Tag Archives: Slow Violence

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.


“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.

Slow Violence, Edward Said and Ken Saro-Wiwa

19 Mar

In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Nixon references Edward Said’s “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals” while discussing the role writers take in slow violence. Said’s view of writers is more broad and centered on the general sense of violence rather than slow violence associated with the environment. He describes two sides of writers: the select individuals that have control and power, and those “independent intellectuals who actually form an incipient community, physically separated from each other but connected variously to a great number of activist communities shunned by the main media but who have at their disposal other kinds of what Swift sarcastically called oratorical machines” (28). These two sides can be seen as the sides that Nixon represents of the oil companies and Ken Saro-Wiwa. The writer that Said focuses on is the second category that wishes to create awareness and movement. In the diverse range of violence, Said suggests that writers have three main roles to open up the eyes of those who are unaware; I will summarize his points briefly: 1.) presenting true (rather than distorted) perspectives on history 2.) building up areas of peace and coexistence 3.) stressing the need for human rights and redistribution of power and resources (34-5). In these goals Nixon seems to use Saro-Wiwa to indirectly provide a face to Said’s basic structure for writers. However, the two authors seem to emphasize different areas in the value of speed in today’s world. For Nixon, the negative aspects of speed include the audience’s desire of the spectacle that slow violence does not contain and therefore is harder to justify. Furthermore, technology has shortened stories to get them out faster, which also has a negative effect on producing stories on slow violence rather than something that is more exciting and eventful. The negative elements that Said points out are, not knowing one’s audience because the internet creates a wider range of readers, and the inability to control what is recirculated. However, the acceleration of communication enables freedom for writers to be heard all over the world, and this expansion of viewers is what Nixon also stresses that writers of slow violence need to take advantage of. For both general forms of violence and slow violence, “The intellectual can be perhaps a kind of countermemory, putting forth its own counter discourse that will not allow conscience to look away or fall asleep” (Said 35).

In Ken Saro-Wiwa’s A Month and a Day, the diary-like entries give a more real and personal face to the points that Nixon makes on writing about this type of violence. At one point, Saro-Wiwa explains why he continued to write a weekly column in the Sunday Times, he says, “The newspaper column widened my reading audience and spread my ideas to a considerable extent. Week after week, I made sure that the name Ogoni appeared before the eyes of readers. It was a television technique, designed to leave the name indelibly in their minds” (45). The specific moments that this writer explains his techniques, shows his moves and call for others to move with him in seeing slow violence as a major threat. The book leaves us on a rather negative note in his son’s letter to his father ten years after Saro-Wiwa’s death. His son writes, “Ten years have passed and, despite all the public outrage and grief, it appears that the world hasn’t learned anything from your death: we still live in a world where corporations rank profits well above their value to people and the planet” (215). Yet, even with this negativity, his son is still hopeful that more people will write and the world will one day see slow violence as it truly is.