As we have discussed, Helon Habila’s Oil on Water plays with the slippery nature of memory and “truth” and storytelling through its non-linear structure and its themes of smoke, fog, and water. Another way in which the novel reflects on these themes is in its portrayal of light. Rather than reproducing or simply reversing previous discourses of light= good, dark= bad, the novel represents light in multiple ways. Similarly to the fog, light reveals only selectively, such as when it falls on only the non-scarred part of Boma’s face, rendering her suddenly whole and young again. On page 212, Rufus watches the light on a militant’s face: “the light fell on his face through the few tree branches, leaving blotches of light and shade where the shadow mixed with light.” This mixing of shadow of light and the use of light echoes Habila’s ambivalence towards the rebels and his attempt to show multiple sides of the same story, as Joellyn discusses in her post below.
Most interestingly, the novel presents two different ways of worshiping light: the Worshipers and the villagers described by the Doctor. The Worshipers strive to live in harmony with their environment. As Gloria tells Rufus, “They believe in the healing powers of the sea” (126). The group was formed over a century before as a response to a terrible war that killed so many people that “even the water in the wells turned red.” The land became polluted by dead bodies and “needed to be cleansed of blood, and pollution” (128). After the priesthood was established, the Worshipers began creating sculptures:
These figures represent the ancestors watching over us. They face the east, to acknowledge the beauty of the sun rising, for without the sun there would be no life. And some face the west, to show the dying sun the way home, and to welcome the moon. (128).
The Worshipers worship the sun, the ultimate source of light.
Similarly, Dr. Dagogo-Mark describes the way in which the people of a village in which he had served began to worship the flare planted near their village when oil was discovered there: “That light soon became the village square. At night men and women would stand facing it, lost in wonder, for hours, simply staring till their eyes watered and their heads grew dizzy” (152). Soon, however, the doctor’s “remarkably healthy” patients began to die from pollution of the land caused by the oil drilling marked by the very orange flare they had worshiped.
In these two representations, Habila does actually create a dichotomy and comes down more clearly on one side than he is wont to on other topics in the novel: worshiping nature= good; worshiping oil/ the unnatural/ exploiting the land= bad. Furthermore, the Worshipers and their emphasis on the land and on the people provide both Rufus and Boma a safe place in which to heal and grow at the end of the novel.
Habila’s depiction of light in the novel, therefore, not only echoes themes of the shifting nature of perception and the impossibility of fixing one unitary notion of truth into a story–it also in part answers some of Nixon’s questions about how to illustrate the effects of slow violence in a captivating way. Habilia’s beautiful descriptions and the direct parallel of these two scenes create a lasting impression on the reader, painting an image that lingers in the mind in the slow but pervasive way that slow violence affects its victims.