“We are the Delta”

27 Mar

Throughout Helon Habila’s Oil on Water, the degradation of the environment and the people seem to reflect each other.  When the Major talks to Rufus as they approach Irikefe Island, he warns the young reporter,

–Be prepared for what you are about to see.  Irikefe is now mostly ashes and rubble, bombed by the gun helicopter over there.  Not a hut is left standing…

[Rufus responds,] –What of the people?

–Most of them would still be there, I suppose.  But expect a lot of casualties, unavoidable, of course.  This is a war zone…” (166)

In this exchange, the “ashes and rubble” of Irikefe resemble the detritus of the “unavoidable” human “casualties” of the worshipers and villagers.  This resemblance between the status of the land and the people on the land transcends a mere mirroring, and instead argues for an intrinsic, inseparable link between humans and the environment in the Niger Delta.  The bond between people and the earth is most explicitly stated during Rufus’s interview with Henshaw, one of the “militants” locked up at the Major’s military camp: “–We are the people, we are the Delta, we represent the very earth on which we stand” (163).

Through its role as a nexus of the physical and living, the Niger Delta epitomizes Rob Nixon’s concept of “slow violence”: “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all” (2).  The slow violence that Rufus observes is a gradual process, as fish, wildlife, and crops slowly die from chronic oil spills and flaring and villages, like Chief Ibiram’s,  slowly migrate from place to place in hope of an illusive better life.  But this violence is hidden in the fog of the Delta, nameless, just like the island, which the group of journalists expected to meet the militants ransoming Isabel Floode; not until page 168, when Zaq and Rufus return to Irikefe with the Major and hear the account of the violence that happened on the island before the reporters arrived that the reader learns its name – Agbuki.  This theme of namelessness is also seen in Rufus’ neglect to ask the old man and his son – Zaq and Rurus’s guides – for their names until well into their journey.  When something is nameless, whether the environment or the people living there, they are powerless, unable to tell their story of their slow violence.

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