the wife of a British oil executive kidnapped for ransom by a militia group whose stated goal is to bring the environmental destruction of the oil industry to the attention of the government and the world.

I recently talked to Habila about his novel, the ongoing environmental devastation of his homeland and the liberating properties of fiction.

Gabrielle Zuckerman: Can you talk a little about your decision to cast the narrator as a journalist?

Helon Habila: Yah, it’s an interesting choice. I’ve done it with my first novel, “I’m Waiting for an Angel,” and, of course, I was a journalist myself. First and foremost, there was a functional element because I know exactly what a journalist does. Then there’s also the symbolic significance of a person who can ask questions, investigate, takes pictures and document things for posterity.

I’m trying to call attention to the fact that we’re going to be held accountable. The destroyers of the environment are going to be held accountable by future generations. These things will be there for them to see and to know. So it’s very important to preserve nature and to stop the destruction of nature. The destruction of this beautiful wetland [occurred] in one generation. Oil destruction started in the 1950s, and we’re [now] witnessing the ruin of a whole way of life. The farmers cannot farm, the fishermen cannot fish. Everything’s changed.

Zuckerman: Why did you choose to write a novel about what’s happening in your homeland, as opposed to writing a nonfiction book or an expose?

Habila: I think that writing fiction gives you the latitude to go beyond journalism: to go into the houses and the minds of these little people that have been forgotten, that have been trampled by all of these big companies and the government. [In a novel], I can create a narrative for this forgotten, overlooked individual. And that’s what a good story does. It creates a full character; you can make them as passionate and as convincing and as heroic as you want. You can’t do that with nonfiction, not as effectively.

Zuckerman: At one point, your main character Rufus ends up on an island inhabited by these men and women who wear white robes and seem to be part of a religious cult or a commune. They live on this island peacefully and are seemingly immune to the conflict raging around them. They’re like a calm respite in the midst of chaos. Who do they represent?

Children are swimming in these oil-polluted waters as if they were clear lakes. This is the only water they’ve ever known in their life. … Abnormal has become so normal.

Habila: I wanted to show people despairing of the modern situation with all of its destructiveness — all these elements of modernity that came to Africa with colonialism. There’s a kind of harkening back to traditional ways where people didn’t destroy nature, not on this scale definitely. People were mindful; people would live in harmony with their environment. So I was trying to [illustrate] the despair that people feel [in contemporary times].

Zuckerman: In your book, you describe how oil has altered the Niger delta, with the constant and prevalent gas flares and the presence of oil in the water and on the land. Can you describe this a bit more?

Habila: Gas flares are a byproduct of extracting oil. A friend [recently told me of a trip where] he was flying at night over the delta to another African country and when he looked down, he saw the gas flares … fires all over the delta. He said it was surreal, these fires all over the land. And that’s the way it is. In some places, it’s like daylight all the time. The women are so used to these gas flares that they go there to dry their food, [despite the risk of] chemical and the acid [contamination]. Children are swimming in these oil-polluted waters as if they were clear lakes. This is the only water they’ve ever known in their life. Polluted, you know? That’s it. Abnormal has become so normal.

Kome Okwaghecha dries her tapioca near a gas flare belonging to Shell oil company in Warri, Nigeria, in 2006. Photo: AP/George Osodi

Zuckerman: You were in the U.S. during last year’s Gulf oil spill. What was it like to watch the response here in comparison to the apathy that greets oil spills and accidents in Nigeria?

Habila: Yah, it made me realize how powerful the words of people can be. People just have to stand up and reject this injustice. And it’s also important when their government backs them. A government [that] leads — that is what is sorely missing in Nigeria.

Almost every year, we have similar kinds of Deepwater Horizon spills in Nigeria, and they just pour in chemicals and disperse the oil. Sometimes, they don’t even get to do that. Nobody talks. Sometimes they just offer a little compensation and the money disappears. And the environment is suffering. It’s crazy … and unsustainable.

We have to change things; the oil companies are not going to change things for us.

Zuckerman: It must be very hard to watch what’s happening in your country. I sensed certain hopelessness in your novel: There’s no protection from the oil companies; there’s no place to hide.

Habila: There’s money involved, and we’re talking about a lot of money here: billions. Nigeria is the seventh largest oil producer in the world. Imagine the money that’s being made from oil. And with chaos, there’s no accountability, so people can [profit from] that. Once there’s order, there’s accountability, and people won’t make that kind of money. People have oil wells, and we don’t know how they got them; people have import-export licenses, we don’t know how they got them.

This is the situation. I don’t want to say that it’s the fault of the oil companies alone. It’s also the fault of Nigerians because it’s their country — it’s our country. We have to change things; the oil companies are not going to change things for us.

Zuckerman: Nigeria has a history of turning out prominent writers like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. How have they influenced your generation of writers?

Habila: They inspire us. There’s always been a connection between literature, politics and Africa if you go back to anti-colonial movements and all that. [For us], there’s no separation, really, between politics and literature. So they inspire us, not just in terms of literary activity, but also in terms of speaking out, being involved, refusing to keep quiet when something is not going right. So I think that’s their biggest legacy in Nigeria.

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