OIL IN NIGERIAN PROSE FICTION: A STUDY OF HELON HABILA’S OIL ON WATER AND KAINE AGARY’S YELLOW YELLOW
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1.1 Background to the Study
Since prehistory, literature and the arts have been drawn to portrayals of physical environments and human-environment interactions. The modern environmentalist movement as it emerged first in the late nineteenth century and, in its more recent incarnation, in the 1960s, gave rise to a rich array of fictional and nonfictional writings concerned with humans’ changing relationship to the natural world. Only since the early 1990s, however, has the long-standing interest of literary studies in these matters generated the initiative most commonly known as “ecocriticism,” an eclectic and loosely coordinated movement whose contributions thus far have been most visible within its home discipline of literature but whose interests and alliances extend across various art forms and media. In such areas as the study of narrative and image, ecocriticism converges with its sister disciplines in the humanities: environmental anthropology, environmental history, and environmental philosophy.
Literature and environment studies—commonly called “ecocriticism” or “environmental criticism” in analogy to the more general term literary criticism—comprise an eclectic, pluriform, and cross-disciplinary initiative that aims to explore the environmental dimensions of literature and other creative media in a spirit of environmental concern not limited to any one method or commitment. As Lawrence Buell et al. explain, “Ecocriticism begins from the conviction that the arts of imagination and the study there of—by virtue of their grasp of the power of word, story, and image to reinforce, enliven, and direct environmental concern—can contribute significantly to the understanding of environmental problems: the multiple forms of eco-degradation that afflict planet earth today” (3). In this, ecocriticism concurs with other branches of the environmental humanities—ethics, history, religious studies, anthropology, humanistic geography—in holding that environmental phenomena must be comprehended, and that today’s burgeoning array of environmental concerns must be addressed qualitatively as well as quantitatively.
At least as fundamental to their remediation as scientific breakthroughs and strengthened regimes of policy implementation is the impetus of creative imagination, vision, will, and belief. Even though, as the poet W.H. Auden (2) famously wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen” in and of itself, the outside-the-box thought experiments of literature and other media can offer unique resources for activating concern and creative thinking about the planet’s environmental future. By themselves, creative depictions of environmental harm are unlikely to free societies from lifestyles that depend on radically transforming ecosystems. But reflecting on works of imagination may prompt intensified concern about the consequences of such choices and possible alternatives to them. In this regard, the Niger Delta has recently become a topic of discussion for literary artists as the region’s environment has witnessed environmental degradations which constitute health hazards for the people and other natural organisms due to the activities of oil explorations. The need to arrest the deplorable environmental situations of the Niger Delta has being the focus of many literary and environmental activists, and this study falls within the many attempts to effect changes in this regard.
The Niger Delta region of Nigeria is rich in crude oil otherwise known as black gold. This singular factor has made this region a cause celebre and a hotbed of trouble in the Sub-Saharan region. The region is bedeviled with ecological problems. The discovery of oil in the region has affected agriculture, fishing as well as the living conditions of the people. Wumi Raji contends that “when Shell D’Arcy, the Anglo-Dutch Petroleum Corporation which later transformed to Shell Petroleum Development Company shipped out the first 5,000 barrels in 1958, the price of the mineral resources was only $4.00 US dollars per barrel. By 1981, when almost 15 oil companies jointly produced over 2 million barrels daily from the innumerable oil wells strewn all over the Niger Delta, the price per barrel had risen to 40 dollar …” (58). This has affected not only the environment but also the life of the people in terms of finding an eco-friendly land for their arable and acquatic livelihood. Good land has, thus, become an important scarce resource for the Niger Delta people. Land in the Niger Delta, like in other parts of Nigeria and Africa is regarded as a sacred entity as well as symbol of life and status. This is probably why Ngugi posits that “the basic objective of the Mau Mau revolutionaries was to drive out the Europeans … and give back to the Kenyan peasants their stolen land” (28). In South Africa, due to the temperate climate and natural endowment, the Europeans penetrated into the interior, driving out the natives into infertile land and exploring their mineral for their personal development at the detriment of black South Africans. The black South Africans became labourers in the mines. They were moved into shacks and condemned to a slow genocide.
Like in East Africa (especially Kenya), this form of oppression and deprivation led to resistance. This recurring decimal perpetuates itself in the Niger Delta environment, resulting in hardship for the people. Land, streams, creeks etc have been polluted, roofs of buildings in the area have been perforated while “the vapour when it settles on the skin turns into a charred surface in the form of an unsightly skin disease” (Raji, III). Raji reasons further that “there is also the effect of consistent explosions which cause many of the buildings to shake and the walls to crack. Because of this many of the villagers have had to abandon their houses, migrating to other villages in search of refuge” (III).
Apart from these ecological problems, the Niger Delta region lacks basic social amenities like portable drinking water, electricity, roads, hospitals, schools, and job opportunities to enable the people earn their living and become self reliant, yet the region is the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg that feeds the entire nation. It is against this backdrop of economic, social and political deprivation that Ken Saro Wiwa and eight of his kinsmen have died for. Saro Wiwa views the exploration of oil by multinationals as anti-people exploitation. In an insightful interview, Saro Wiwa affirms that his people live in the middle of death. What Saro Wiwa advocates for is the right of the Ogoni people to use their resources for their own development.
Sam Uniamikogbo and Stanley Aibieyi rightly submit that “considering the role of oil in national development, the struggle for indigenous control of activities in the industry has persisted over the years. Among oil exploring countries like Mexico and Libya, this struggle has culminated in apparent revolution, which ultimately forced out foreign oil firms from the industry and made way for national control of oil operations” (247). Saro Wiwa’s fight for social justice and minority rights has made him a man of the people. That he was able to mobilise and draw attention, locally and internationally to the plight of his people marked him out as one of the greatest activist of his time. Kaine Agary’s Yellow-Yellow and Helon Habila’s Oil on Water situate themselves within the Niger Delta discourse as well as the polemics surrounding the women and environmental issues in this region. For instance, Agary’s inspiration as a writer derives from Saro Wiwa’s commitment for social justice for the Ogoni people, who have been marginalised, deprived and exploited. Pushed to the wall, these people have no choice but to bounce back in order to force the government and indeed humanity to understand their predicament. This has led to untold violence: killing, maiming, gun running, destruction/vandalization of pipelines and recently kidnapping of foreigners and Nigerians for ransom. Young girls/women who cannot find jobs to do or education, find succour in the hands of foreigners who exploit their sexuality. The plight of women in the Niger Delta region is indeed pathetic. Agary’s Yellow-Yellow is a literary enterprise whose main thrust is to expose further the socio-economic predicament of the people as well as explore the debilitating effect of poverty on the feminine psyche. Helon Habila’s concerns generally center on the need to find lasting solutions to the Niger Delta problems confronting the country. This underlies the commitments of both writers to the corrective role of literature in society.
The history of oil exploration and production in the Niger Delta is a long, complex and often painful one that to date has become seemingly intractable in terms of its resolution and future direction. It is also a history that has put people and politics and the oil industry at loggerheads rendering a landscape characterized by a lack of trust, paralysis and blame, set against a worsening situation for the communities concerned. The reality is that decades of negotiations, initiatives and protests have ultimately failed to deliver a solution that meets the expectations and responsibilities of all sides. This complex situation has been described by James Tar Tsaaior as “paradoxical.” (71) For several seasons now, the Niger Delta has been writhing in throes. It is still writhing in throes. And it will, perhaps, continue to writhe in throes; perhaps, perpetually. Reasons exist for these seasons of throes. The Niger Delta is a blessed, ethereal landscape. It is home to a congregation of ageless swamps, calm creeks, and primeval estuaries. It is also drained by ancient streams and graceful undulating rivers that are populated with shoals of fishes which teem their beds. This is besides other magnificent marine creatures which the area lays claim to, making it a haven of aquatic splendour. With its virile, verdant vegetation of tall, elegant forest trees like the iroko, mahogany, obeche and other swaying flora, the Niger Delta is a natural habitat to a rare breed of wild animals and species of birds which eminently qualify this richly endowed rain forest enclave as a foremost tourist destination of global magnitude. The region is also a neighbour of the majestic, imperial Atlantic to which it pays its watery tributes as a vassal, and in turn has its shoreline bathed with the effervescent and refreshing waters of the ocean.
But besides its idyllic essence, there is another more fundamental reason why the Delta writhes in throes. It is the reservoir of priceless mineral resources. In the bowels of this rich, fertile, alluvial earth dwells crude in prodigious deposits. Tayo Olafioye underscores this geographic munificence and the considerable impact it exerts on the Niger Delta peoples when he states that;
Geography can influence human behaviour and perception of reality. The Delta as a feature of physical geography creates fishing and farming avocation for its indigene who inhabits its enclave… underneath the Delta are natural resources with which the gods are believed to have enriched the environment. The black gold flows deep and wide between the substrata… the Delta is the gateway to the Atlantic Ocean which encapsulates larger riches and travails for the people. It constitutes topography of gold and travails that borders dynamic resources (2-3).
It is this invaluable resource known otherwise as black gold that translates into oil. It is this oil that lubricates the heart and arteries of Nigeria’s mono-cultural economy. It is the same oil that also coagulates and burns these arteries and veins. Thus, what should constitute a veritable source of national blessings has yielded a primal curse whose cause is to gnaw at the soul and visceral of the nation and its chequered existential course in the continuum of history, and “this has made, and continues to make, the Niger Delta Nigeria’s boiling, simmering cauldron, and the recurring decimal of a tissue of paradoxes. It has also enmeshed the land in a ritualized frenzy of debacles and fitful convulsions” (Tsaaior, 72).
It is no doubt that oil exploration and exploitation is very lucrative, and a major revenue earner in Nigeria. But, like most industrial activities, it produces environmental hazards that are “slow poisons,” in that they often take months and years to cause disease and death. This is unlike the contamination of water, food, and the environment with micro-organisms, which immediately results in ill health. The covert and slow action of the hazards created by oil exploration and exploitation make it difficult to fully appreciate their contribution to the disease burden in Nigeria, especially in the oil-bearing communities, even with the emergence of non-communicable diseases as major causes of ill health in Nigeria.
Each year, 100s of post-impact assessment (PIA) studies are conducted in the Niger Delta to assess the impact of the hazards generated by the oil industry on the physical and social environment and on human health. But, most of these studies are conducted without any significant contributions from health professionals and are reported without highlighting the immediate and long-term implications of the identified hazards on the health of members of the impacted communities. This was sadly commented upon in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Ogoni environmental assessment report; and is likely to continue because even the technical review of the impact assessment reports, carried out by the Federal Ministry of Environment, often do not include a health professional. Thus, this contributes to the plethora of complicated issues in the region.
The need to resolve conflict in the Niger Delta has been worrisome. Granting amnesty after surrendering arms to restive youths in return for training and skill acquisition, some have argued is still not the best option. Recently President Yar’Adua has placed the repentant militants on a salary, but for how long did this last? Miscreants have joined the throng as ex-militants in order to reap where they did not sow. No one is sure who the real militants are and if they have surrendered all their arms. The situation is dicey and need careful attention to forestall continuous uprising in the region. The Ministry of the Niger Delta Affairs has to be more proactive and sensitive to the needs and yearnings of the people. If the crisis in the Niger Delta region is well managed, then the conflicts in the region would have been solved and peace will certainly return to the region.
But the continued security unrests and environmental challenges posed by the activities in oil exploration have shown that the presence of oil in Nigeria has become a curse than a blessing especially for the Niger Deltan communities where it is deposited and the natural habitats that suffer its mismanagement. Since the writer must become the “watchdog” that checkmates societal ills or excesses, according to Achebe, this study is geared towards contributing to the many literatures of the Niger Delta, and in ecocriticism that does not only bring issues of the environment to the fore but also seek to reconstruct and affect positive changes in the Niger Delta environment.
1.2 Statements of Problem
Oil exploration and exploitation has been very lucrative, and a major revenue earner in Nigeria. But, like most industrial activities, it produces environmental hazards that are detrimental to the people and the environment where the oil is deposited. The situation in the Niger Delta is both curious and is an annoying paradox. The people live in difficult coastal areas surrounded by water, and yet, do not have enough water to drink. The creeks are littered with pipelines bearing petroleum products to other parts of the country, but from this researcher’s personal experiences fuel is scarce and expensive, as a matter of fact costlier in Yenegoa than in Kano. The Niger Deltans have also lamented that, before their very eyes, revenue from crude oil sales is taken away to provide infrastructure in other parts of the country (beautiful roads in Abuja, Skyscrapers and flyovers in Lagos etc.) while many communities in the Niger Delta are cut off from civilization because there are no roads or bridges to get to them.
In other development, the Niger Delta youths in their thousands, if not millions are largely unemployed. The qualified ones among them have to struggle with other Nigerians to get employments and positions in the oil companies. The oil companies have their headquarters in Lagos and Abuja, not in the Niger Delta. The people feel neglected as illiterates and minorities that can be manipulated. Youths, adults, women, and children grow up and die in the region without much hope and chance of a better life, thus driving many into militancy and other vices; while people from other parts of Nigeria, especially the North, enjoy the benefits that oil wells bring, Consequently, the militants among them feel they have reached a point where the only choice they find attractive is violence and kidnapping, illegal bunkering, pipeline vandalism etc. to drive home their demands for equity and justice and due recognition of their rights as citizens. More so, the presence of oil has led to the depreciation in other economic and income earning activities which have driven Nigeria into a monolithic economy that has spelt doom for the country, as local skills and crafts in agriculture have been lost overtime. These unfavourable situations have led some critics to believe that the oil in the Niger Delta is more of a ‘curse’ than a ‘blessing’.
This study, thus relates literature to the environment through the Theory of Ecocriticism or Green Literature by examining the presence of oil in Nigerian prose fiction using Helon Habila’s Oil on Water and Kaine Agary’s Yellow Yellow to explain the impact of oil in the Niger Deltan environment as a microcosm of the Nigerian environment.
1.3 Aim and Objectives of Study
The aim of this study is to examine oil in Nigerian prose fiction using Helon Habila’s Oil on Water and Kaine Agary’s Yellow Yellow. The following objectives will strengthen the study:
i. Examine the environmental aspects of literature through a discussion of Ecocriticism or Green Literature.
ii. Examine how writers have explored the place of oil in Nigerian Literature.
iii. Carry out an eco-critical analysis of both texts in relations to oil in Nigeria.
iv. Examine the eco-thematic concerns of the texts under review.
v. Explore the effects of oil in the Niger Delta and the country at large.
vi. Situate the texts to contemporary Nigerian society.
1.4 Scope of Study
This study comes under the purview of ecocriticism which examines the environmental aspects of literature. The study is limited to the eco-thematic and eco-critical analysis of Helon Habila’s Oil on Water and Kaine Agary’s Yellow Yellow. As such, issues surrounding oil explorations in the Niger Delta and in Nigeria will be discussed in relations to the environmental situations or effects oil has on the community.
The study adopts eco-criticism theory and Content Analysis approach in exploring the place of oil in Nigerian prose fiction. The data for this research is Helon Habila’s Oil on Water and Kaine Agary’s Yellow Yellow. Every page of both texts that touches on the issues surrounding the impact of oil in Nigeria will be examined.
The study will also use materials from journal articles, periodicals, literary texts, and internet surfing that will be relevant for this research will be consulted for review of literatures.
1.6 Significance of Study
The research is significant in the following ways:
i. It exposes the environmental issues surrounding oil explorations in Nigeria, thus creating further awareness on the subject of environmental degradations.
ii. It examines how Nigerian prose fiction writers have been able explore the place of oil in Nigerian Literature, thereby contributing to the literatures of the Niger Delta.
iii. By situating the texts to contemporary Nigerian society, the study exposes the relevant contributions of literature (especially prose fiction writers) to society.
iv. Students, teachers and researchers will find the discussions in this study useful for further studies on the effects of oil in Nigeria.
iv. This research is significant for its contributions to knowledge in Green Literature and the literatures of the Niger Deltan people.
1.7 Brief Biodata of the Authors
Helon Habila Ngalabak (born November 1967) is a Nigerian novelist and poet, whose writing has won many prizes, including the Caine Prize in 2001. He worked as a lecturer and journalist in Nigeria before moving in 2002 to England, where he was a Chevening Scholar at the University of East Anglia, and he now teaches creative writing at George Mason University, Washington, D.C.
Habila was born in Kaltungo, Gombe State, Nigeria. He studied English Language and Literature at the University of Jos and lectured for three years at the Federal Polytechnic, Bauchi. In 1999 he went to Lagos to write for Hints magazine, moving on to Vanguard newspaper as Literary Editor. His first novel, Waiting for an Angel, was published in 2002, and the following year won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Africa Region, Best First Book).
Moving to England in 2002, Habila became the African Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia. In 2005 he was invited by Chinua Achebe to become the first Chinua Achebe Fellow at Bard College, NY, where he spent a year writing and teaching, remaining in the US after the fellowship in America as a professor of Creative Writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
In 2006 he co-edited the British Council anthology New Writing 14. His second novel, Measuring Time, published in 2007, was nominated for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, the IMPAC Prize, and in 2008 won the Virginia Library Foundation Prize for fiction. His third novel, Oil on Water, which deals with environmental pollution in the oil-rich Nigerian Delta, was published in 2010, being shortlisted for prizes including the Pen/Open Book Award, Commonwealth Best Book, Africa Region, and the Orion Book Award. His anthology The Granta Book of the African Short Story came out in September 2011. His Awards and honors include: 2000 Music Society of Nigeria (MUSON) national poetry award; 2001 Caine Prize, “Love Poems”; 2003 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Africa category, Waiting for an Angel; 2007 Emily Clark Balch Prize (short story), from Virginia Quarterly Review, “The Hotel Malogo”; 2008 Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction, Measuring Time; 2011 Commonwealth Writers Prize, shortlist, Oil on Water; 2012 Orion Book Award, shortlist, Oil on Water; 2012 PEN/Open Book Award, shortlist, Oil on Water and 2015 Windham–Campbell Literature Prize (Fiction) valued at $150,000.
His books include: Prison Stories (2000), Waiting for an Angel: A Novel (2004), New Writing 14, (2006), Measuring Time (2007), Dreams, Miracles, and Jazz: An Anthology of New Africa Fiction (2007), Oil on Water (2010), and The Granta Book of the African Short Story (2011).
Kaine Agary grew up in Port Harcourt Nigeria. She lived in the United States of America and now lives in Lagos, Nigeria where she is the editor of TAKA Magazine. Yellow Yellow is her first work of fiction published in 2006.
She holds a Bachelor of Arts Degrees in Sociology and Economics from Mount Holyoke College, USA and a Masters in Public Administration with a specialization in Public Policy from New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service in the United States of America. She has over ten years work experiences covering health care administration, policy analysis and arts/culture promotion.
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