The following is an excerpt from Oil on Water: A Novel. Listen to our interview with author Helon Habila here.
I am walking down a well-lit path, with incidents neatly labeled and dated, but when I reach halfway memory lets go of my hand, and a fog rises and covers the faces and places, and I am left clawing about in the dark, lost, and I have to make up the obscured moments as I go along, make up the faces and places, even the emotions. Sometimes, to keep on course, I have to return to more recognizable landmarks, and then, with this safety net under me, I can leap onto less certain terrain.
So, yes, there was an accident, a fire. An explosion in the barn with the oil drums. The fire flew on the wind from house to house, and in a few minutes half the town was ablaze. Many people died, including John’s father. They say he died trying to save my sister, Boma, and if it wasn’t for him, she’d have died. My father was imprisoned. He doesn’t smoke anymore since that day. My mother returned to her parents’ village, where she still lives. And as my sister burned, and my family disintegrated, I was in Lagos listening to lectures, eating dinner in Chinese restaurants, and I didn’t hear about the tragedy till I returned home with my journalism certificate.
No, it was not a pipeline accident, as I told the white man, as I wrote in my published piece. But it might easily have been one, as in countless other villages. My father is still in prison, Boma and I still go to visit him, and each time he sees her face he turns away and his hands shake, and recently she has stopped going. My mother comes from the village once every month to see him. Occasionally I go with her, and I watch them look at each other, and sometimes they have a lot to talk about, and sometimes they just stare at each other in silence. The last time I went with her was over a month ago. I sit away from them, but I can hear what they are saying: She tells him about her life in the village, the farm, how the harvest this year has been good. He listens, nodding his head, and all the time he stares at her, trying to catch her eye, but she avoids his eyes as she speaks. And she calls to me, Rufus, come here. Why do you stand so far away by the window? The guard pretends to be reading his paper but he watches us all the time. I remember that the room smelled of the roasted peanuts my mother brought for my father. I remember that the guard had a bald spot. My mother looked thinner, darker.
The fog lifts as suddenly as it descended, and the sun shines brightly again, and once more I am on sure ground, but I know the fog can return again, get into memory’s eyes, blinding it momentarily.
After a while the sky and the water and the dense foliage on the riverbanks all looked the same: blue and green and blue-green misty. The whole landscape was now a mere trick of light, vaporous and shape-shifting, appearing and disappearing behind the fog. It was early morning, but already we had been in the boat for over two hours, leaving the sea and heading up a tributary, going west. Irikefe Island, also known as Half-Moon Island because of its distinct crescent-shaped coastline, had long since disappeared, swallowed by the distance and the darkness cast by the mist that rose like smoke from the riverbanks. Midriver the water was clear and mobile, but toward the banks it turned brackish and still, trapped by mangroves in whose branches the mist hung in clumps like cotton balls. Ahead of us the mist arched clear over the water like a bridge. Sometimes, entering an especially narrow channel in the river, our light wooden canoe would be so enveloped in the dense gray stuff that we couldn’t see each other as we glided silently over the water. I was wet and cold and hungry, and not for the first time I asked myself if going in search of the kidnapped British woman with Zaq was wise after all. This was our ninth day on her trail. The other journalists had long since returned to Port Harcourt, and I was sure the whole adventure — or rather misadventure — was now to them nothing but a memory, anecdotal currency to trade for a drink on a lazy day in the press clubroom.
Zaq dismissed them with a wave of his hand. That is the difference between great reporters and average ones.
He was no doubt one of the best this country had ever produced, and because of that I respected his opinion, but right then I’d have settled for food, dry clothes and shelter over greatness, or opinion, for that matter.
— Tell me, Rufus, my friend, what do we seek?
It wasn’t a question, but I answered anyway.
— The woman, and the Professor.
— I said “what,” not “whom.” Forget the woman and her kidnappers for a moment. What we really seek is not them but a greater meaning. Remember, the story is not the final goal.
— Then what is?
— The meaning of the story, and only a lucky few ever discover that. But I think you know that instinctively, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Everything will turn out fine, you’ll see.
His shirt was wet under the arms and at the back. He was still fighting the sudden fever that had dogged him since we left Port Harcourt, and the more his health had deteriorated, the more he had taken to philosophizing over almost anything: a bat flying overhead, a dead fish on the oil-polluted water, a gathering of rain clouds in the clear sky. But I was glad his mind was still capable of philosophizing. The farther we ventured into the forest, the more I found myself turning to him with questions. I had no idea what he meant about the story and its meaning, but perhaps I would find out before this trip was done. Right now my only hope was that he would continue to hold on till we were back in Port Harcourt, on dry land. Ultimately, things didn’t turn out fine, as I hoped and as he promised, especially for him, but then maybe he was talking not about himself but about me. He might have felt that he had drifted past a point in his river that was beyond return.
In the boat was a bag of dried fruit and a plastic bottle full of water, all of which the old man said were from the priest, Naman. Zaq took out his last bottle of whiskey and, with a heavy sigh, opened it and sipped.
— Isn’t it a bit too early?
— Never too early. Take a sip, Rufus. It’ll keep you warm.
I pushed away the bottle, almost knocking it out of his weak grip.
— Can’t you wait till we’re a bit surer of where we are? We could be lost, you know . . .
— We’ll be fine. The old man here will take care of us.
The old man smiled his big, encouraging smile, nodding his gnomish head eagerly. Beside him his son was shrouded in the dense smoke produced by the boat’s outboard motor, his figure appearing and disappearing with the play of the wind on the mist. The boy looked no more than ten years old, but he might have been older, his growth stunted by poor diet. His hair was reddish and sparse, his arms were bony like his father’s. They were both dressed in the same shapeless and faded homespun shirts and trousers, their hands looked rough and callused from seawater, they smelled of fish and seemed as elemental as seaweed. They were wet from water spray coming off the sides of the boat. The boy saw me looking at him and returned my gaze without self-consciousness, his eyes guileless and full of curiosity, forcing me to turn away. We chugged along into the narrowing river, followed by the motor’s droning roar.
— Do you know where the militants are?
— No, sah. People say dem fit be near Abakiri.
It was all guesswork. The militants always concealed the locations of their camps, because their lives depended on that, and on the ability to pick up their tents and move with the first hint of trouble from the federal patrols that were in constant war with them. Whenever they invited the press to view hostages, or to give lengthy interviews about their reasons for fighting the government, they did so in a village or on a deserted island far from their camps. What was certain, though, was that they never strayed too far from the pipelines and oil rigs and refineries, which they constantly threatened to blow up, thereby ensuring for themselves a steady livelihood. If the old man was able to take us to an actual camp, and if we were able to come back safely, we would be among the very few reporters who had done so. My instinct told me to get down at the next village and make my way back to Port Harcourt; to forget the white woman, because the militants would free her, eventually; to forget the perfect story, because there was no such thing as a perfect story anyway, and I already had enough paragraphs to make my editor welcome me with open arms; to forget Irikefe Island, where we had been holed up for the past five days before the old man and his son came to get us; but, most importantly, to forget Zaq and his desperate, long-shot ambitions. Let life continue as it once did: simple, predictable, full of its own myriad concerns. But what journalist doesn’t hunger for the perfect story, and this one, as Zaq explained, and I totally agreed, was as close to it as any reporter could ever get. The very thought of turning back made me realize how barren, how diminished life would be after the excitement of the past few days, and as we went deeper and deeper upriver, and farther and farther away from the sea, I made no move to stop. I felt hope and doubt alternating in my chest. I felt a stirring of some hunger inside me, something I had never felt before, a conviction, almost, that I was meant to be here, on this boat, on this trail. It was like a breeze blowing through some long-forgotten section of my mind. I knew Zaq could see this stirring hope in my eyes; he could give it a name and describe how irresistible was its pull.
Far ahead, appearing suddenly out of the water, like a mirage, was a huge cliff with uneven steps cut into the rock face, leading up to a dense thicket of trees that marked the beginning of a village. We left the boat and climbed up the tricky stone steps, stopping often to catch our breath.
— Who lives here?
The old man shrugged. — Nobody.
— Where did the people go?
— Dem left because of too much fighting.
The village looked as if a deadly epidemic had swept through it. A square concrete platform dominated the village center like some sacrificial altar. Abandoned oil-drilling paraphernalia were strewn around the platform; some appeared to be sprouting out of widening cracks in the concrete, alongside thick clumps of grass. High up in the rusty rigging wasps flew in and out of their nests. A weather-beaten signboard near the platform said OIL WELL NO. 2. 1999. 15,000 METERS. The houses began not too far away from the derelict platform. We went from one squat brick structure to the next, from compound to compound, but they were all empty, with wide-open windows askew on broken hinges, while overhead the roofs had big holes through which strong sunlight fell. Behind one of the houses we found a chicken pen with about ten chickens inside, all dead and decomposing, the maggots trafficking beneath the feathers. We covered our noses and moved on to the next compound, but it wasn’t much different: cooking pots stood open and empty on cold hearths; next to them stood water pots filled with water on whose surface mosquito larvae thickly flourished. It took less than an hour to traverse the little village, going from one deserted household to the next, taking pictures, hoping to meet perhaps one accidental straggler, one survivor, one voice to interview.
We left. Zaq looked as if he were about to throw up, his face was sweaty and he raised the bottle to his lips many times before the alertness returned to his eyes. We often stopped to rest, and the river grew narrower each time we set out again. Soon we were in a dense mangrove swamp; the water underneath us had turned foul and sulfurous; insects rose from the surface in swarms to settle in a mobile cloud above us, biting our arms and faces and ears. The boy and the old man appeared to be oblivious to the insects; they kept their eyes narrowed, focused on burrowing the boat through the gnarled, hanging roots that grew out of the water like proboscises gasping for air. The atmosphere grew heavy with the suspended stench of dead matter. We followed a bend in the river and in front of us we saw dead birds draped over tree branches, their outstretched wings black and slick with oil; dead fish bobbed white-bellied between tree roots.
The next village was almost a replica of the last: the same empty squat dwellings, the same ripe and flagrant stench, the barrenness, the oil slick and the same indefinable sadness in the air, as if a community of ghosts were suspended above the punctured zinc roofs, unwilling to depart, yet powerless to return. In the village center we found the communal well. Eager for a drink, I bent under the wet, mossy pivotal beam and peered into the well’s blackness, but a rank smell wafted from its hot depths and slapped my face; I reeled away, my head aching from the encounter. Something organic, perhaps human, lay dead and decomposing down there, its stench mixed with that unmistakable smell of oil. At the other end of the village a little river trickled toward the big river where we had left our boat. The patch of grass growing by the water was suffocated by a film of oil, each blade covered with blotches like the liver spots on a smoker’s hands.
We felt drained just standing there, and so we left. We pushed the boat into deeper water and scrambled in. By now Zaq seemed to have lost even the energy — and the will — to lift the bottle to his mouth; it lay neglected by his feet, the piss-colored liquid in it sloshing back and forth with the movement of the boat. He sat with his hands spread wide on either side of his seat, holding on for dear life, and with each motion of the boat I waited for the vomit to come spewing out of his mouth, but somehow he kept it down.
— Do you want to stop at the next village?
— No, no more villages.
I felt tired and listless, and I wondered when the old man would stop and dig in his heels and demand to go back, but he said nothing, just kept going forward, deeper and deeper. In some places the river was so shallow and the swamp so thick we had to kill the motor and push the boat through, ignoring the cold dirty water that seeped into our shoes and shirts and trousers, and the foul smell that clung to our hair, and the itch on our grime-smeared faces. When we came once more to open water, the old man turned the head of the boat and picked up speed. I did not ask where he was going, I only hoped that it was close by and inhabited.
— I get friend for next village. Na good man. We go stop rest small, maybe we fit sleep there tonight. Na good man.
— How far is it from here?
— Not too far, but e far small.
We were as soundless as a ghost ship, the roar of our motor muffled by the saturated air. Over the black, expressionless water there were no birds or fish or other water creatures — we were alone. When we arrived, a group of urchins welcomed us with shouts and curious stares. We left the boy in charge of the boat and headed for the rust-red roofs that formed this tiny riverside village. After a few minutes the boy got out of the boat and joined the other boys, who were now kicking an old and patchy leather ball in the sand. The old man led us down an open street that cut the village in two. On either side were similar boxlike houses looking down on the central street with something like a sneer. The houses seemed to belong more to the trees and forest behind them than they did to a domestic human settlement. Women and children stared out at us inquisitively, but they quickly closed their doors or turned to some task when we waved or called out to them. Now we were in front of a cluster of open sheds and huts and stalls separated from one another by narrow passages. Inside the sheds and huts and sometimes out in the passages, all sorts of consumer goods were displayed — from bath soaps and detergents to tins of sardines nestling next to tins of milk and packs of biscuits; there were crates of Coca-Cola and Fanta on shelves and under tables; there were secondhand clothes, radio batteries, plastic toys and even roofing nails in broken packs. Loud-voiced women with grimy aprons around their wide waists stood in the middle of the sheds, scooping garri from iron basins with measuring bowls and pouring it into plastic bags held by customers. This part of the village was so different from the one we had just passed that I wondered if we were still in the same village. The women called out to us as we passed, pointing to their wares to tempt us. The last shed in the cluster was a blacksmith’s.
— Na my friend Karibi shop be dis.
The old man went inside. Four men stood in a semicircle in a corner of the shed, talking in low voices. In the center, squatting before a blazing hearth stocked with metal, was a young man who looked up at us briefly before returning to his chore. The men stopped talking and one of them shook hands with the old man; the others nodded at him, then turned to look at us, their faces solemn. The old man talked for a while with the man while the others listened and interjected once in a while, their faces and gestures expressing deep perplexity, then he rejoined us, looking troubled.
— Is that your friend?
— Yes. Him say we must go. We no fit stay.
— But we just got here. Is something wrong?
— Yes. Dem hear say soja de come here today. Dem de come find am.
— Find him for what?
The old man shrugged and turned to look at the men in the shed. — Dem say he de help de militants.
— So why isn’t he hiding?
— He say he de innocent so he no go run anywhere. Karibi na important man for dis village. Very proud man.
We stood there, unsure what to do. I looked at Zaq. Clearly a newsworthy event was about to unfold and, rather than leaving, shouldn’t I be getting my camera ready, and perhaps interviewing the man for some background? But before that thought could transform into action things began to happen. There was a loud noise as of stampeding feet, dust rose and covered the tight passages and the stalls and sheds, people rushed down the passages, knocking down tables and entire sheds as they went. Then a single gunshot rang out. For a moment everyone froze. As I turned to ask the old man what was going on, a terrified market woman suddenly appeared in front of me, her eyes blinded by fear. The next minute I was flat on my back and her considerable mass was pinning me to the dusty ground, then she was up on her feet and away, agile, almost airborne. Long afterward I remembered her marketplace smell and her unseeing eyes above mine, and the moaning, terrified sound coming continuously from her mouth, a sound she was unaware she was making.
— They are here! The soldiers are here!
They came out of the sheds and houses and passages, wielding whips and guns, occasionally firing into the air to create more chaos. A man ran out of a hut and came face-to-face with a soldier; he raised his hands high in surrender as, in a single motion, the soldier reversed his rifle and swung the butt at the man’s head. The man fell back into the doorway and the soldier moved on to another target. I was saved from a broken jaw or a cracked skull because I was still on the ground trying to regain my wind. Karibi and his friends, now joined by his son, stood motionless, shoulder to shoulder, watching the pandemonium unfolding toward them — like a wave that had started from far away in the sea and was now unstoppably headed at them on the shore, gaining strength and fury as it came. Over ten soldiers surrounded the smithy, facing the silent, defiant men. One of the soldiers, a sergeant, stepped into the shed and pointed his rifle at Karibi.
— You, come with us.
His men rushed forward and grabbed Karibi, who didn’t struggle or say a word. The other men watched, glaring at the soldiers but saying nothing. They pinned his hands behind him and dragged him away through the wide village street. In the distance a woman wailed at the top of her voice, calling to God over and over: Tamuno! Tamuno!