Oil on Water, the Nomad, and the First Person Point of View

26 Mar

Although her essay “Postcolonial Despotism from a Postmodern Standpoint: Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel” focuses on a different novel by Helon Habila, Ali Erritouni makes claims that I believe apply to Oil on Water. One of the things that most interests me regarding Oil on Water is how Habila chooses to write the novel from a first person point of view, even though the novel deals with an issue plaguing an entire country. Erritouni writes that Habila belongs to a third generation of Nigerian writers, the first and second generations being more concerned with political conditions in Africa, while these third generation writers focus on “nomadism, exile, displacement, and deracination.” Erritouni states that Habila shares traits from all three generations of Nigerian writers, claiming that Habila views revolutionary violence as just as futile and destructive as colonialism.

What I find interesting about Erritouni’s ideas in her essay compared to the point of view Habila uses in Oil on Water is that the narrator, Rufus, is a completely neutral character. Although he harbors anger over his sister’s severe burning due to an oil fire in his village, he does not voice approval over the rebels kidnapping the wife of a British oil executive. Rufus is a journalist – he is objective in his view of the world. Erritouni reveals that the main character of the Habila novel she focuses on (Waiting for an Angel), is a journalist as well. I discovered in an interview that Habila did with PBS that he also worked as a journalist for some time. The first person perspective becomes clearer to me: Habila wants to present objective views of the issues in Nigeria. He wants his readers to see both sides while still feeling the horror of these experiences through a narrator who has experienced them himself.

Erritouni writes, “For Habila, given its lack of restraint and the means of violence at its disposal, the masses cannot hope to prevail against the despotic state.” I find this claim to be true: Habila uses Rufus to show how what the rebels do is just as bad as what the “despotic state,” the oil companies, do to the Nigerian people. Erritouni sees Habila conceiving “the intellectual” as a nomad, rather than “the nerve-center of her society.” I also see Rufus fitting into this description. He has been a nomad for the majority of his life, leaving home to complete an apprenticeship, and then going off to journalism school. His career as a journalist inherently makes him a nomad, and his identification with Zaq increases these nomad-like tendencies, as Zaq is always on the move, roaming the world. Rufus is not the “nerve-center” of his society, as Erritouni claims, because Rufus is the one who must tell his society’s story. He is its eyes and ears, rather than its heart.

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