Oil on Water by Helon Habila defines what realist literature means. Reading it at this time, when Nigeria has been going through a lot especially in the area of security, the book is still speaking to the times we are in despite been written almost ten years ago. The book is about two journalists, Zaq (older) and Rufus (younger) who go into the creeks in Port Harcourt in Nigeria in search of the wife of a foreign oil worker who was kidnapped.
In this journey Zaq and Rufus undertake, we are exposed to the calamities and poverty that characterise the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. The author describes how horribly decayed the environment is and how polluted the waters have become with the constant gas flaring and oil exploration in the region.
“The land was so polluted that even the water in the wells turned red… The land needed to be cleansed of blood and pollution” (P.121).Oil on Water
What is tragic is that it is a classic case of what one ordered for and not what one got. The people wanted the good life. They thought that with the discovery of oil and the development of refineries, they would be delivered from their poverty. Alas, not only did oil prospecting lead to their poverty, it bred greed and violence with the rise of different militant groups, soldiers abusing their powers and causing fear in the hearts of villagers. For many, they had to move from the villages and seek refuge in the city. Zaq and Rufus witness all of these as they moved in search of Isabel.
However, Zaq is not just a journalist in search of a good story, he wants to speak on the humans of whom these stories are about. In spite of his sometimes crass behaviour and drinking problem, we can see that he is just a broken man. A man who opened his heart up to the love of a woman and was betrayed. Rufus, though being a rookie in the journalism profession, showed a great deal of maturity in dealing with Zaq who had taken to the bottle, dealing with his superiors in the office, militants and soldiers alike, and taking care of Zaq because of his declining health.
Helon Habila touches on other subjects like religion being the lubricant for the already ailing region. The shrine became a character on its own. A place for renewal, rebirth, and hope. It became a centre point in the story. Though, there was an attempt to destroy and demolish; it was rebuilt. It was the only thing that offered some form of hope to the people. Even Zaq found tranquillity there. Boma who had struggled all her life with her own scars saw that the shrine held the keys to her peace and remained.
The story is engaging, full of events that you will be fully immersed in. More so, it is also a story that calls the readers to see a desperate need in the Niger Delta. The need for accountability, security, and environmental preservation. A book I will recommend without a second thought to anyone seeking some good realist fiction. Well done, Habila!