Oil on Water tells the story of a young journalist, Rufus, who has been plunged into a dangerous environment in search of the perfect story. The novel is set in Port Harcourt (including the mangrove islands which surround the delta) and provides readers with a view on the issues in the Niger Delta.
Rufus, Zaq (a washed out, veteran journalist) and a few others are on a journey into the depths of the swamps to discover what happened to the kidnapped (and obviously white) wife of a British oil company expatriate. A relatively simple journey turns into something more complicated and arduous upon Zaq’s refusal to return with the other journalists. Rufus then decides to join him and has to face travails ranging from mosquito bites (think heavy duty mangrove mosquitoes) to gun-totting militants. We even have the crazed JTF commander who douses his captives daily with petrol as his soldiers await the day he flicks a match at them.
We are also faced with the decision of whose story is sadder between Zaq and Salomon (the driver of the kidnapped white woman). The book throws light on the consequences of poorly thought out decisions made based on emotion. In all of this, we come to the simple realization that the people of the Niger-Delta i.e. those that inhabit the islands, the people that simply want to fish are caught up in a battle between selfish politicians, nonchalant oil companies, self-righteous, dangerous “freedom-fighting” militants and violent military forces. These island inhabitants suffer the most casualties (human and economic) in the battle for supremacy amongst these powers.
Helon Habila’s writing is almost like poetry. He barely uses any quotation marks in the novel and yet one follows any conversations held by characters. These conversations flow seamlessly into the main writing of the book. His description immerses you into a world you can almost see,