Initially the first pages of Hebon Habila’s masterpiece sort of rubbed me the wrong way. Rather than having the traditional quotations for dialogue, Oil on Water employed rarely used dash marks to mark character dialogue. However, this was me being too stingy in giving Habila and his work credit. Once I adapted myself to his dialogue’s format, I uncovered the common brilliance with which Nigerian novels now permeate the market.
Like many of Nigeria’s English novels, Oil on Water manages the tightrope act of combining seething political and social commentary with carefully constructed characters and plot. The novel accomplishes this mainly through the first person narrative account of Rufus, a young and ambitious news reporter based in Port Hartcourt. His story revolves around the pursuit of the wife of a British oil executive, who was kidnapped by militants based in the Niger River Delta. The commonplace of this type of crime in the region and the assignment’s highly volatile nature leaves few reporters to cover the story. However, when Zaq, Rufus’s mentor, takes on the assignment of discovering the whereabouts of the missing expat, Rufus is motivated to tag along. He is thrown into a world that has lost its natural beauty and innocence, a world characterized by brutality and the lack of a future. The result is an intensely painful view into a place that drifts dangerously close to being shattered by itself.
One of the devices that makes Oil on Water such a delight to read is the non-linear timeline. The reader is shifted between seemingly the past and the present to gain an interloping understanding of the context and characters. Slowly one gains insight into what makes Zaq drink himself into invalidity and what makes Rufus such a relentless protagonist. The novel functions in a similar way to other works that employ a fragmented timeline like Half of a Yellow Sun. The product is a rich design that compels the reader to pay attention to every detail.
At times, some of the characters appear to be overly done caricatures. The British executive thinks he knows everything about Nigeria based upon what he’s read in a book. Zaq takes on the role of the old and grumpy wise man that seems to know every sign and detail, at least those concerned with journalism. And Rufus assumes the role of a sort of passive hero, who despite being below his colleagues in experience or smarts, manages to employ a crafty journalistic eye. It may seem that I was ripping the novel for such characters, but this is not the case. These characters, when together, depict an important topic that is often misreported or underrepresented by American media.
American media outlets misunderstood or outright failed to represent the political, social, and environmental problems of the Niger River Delta in a faithful manner. Dateline NBC did a terrible piece of yellow journalism that depicted the militants of the delta, as associates of Al-Qaeda. However, nothing could be farther from the truth, Oil on Water attempts to create a fairer depiction. The militants are depicted not as terrorists, but simply as people pushed far towards the edge of existence. Their ancestral homes have been raped and pillaged by the Nigerian government and international oil companies in the name of improving Nigeria. Places where fish and crops were so abundant are now desolate wastelands, where no prospects or future remain. Where American media depicted such a negative view of the militants, Hebon Habila reveals the lack of disregard and the inhumanity of the government and its troops, which violently engages the local communities in a disgusting manner.
This is perhaps where Oil on Water succeeds the most. In mixing political commentary with a thoughtful and carefully constructed story line, this novel illuminates a particularly underreported topic that deserves further advocacy and international attention.
* I will post the amazon link, once I get the email.