Oil on Water follows two journalists by the name Rufus and Zaq as they pursue the kidnapped European wife of an oil executive into the badlands of the Niger Delta. But the story is not always the final goal, Zaq tells Rufus at the beginning of their Conradian journey upriver, and their quest for the truth soon turns into something more complex. Befittingly, the tale they are after is not what it seems. When Rufus, running for his life, eventually catches up with the kidnapped woman, he draws a shocking uncovering about her kidnapping. His long-expected scoop is less a jubilant unmasking of evil than the dumb realization that, in a land so addicted to oil, the truth is as unfathomable as the envenom delta waters. All these get refracted through Rufus' eyes (Habila, 2011). On his trail after Isabel, he bears and witnesses imprisonment, violence, murder, sickness, loss, and destruction. The narrative hovers between past and present, traversing her down in the delta as well as divagating into her respective histories. Habila's prose evokes the destruction of the oil-polluted wetlands. Isabel is the character used in the novel to ignite the militants and the faceless oil multinationals. Isabelle Floode who is kept hostage is the wife of a big shot oil executive, and thus apparently, a pawn in the battle between the rebels and the Nigerian armed forces, which is guarding the oil interests.
The role of Isabel is ambitiously tackling the conflict between the oil companies, the dwellers of the delta whose lands are overworked and destroyed, the military who police the region, the militants who are there to interrupt business as usual, and the media who are supposed to watch and record the accurately the truth. In this mood of victimization, vulnerability, violence and greed, the militia seek, like the authorities and oil companies, to make themselves wealthier. The army major patrolling the area is a sadistic thug. The desperate locals, who bear the worst conditions of any oil-producing society on Earth, fall back to illegal oil tapping as a way of survival. The husband of Isabel, who is also the voice of the all-powerful oil companies, seems to dwell on another planet, lamenting the fact that oil pipelines are vandalized every day, losing the company millions (Habila, 2011). Through Isabel, the author can capture the political, post-colonial, and racial content.
The quest to find Isabel Floode, lures journalist Rufus out of Port Harcourt into the fluent landscape of the Niger Delta, where beauty and subsistence have gotten duped to environmental epistles and the violent encounter between the armed forces and the militia. Rufus is the crystalline lens through which Habila exhibits the dreadful landscape of poisoned life and abandoned villages, and the despair of the people, ripped off their land, compressed between covetous forces (Habila, 2011). All this get exposed during the search for Isabel. Her role is to guide the reader through the landscape so that one witnesses the scenes of massacre, migration and strange worships in the setting. Finding Isabel is Rufus mission, and also a love interest for himself. His journey ends in unconvincing optimism. Isabel is the center of this story as she links all scenes.
Though Rufus starts out looking for the white woman, he ends up finding something more transformative and profound, and the reader is right there with him feeling the potent mix of humanity with the sharp edge of nervous anticipation of the truth. Rufus eventually finds the woman and learns her tale. Readers get curious whether Rufus has missed the real story. One militant asks him, "is that all you want from me, to tell you whether some foreign hostage is alive or not?" (Habila, 2011). Who is she in the context of the war that's going on out there, the hopes and ambitions being created and destroyed? Can't you see the larger picture? Rufus remains focussed on finding Isabel Floode, but through his first-person narrative of her character, readers also get a comprehensive view of the human endurance and environmental degradation behind the headlines. The abduction of Company employees has become the militia's most remunerative industry. When Isabel Floode vanishes, her value to the various factions shoots up, and a small war starts out as everybody attempts to lay their hands on her. However, her abduction isnt what it seems to be, and the trick has fatal effects. Isabel's kidnapping sets off the main narrative. The setting to this particular event as outlined by the novelist is that the militiamen make most of the abductions through their cohorts and then call for massive and usually humbly paid ransom money for bringing back the kidnapped individuals unhurt. They also use these crimes to invite journalists to interview them so that they can justify their actions. One discovers that Isabel is used as bait by the militia to get a ransom. Another militant group led by the Professor got wind of their movement, and at nightfall, they circled their boat blocking all avenues of sudden escape and demanding for the white woman (Habila, 2011).
In conclusion, the multifaceted problem of the Niger Delta for example degradation, pollution, militancy, kidnapping, oil theft, bunkering, etc. has far reaching effects on the growth and development of the region and indeed the nation (Habila, 2011). One learns all this through the interaction with Isabel from the perspective of Rufus. Isabels role is to lead us through this journey of mishaps to understand the decipher the deeper meaning of the novel.
Habila, H. (2011). Oil on water (1st ed., pp. 186-239). New York [u.a.]: Norton.
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