Hannah Swamidoss


Instead of creating a fairy-tale ending, the discovery of oil in the Niger delta produced a complicated political, social, and environmental situation frequently punctuated by violence. The current conflict in Nigeria has a long history beginning with British colonial expansions in Africa. The growing need for petroleum in the British Empire combined with the evidence of oil on the west coast of Africa made Nigeria a logical place for oil exploration, but the region posed some peculiar problems. Phia Steyn notes that the Niger delta’s physical environment proved challenging for the technology of the early 1900s, and that the colonial government did not offer financial incentives for exploration. These two factors created circumstances in which only the larger oil companies could afford to explore the region (1), and oil would not become commercially viable until 1956.  Even after Nigerian independence in 1960 and with the government later taking control of majority shares in the oil companies, the larger oil companies continued to dominate the market until the 1990s. Smaller investors could not compete for a significant period of time. Adding the Nigerian government’s corruption to this situation kept, and still keeps, profits from the local people.  

The environmental devastation that has occurred in the region has had considerable consequences. What used to be a rich, fertile area teeming with fish, shellfish, and wildlife has suffered the effects of continuous oil spillage. Adam Nossiter reported in the New York Times that a team of national and international experts estimate that 546 million gallons of oil have been spilled in the Niger delta over the past fifty years. This spillage stems from poor infrastructure and from oil thieves (“bunkerers”) tapping into the pipelines. The communities that have traditionally lived off the delta’s resources have limited options; the oil companies instead of hiring from the local communities bring in foreign workers. Frustration with the situation has created rebel groups who frequently take hostages from the oil companies to use as leverage for changes in policy or for ransom. Nossiter quotes one of the residents of the delta (in reference to the environmental damage), “Whatever cry we cry is not heard outside of here.” 

Some of this cry is heard in two recent novels set in the Niger delta, Helon Habila’s Oil on Water and Christie Watson’s Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away. Though unlike Habila who was born in Nigeria, Watson hails from the UK and her connection to region is through her partner and family. Mangroves, oil companies, hostages, and rebels provide a varied background to these narratives and represent the rich and complicated history of the area. More than representing the turmoil, poverty, and hardship of the region, both Habila and Watson portray impoverished people building a life in the midst of chaos and turmoil. This unexpected strength in the midst of unyielding hardship offers glimmers of hope for the future.    

Oil on Water

In prose that frequently becomes evocatively poetic, Habila juxtaposes journalism with the elusive nature of truth to explore the complex interactions between the various groups in the Niger delta. Through the mixed motives that two journalists have in attempting to meet with militants who have taken a British women hostage, Habila explores the convoluted relationship between what appear to be noble goals and the prosaic facts of their undertaking.  This uneasy tension between ideals and less-than-ideal motives tarnishes almost all of the characters, from journalists, rebel leaders, bunkerers, and oil magnates to the soldiers representing the government. Yet the very nature of journalism, of recording events and exposing situations to public scrutiny, comes through in the novel. Habila’s narrative itself - by balancing the good that people can do with the evil they can inflict - provides a brilliant if subtle “coverage” of the region’s problems. Habila’s character Zaq captures the spirit of the book when he explains to another journalist that the violent, heartbreaking moments in a society represent a journalist’s job; Zaq states: “That’s how history is made, and it’s our job to witness it.”  Oil on Water certainly bears witness to the cries of the Niger delta.  

Habila’s narrative gains strength with his dexterous use of flashbacks, and this aspect of the novel adds to its lyrical quality.  The final return to the present at the end of the novel, however, proves a little disappointing; in trying to avoid the expected outcomes of either tragedy or success, Habila does not maintain the delicate balancing act that the rest of the story presents.  He does show, however, that a new social formation can emerge from the chaos of the present: a mystical community which maintains a tenuous peace between all groups offers the basis for this new regrouping. The community that emerges extends a modicum of hope that in the midst of the lies and violence that exist within the rebel groups and the soldiers representing the government the people of the villages can reappropriate what they have lost.  Habila, however, leaves this at its nascent state.  

The supreme moments of the novel, however, lie in the descriptions of the mangroves and a boat making its way through trees, vegetation, and the seemingly floating villages. In one such description, Habila writes: “The water took on different forms as we glided on it….Sometimes it was an old jute rope, frayed and wobbly and breaking into jagged, feathery ends, the freshwater abruptly replaced by a thick marshy tract of mangroves…” The reader glides on the water with Habila’s characters, viewing the effects of “oil on water” but also sensing the beauty. Throughout the narrative, Habila artfully reveals the desolation drilling has created but also evokes the image of the rich and fertile environment that once existed. Much of the narrative takes place on water, and the journeys on water create a new image of Africa – changeable and dangerous, yet rich and beautiful.  

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away

Christie Watson’s work provides a neat counterpart to Habila’s; Watson also addresses the issues of hostages, rebels, oil companies, and poverty, but through the domestic affairs of one household and strong female characters. After a series of disasters that seem insurmountable, the grandmother of the household remarks to the protagonist, Blessing,   “sometimes things fall apart…so we can put them together in new ways." In Blessing, Watson provides glimpses of the “new ways” in which “things” can be put together in the midst of chaos and disorder.  Initially, Blessing seems doubly marginalized being poor and female, with her brother being privileged over her in education. However, through her grandmother’s training, Blessing finds fulfillment in the traditional profession of midwifery. Even this tradition undergoes transformation as Blessing, unlike her grandmother, does not practice female genital mutilation. 

While Watson’s prose and narrative may not have the poetry and fluidity of Habila’s, the novel proves to be as substantive.  Watson shows constant re-formation and re-creation out of broken pieces. Individuals trapped in situations that they did not create (whether it be a wealthy, white oil entrepreneur or an impoverished Ijaw women) can come together in marriage; a girl seemingly powerless to choose her destiny can grow into a strong woman who chooses differently from the adults around her. The disruption and heartbreak of a husband taking a second wife can lead to growth and reconciliation for all involved. It is through understanding the commonplace and the ability to survive adverse circumstances that Watson offers resolution to the troubles of the region.  

This idea of the everyday and mundane having the power to restructure society occurs in one of the most interesting scenes in the novel when the women of the surrounding communities band together to secure the release of a hostage. Protesting in front of the local oil company, the women disrobe in public in order to shame the rebel group into releasing their hostage. Blessing’s grandmother remarks as she disrobes, “there is nothing more powerful than a naked woman." While the women do succeed in their protest, this scene presents a rather conflicted view of the female body.  The naked female body has great power because of the shame of this body being displayed and viewed in public. Blessing later comments, “Grandma…had shamed those boys [rebels]….they had felt the shame and anger of their sisters, wives, mothers at their violence."  Perhaps this divided understanding of the female body ties in with Watson’s larger framework of using the good and the bad in ordinary occurrences to redeem broken situations.

The beauty of Watson’s narrative lies in how the microcosm of a household can reflect and, more importantly, address the chaos and violence of the macrocosm. The family that Watson leaves at the end of the novel shows strength in surviving adverse circumstances and creating new communities from the old. Since Watson portrays ordinary people effecting change, she offers hope in the midst of seemingly impossible odds.  

Books reviewed:

Oil on Water by Helon Habila, NY: Norton, 2010.

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson, NY: Other Press, 2011.


(1) Phia Steyn. Oil Exploration in Colonial Nigeria, c. 1903-58. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 37.2 (June 2009)

Hannah Swamidoss was a freelance writer who wrote articles and reviews on children's book and authors. She decided to pursue her interest in literature and completed her PhD in Literary Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas with an emphasis on British fiction, children's literature and postcolonial studies. She currently teaches courses at the college and high-school level.