I had flown by helicopter on my first visit to the Niger Delta. My host, an oil industry executive whose large ocean-facing facility I was visiting, was concerned that if I made my way on my own, I’d be fleeced by the boat captains as neither my Swedish colleague nor I looked like we belonged to these parts.
The dense forest below looked stunning as we took off. It was an emerald swathe, but the green wasn’t the shining bright green of an equatorial country. It was a dull green, as if a grey layer hung between us and the trees below.
That layer was there because the landscape was dotted with well heads and flow stations of oil companies. The chimneys were aflame, like lit cigarettes scattered in a field, sending billowing smoke to the sky. Instead of a crisp blue, the sky looked a dull grey, and it was not yet 11am. The land itself was serrated by oil pipelines criss-crossing the area. The creeks revealed rainbow patterns that formed trails on water.
“That’s because of the leaking boats the local people use. They leak petrol, and they mix their petrol. It is very unsafe,” my host told me.
But those rainbows—in the creek, not the sky—looked brilliant. I remembered walking to my school at Kemp’s Corner in Mumbai years ago, seeing little pools of water reflecting the hues of a rainbow after the first burst of monsoon, and how much I enjoyed splashing that water, seeing the disturbed water form concentric circles before settling back, the rainbow back where it used to be. Here, too, we could see a boat move along the creek, belching smoke, separating the water, the oily rainbow recovering its original shape.
The oil plant looked like the innards of a skeletal, prehistoric animal. It was surrounded by water on all sides, an island of modernity, with occasional tiny fishing villages nearby.
On my next visit, I went to the villages, but this time as Africans would, in a boat. An American writer, working on a book about oil, was accompanying us; she told us stories about extreme poverty in the midst of plenty. This can’t go on, she said. Something’s got to give.
We met a well-fed village chief surrounded by unemployed men, desperate for jobs, pointing at the oil company so near and yet so far. They were well-educated, if reggae is education. They frequently quoted Bob Marley, saying a hungry man is an angry man. You didn’t have to be a Marxist to realize that this contrast—between the poverty and joblessness in the villages, and the prosperity the oilfield generated—was odd.
When we prepared to leave, the whole village turned out to see us—women wearing colourful bubus, carrying plantains for the chief, their children sleeping snugly and secure on their backs, tied tight, rocked gently by the rhythm of their mothers’ walk.
We boarded the boat. The cloud burst ominously. The driver, as the captains are called, told us to hold the edges of the boat tight. The sky looked deliciously dark, like the sky off the Indian west coast, but the rain was a different matter. Instead of falling on our heads, it lashed at us, hitting us horizontally. It felt like pinpricks at first, but as the boat sped up, the raindrops pierced us like little arrows. The boat shook; without any warning, the driver tossed a dark tarpaulin sheet over us, shrouding us as if we were contraband goods.
The sepulchral journey became scary, the rain hitting the sheets sounded like bullets. I could see nothing. The American writer sat close to me, holding my hand tight, her other hand holding the edge of the boat, and my left hand making sure that the sheet covering us did not fly away. The boat swayed as if we were on high seas. The pitch darkness made it scarier than the steepest roller-coaster ride at California’s Magic Mountain. I shut my eyes, even though I could see nothing.
And then, suddenly, the rain stopped. The temperature rose, we cast aside the sheet, and the boatman relaxed visibly. My Swedish colleague tried to make some conversation with the writer. We were all soaked and shivering.
Suddenly, the boat swerved, turning sharply to the left, taking a different route.
“What happened?” I asked the driver.
“Shh,” he said.
I could see a large tree lying horizontally in the creek we had avoided.
After some time he told us, and what he said was scarier than the ride, making some sense of what Wole Soyinka once described as “a palpable intimacy with fear” that he and his fellow Nigerians are used to.
“They were bunkering,” the boat driver said. The tree was like a roadblock, he added. “If we had gone there, they’d have shot us and kidnapped you.”
“They” were the local militia. “Bunkering” is a unique Nigerian term for stealing oil. There are many such groups in the Delta which steal oil from the pipeline, protecting their lucrative trade by buying sophisticated guns. Interrupt, and you are kidnapped if you are a foreigner worth a ransom—or killed, if you are local.
Only real jobs can stop this trade. Hungry men are angry men.
There are far better ways to earn a living there. Stop those flames darkening the sky—oil companies say they will stop burning that gas by 2009—and once the sky is blue again, the creeks could draw tourists looking for lagoons and beaches. The tilapia fish might taste nice, too. And the boat ride will become less dangerous, as if in Disneyland. In Soyinka’s land, one can dream.
(Write to Salil at email@example.com)