Women’s commitment to the common struggle in the Niger Delta region: A review of May Ifeoma Nwoye’s Oil Cemetery

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Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy writes that in Oil Cemetery, May Nwoye Ifeoma captured the exploitative acts of oil companies in Niger Delta and the role of women towards liberating the region from the shackles of poverty and environmental degradation

After travelling the dangerous waters of the Niger Delta region with Helon Habila’s Oil on Water, I found it difficult to vacate the area and simply went visiting May Nwoye Ifeoma’s Oil Cemetery. Like Oliver Twist, I simply had to get more!

Oil Cemetery, like Helon Habila’s Oil on Water, is a story of exploitation, poverty, struggle, and protest, it is a portrayal of the environmental pollution and perpetual degradation that has come to be the lot of the Niger Delta populace and region as a result of oil exploration; although Nwoye’s account is not as vivid and pictorial as that of Helon Habila. However, May Ifeoma Nwoye tells her story by espousing the contributions of the Niger Delta women to the common struggle.

The people of Ubolu live a peaceful and communal existence for many generations; they are great farmers and fishermen who retained their conservative life despite the modernity around them. But, do we not say that if there is one thing that is constant in life, it is change? Oil has been discovered on their land, pipelines now run through their lands and their once conservative and peaceful existence will soon be shaken to its very roots! The greed for oil creeps closer and closer to them and like it gulped up other places before it, it becomes the anathema of the Ubolu people.

Suddenly, it was discovered that farmlands were refusing to yield produce, fishes were becoming scarce in the rivers, and their harvest festival (the most important festival in Ubolu) formerly celebrated with pomp and fecundity is now celebrated with sadness and tears as a result of poor harvest. The times were fast changing and things were no more the way they used to be. What could be the source of these recent developments? The people of Ubolu wondered. Sacrifices were prepared to appease the gods yet there was no change till Izundu, father to the protagonist (Rita) and a retrenched oil worker who retired to farming in the village, explained that there is a connection between the oil exploration in the community and the poor harvest as well as the dearth of fishes. Izundu also explained that he knew that the oil companies usually compensated those affected by their activities and wondered who could have been collecting their own share of the benefits.

With an unyielding soil and an almost fishless river came jobless and restive youths who soon began trying their hands at vandalising pipelines and stealing oil so they can sell and get money. Their clumsy manner of going about this illegal act soon leads to an explosion with many casualties. The oil company’s response to this issue is to send in police patrol teams to safeguard the pipelines and this does not go down well with the Ubolu people who are the conservative kind and are wary of foreign intrusion.

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There soon came a clash between the youths and the police team over issue of harassment and the police retaliated by coming under the cover of darkness to commit arson and releasing tear gas which kills all the children sleeping innocently on the bed when the attack happened. It was this situation that Rita, who is the daughter of Izundu but was brought up by Comrade Steve (the workers union chairman at Zebulon Oil Company), came to witness when she visited her village and saw the numerous graves close to the pipeline installation running through the village, a place which had now been designated “Oil Cemetery”.

The scene provoked Rita’s chagrin and she felt something needs to be done, that someone or some people should be held accountable for these numerous graves of youths and children! Inspired by the concern for others showed by her by now late unionist foster uncle, Comrade Steve Dada, she picks interest in her people’s plight and leads them to a human rights activist who connects her to the Freedom Bench – a group of lawyers cum human rights activist who take up the people’s cause and drag Zebulon Oil Company to court after paying a visit to the Ubolu community themselves.

Would the people of Ubolu, supported by the Freedom Bench, succeed in bringing the oil company to its kneels? Would their protest take other forms, or would the oil company spend more money towards shutting them down and use violent force on them? What would Rita and the many ordinary women role in the story be? And, would you still read the novel if I provide the answers to the above questions? Well, I do not know about that but what I do know and I am sure of is that the answers to the questions live within the pages of the novel and you can always find them out yourself.

The novel highlights the important roles played by the female gender in obtaining victory against the oil companies operating in Ubolu community for it is Rita, a young lady, who champions the cause of her people and it is the women who secure victory for the community by protesting naked and occupying the oil fields till their needs are assuaged. It is also an advice to the oil companies to engage more in social entrepreneurship rather than giving bribes and paying illegal compensations to impersonators who claim to represent the common interest of the people. Lastly, the novel compels us to view the sufferings of nature as well as the people of the Niger Delta region.

Now, let us talk about the novel proper.

Coming from Origami, I am a bit disappointed by the many typographical errors in the novel; the book wants another round of proper editing. I dare say that the sub-plot on the family and love life of Comrade Steve Dada has no direct bearing on the story yet the author spends too much time analysing that. The author did not do too well in characterisation and she also left many knots untied. For instance, we know that Jefferson (Managing Director of Zebulon Oil Company) hinted at an out of court settlement with the Ubolu people during the occasion of celebrating the social amenities cum infrastructures provided by the combined efforts of the oil companies but there are still some grey areas like: who were those responsible for the attack on Comrade Steve Dada and why do they want him dead? Who are the abductors and murderers of Mrs Brenda Jefferson and why murder her in such gruesome and brutal manner? All these made me feel like a dog which caught a whiff of scent and follows it faithfully only to discover itself in the middle of nowhere! Were I to give a Marxist interpretation to the story, there would appear the problem of a single hero rather than communal heroism, for Rita seems to be the star of the story, other characters are relegated so that that one star can shine bright.

One other aspect that confounds me about the story is that the author left both the federal and state governments out of the whole scenario, yet they share a great deal of the blame for what is happening in the Niger Delta region! Having studied the situation of the Niger Delta, I know there exist three principal actors which include: the government (both state and federal), the oil companies, and the people (who can be further classified into the elders, women, and youths). We must know that the oil companies cannot operate without the endorsement and support of the government, why the writer should point an accusing finger at the oil companies only is a thing I am still trying to comprehend. Why not also join the government in the suit? Why force the oil companies to provide basic amenities and infrastructures lacked by the people when such is basically the function of government? After all, these companies pay royalties to the government for drilling oil from the land? Or is the writer afraid of outlining the irresponsive acts, failure, and insensitiveness of the government towards the plight of the people? And when the government finally appears in the novel, the circumstance under which the government’s participation in the story is represented is most annoying! This is towards the end of the story when the Ubolu people are celebrating the projects executed by the oil companies; forced by a marching protest of naked old dames. The governor of the state suddenly appears out of nowhere! The painful part for me is that the author went on to eulogise the governor as he arrived with his noisy motorcade! Here is what she wrote:

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The Ubolu community’s joy knew no bounds as they waited for the governor to make his FIRST appearance, ever, in their humble village. By eleven forty-five, the tension of waiting increased, and a number of people were becoming agitated. Dances slowed down; even the singers grew weary.

But just as the people’s patience reached the breaking point, the sound of siren and outrider bikes began to echo in everyone’s ears. A high-pitched voice enunciated the arrival of the great man so many people awaited, and the words “The governor is here!” pierced the atmosphere.

As the governor’s entourage drew nearer, the rumbling voices grew in volume, and choruses emerged from all corners: “Our great governor, the man of the people, now comes among us!” The queue of cars came to a stop. The governor majestically emerged from his bulletproof SUV, conscious of the thousands of eyes focused on him. Body guards and security agents crowded about him, straightening and fussing. THIS RITUAL, WHICH SEEMS TO BE THE EXCLUSIVE RESERVE OF AFRICAN LEADERS, WAS EXECUTED WITH A PRECISE BALANCE OF PROFOUND REVERENCE AND COURTLY FINESSE, while the volume of the chanting crowd increased.

Too many people were eager to show him to his reserved seat. Some edged themselves into the governor’s presence in attempt to be visible. The governor waved to the left and right, acknowledging cheers from the crowd as he moved along. Once again, the master of ceremonies raised his voice above the pandemonium to plead and cajole the audience into allowing him to introduce the governor’s personality and outline his MANY ACHIEVEMENTS. Each sentence received its own share of applause. He also introduced the traditional rulers, the chairmen of local government, prominent local leaders and special guests. [Emphasis mine] (238-9)

The writer absolved the government of blame in her story first by not joining them in the suit against the oil companies and not outlining their roles in it. Secondly, her diction as shown in the extract above shows that she is quite carried away and elated (as the master of ceremonies and the populace) by the arrant display of wealth and opulence by the governor amidst glaring poverty and struggle for existence. If the people welcome the governor and other government officials after abandoning them for so long, the author need not join her voice with theirs! This is a governor which the writer failed to mention his reaction(s) when the Ubolu community experienced the double tragedy of the death of their youths as a result of oil explosion and the deaths of their children killed by unknown policemen who came to maim and destroy under the cover of darkness. Nowhere in the novel is it recorded in the novel that the governor sympathised with the Ubolu or even visited them to show solidarity, yet it is the same governor who suddenly appears FOR THE FIRST TIME in Ubolu’s community when the people celebrate their first successful attempt at making the oil companies respond to their plight. It is true what they say after all that success has many relations! It would have been even better if the writer had totally left the government out of the whole show rather than bring them in this way.

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Lastly, I think Helon Habila’s Oil on Water is a more realistic portrayal of the situation in the Niger Delta compared to May Ifeoma Nwoye’s Oil Cemetery. Oil Cemetery is a little bit idealistic in the portrayal of the actual scenario for it fails to mention the prominent issue of youth militancy which is clearly a result of the inattention of the government and oil companies towards the plight of the people, the frustration of civil protests and negotiations, and the many cases of violent suppression, oppression, brutalisation cum human rights violations by the armed forces. The youths faced with the huge poverty and the fact that any attempt to protest is met by violence on the part of the government felt the need to protect themselves and force the government to listen to them and this marks the birth of militancy. The closest May Nwoye Ifeoma gets to the issue of militancy is probably the abduction of Mrs Brenda Jefferson and her death. Maybe she did not want to mention this because she wanted to end her novel with a victory won by the women in the society, especially the dames who organized an unplanned protest and forced the oil companies into submission. I also noticed that May Nwoye Ifeoma has deep faith in seeking redress against all manner of injustice using the means provided by the law (a lawsuit or civil protests); even though in reality these means were employed severally and did not bring about the much needed succour for the Niger Delta populace. This is why I think she is being idealistic.

Nonetheless, May Nwoye Ifeoma has contributed to the dialogues on the issue of environmental pollution and degradation that has become the lot of the Niger Delta region. She captures the exploitative acts of the oil companies as well as the people’s reaction to these acts. Most importantly, she has given importance to the role of the Niger Delta women in the common struggle towards the liberation of their people from the shackles of poverty and rescuing their environment from the pollution and degradation that has come to be established due to the activities of the oil companies. Oil Cemetery is one novel beckoning to be read.

We should meet again to discuss another book but till then, au revoir!

© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2018

Read Eazy’s reviews on Memorila every Saturdays!

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Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy holds a degree in English language and literary studies. He is a short story writer, copy editor, book reviewer, literary critic, poet, and essayist. He teaches English as a Foreign Language in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

9 thoughts on “Women’s commitment to the common struggle in the Niger Delta region: A review of May Ifeoma Nwoye’s Oil Cemetery

  • May 19, 2018 at 4:19 pm
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    This article is an appetizer to the novel. Would love to read it. Job well done Eazy.

    Reply
    • May 20, 2018 at 4:24 am
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      Thanks Nkosiyazi for thumbs up. Your comment makes us to do more!!!

      Reply
  • May 20, 2018 at 6:42 pm
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    Enlightened as always. I just wondered about one thing though: Is the depiction of women’s contribution to the Niger Delta scenario somewhat factional or purely fictional?

    Reply
    • May 23, 2018 at 9:03 am
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      Thanks Rujeko for the comment. Your question will be forwarded to the author…

      Reply
    • May 23, 2018 at 1:52 pm
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      Thank you Rujeko for the question, women have always joined their voices with the men in protesting against exploitation and injustice. In fact, women (especially widows) have benefitted very little from the profit made from oil money yet they have borne its numerous disadvantages and health conditions even more than the men so it is understandable if their voice of protest is the loudest. But the path the author advocates in the story is not feasible as it is a path that has been tried and tried with little success (I mean the path of protest) until armed struggle brought the government to the negotiating table. Hence, the portrayal of women in the novel is more fictional than factional.

      Regards,
      Eazy.

      Reply
  • May 21, 2018 at 3:48 pm
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    a very pictorial review of the book , could not help but shudder at how the human condition can be reduced by poverty and exploitation.Through reading the review only i was able to ‘apparate’ and see myself in the struggle.I can not wait to get hold pf the book.

    Reply
  • March 12, 2019 at 3:15 pm
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    While I commend the author for attempting a thorough critique of the text under review, it behoves me to point out a few things which I find disturbing. I therefore crave your kind indulgence.

    FIRST, is the misplacement of priorities by the inclusion of Habila’s Oil on Water by way of comparison. The title makes no such connection.

    Then, I find it odd that since this topic looks at Women’s Commitment…, incidents of actions undertaken by the women and their significance should have been pointed out more clearly. What we have rather is a general plot summary, which does not exactly reveal much more than is contained in the book.

    Lastly, while we cannot deny the presence of typos or some structural inconsistencies in the texts, it is important to point out that the writer of this essay may have taken too much leverage on the patience of readers to deal with an issue (although very important) that he didn’t set out to.

    Reply
    • April 11, 2019 at 6:26 pm
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      First, I am happy that you took time out to read the review. I feel happy reading a criticism of my review. Permit me to quickly address the issues you mentioned herein.

      On the issue of connection, literature is highly connected. Both Habila and Nwoye’s novels are anchored on similar themes and settings so I do not think a cursory comparison is out of place. As a reviewer, I use one work to point out others in the same category.

      On the second issue, I think you are confusing a book review with a proper critical essay. The topic is but a pointer at what the writer think is the aim of the author in the novel.

      Lastly, if you think this way, I think the reviewer’s aim is achieved for what I set out to attain is to draw attention to the novel.

      Once again, thank you for reading.

      Regards

      Eazy

      Reply

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