Boma and the Land: Bridging the Gap Between Slow and “Quick” Violence

29 Mar

Oil on Water ends with the striking description of Rufus’ imagined trajectory of Boma’s fate. Habila writes. “She’d be happy here, I was sure. This was a place of healing and soon she’d forget John, her scars would recede to the back of her mind and one day she’d look in the mirror and see they were gone” (238). Ostensibly, this is a fairly hopeful and perhaps even “straightforward” ending – at least for Boma. However, when considering her character in light of our ongoing discussions of “slow violence,” I think that this statement presents a much more sinister and nuanced conclusion.

Boma is almost an anomaly – her face provides a visceral representation of violence that is actually notably absent elsewhere in this novel. As we have discussed in class, we encounter death, decomposition, and waste constantly, but it is incredibly rare to see the full potential of violence realized – especially when it concerns people. In this way, Boma is really clearly set apart from the other characters in that the violence that happens to her is physically manifested and in a sense, “complete.” Because of this, Boma becomes aligned not with other characters, who experience forms of “slow violence,” but with the land, which is physically desecrated. We have seen this separation between the quick and decisive fate of the land and the slow and painfully “invisible” fate of the people of Nigeria now in Slow Violence and Sweet Crude, and Habila bridges that gap with Boma.

There are a few explicit parallels that between the way that Boma’s face is described and the desecration of the first village we encounter in chapter one. Boma’s face is described constantly as “burned, badly healed” (94) and a “scabrous mess” (109). In comparison, the first land that we encounter in the novel is described as a sort of wasteland, and though Habila never uses the word “scar” explicitly, he evokes the idea through descriptions of a ravaged landscape and also small physical details such as “cracks in the concrete.” It has obviously been stripped and abused, and remains (with Boma) the most obvious and compelling evidence of the violence being done to the people who inhabit it.  

In a PBS interview (see link at end of post), Habila characterizes the “worshippers” that Boma ultimately joins as “people despairing of the modern situation with all of its destructiveness.” He sees them as a representation of people being pulled in two directions – compelled into “modernity” by the oil companies, yet desperate for the past. With the worshippers, he says, he wanted to “[illustrate] the despair that people feel in contemporary times.” In this way, Habila acknowledges that the worshippers are not a “real” people – instead they are an amalgamation meant to represent the shifting, fragmented nature of the true people of Nigeria.

On the surface, it seems like Rufus expects Boma to be healed by this community – to somehow be “resolved” – but we find this is impossible because this community is fundamentally irresolute. While they wish to be Switzerland – neutral, whole, a conceptual island unto themselves – they cannot. In fact, by attempting neutrality they achieve the exact opposite, working for both sides rather than neither. Though the worshippers wish to be a site of healing, recuperation, and wholeness, they are ultimately a site of schism. It is the reason that they can’t save the land – the reason that they must live like nomads, traversing the used up, degraded environment as best they can – and the same reason that they can’t save Boma. The violence is etched on her face. Thus, the hope Rufus holds is false, because like the land, Boma is irreparably and visibly damaged, and will remain so until people like the worshippers can actually attain the peace that they wish to embody.

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