Sunday, July 24, 2011

Oh Africa! When will they stop Pillaging You?

If you thought that the BP blowout in the gulf of Mexico was damaging to our country, to tourism, to the economy, you have no idea how really horrific things could be. At least here in the United States we still have the wherewithal to rant and rave and pass laws that may put a damper on these global corporations that thrive on short cuts and irresponsibility.

But what happens if you don't have a voice? Many of you may have been introduced to big oil's influence in Africa, Nigeria in particular, when you read Little Bee. In that novel readers learned what happens to villagers who refuse to leave so that the oil companies can move in. Children are not exempt from the cruelty.

In a new novel by Nigerian author Helon Habila, called Oil on Water, this subject matter is ratcheted up by several degrees but with more nuance than Chris Cleave's book. Each character in this deceptively simple, highly accessible story has a kind of humanity to him that forces the reader to dig a little deeper in an attempt to understand how it is that African countries seem so ripe for exploitation.

Rufus is our narrator, a delightfully unassuming young man, recently graduated from journalism school and assigned to work with Zaq, a hardened, experienced but jaded reporter who was once Rufus's idol. In the Niger delta where Rufus and Zaq work and grew up, BP has gotten a strong toehold.

Empty promises are made by BP's London staffers, the villagers will all get rich, sharing in the fruits of their land. If the tribal chiefs refuse to work with the oil companies they simply disappear. Villagers are exiled to islands where they will starve before they can rebuild their lives, similar to what we did to our Native American tribes, except that this is happening today, right under our noses.
When the wife of the BP rep. in Port Harcourt is kidnapped, Rufus gets the assignment by default, two other reporters dealing with kidnappers were executed a few days before. It's the chance of a lifetime but he has to weigh the danger to himself since he is the sole support of his sister Boma, whose face was disfigured in a fire from an exploding oil rig.

As Rufus and Zaq try to infiltrate the various villages and remote islands where Isabel and her driver might be held, readers once again get a history lesson through fiction. From Rufus's journalist's eye we get an unflinching look at the militants', the villagers', and even the oil company's points of view. Reviewers say the Mr. Habila may have a screenplay in the works and I believe that this would work well in a Blood Diamonds kind of way. It's not an easy subject but we need to know what's going on outside of our comfy little corner of the world.

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