Oil and Water is an admirable novel. One of the chief obstacles in presenting the story of the Niger Delta to a global audience (OoW has truly reached a global audience, being translated into many languages) is turning staggering information regarding environmental damages and human casualties into something understandable on a human level. One of Habila’s achievements is creating a narrative that avoids a simple and obvious binary while providing a vivid description of the hard truths about the region, achieving a political (and moral) goal through a seemingly simple first person narrative.
Mirroring the author, Rufus is set in motion by the kidnapping of Isabel. Henshaw admonishes him for focusing on the kidnapping, “Is that all you want from me, to tell you whether some foreign hostage is alive or not? Who is she in the context of the war that’s going on out there, the hopes and ambitions being created and destroyed? Can’t you see the larger picture?” The quote could be read as the author questioning himself and opening the novel to bigger ideas than the search for the kidnapped woman or perhaps instructing the reader to not limit themselves to a surface level reading. Rufus pieces together the larger picture by gathering nearly everyone’s story, from militants, to villagers, to Saloman. Only the delta villagers are presented as noble or completely helpful. No others–not the militants, the military, or the existing newspapers–are spared at least a somewhat unflattering presentation.
Rufus’ journey paints a bleak picture, one not lacking in complexity. One of the best bits of writing is when one of the captive militants says, “We have a slight problem, that’s all. Each of us is here for a different reason.” The delta not only suffers from the conflict between the militants and the oil company (and, by proxy, the Nigerian military) but also from the different militant groups who counterintuitively have different goals and operate in different ways, none of them less harmful to the villagers and the land than the other.
Kathleen rightly points out the novel’s ambiguous ending and how that ties into the idea that there is no satisfactory solution for the situation in the delta. I believe the ending also purposefully veers away from Isabel as a sign that Rufus has seen the larger picture. The real purpose of Rufus’ journey was to chronicle everything he had seen, from the damage to the land to the hypocrisy of the Professor (“everything we do is for the people”). Isabel’s fate was never that important after all.
I would remiss to not also mention that in addition to a solid event plot story, Habila creates powerful and evocative images. The worshipers trying to wash the blood spots from their robes and the dousing of a man in oil are unforgettable. Occasionally, the author provides bits of wisdom such as “educate yourself and you will see the world in a different way,” but avoids making OoW overtly didactic.
Last semester, Marionne Ingram, a holocaust survivor and author, spoke with my creative nonfiction workshop. Her goal in writing was inspire humanity to avoid repeating the atrocities she had witness but her method was not to produce work that was prescriptive to akin to an op-ed but to chronicle the atrocities as accurately as possible and thus leave the reader with no option but to reach the conclusion she desired. Habila has produced a similar result with OoW. Unlike the holocaust, however, his own native tragedy continues to this day.