Niger Delta Literature And Tiny Sunbird
12 Aug 2012
If the Niger Delta is oil and oil is Nigeria why then has the region remained on the outer limits of Nigeria’s consciousness? If one were to make the statement, “Nigeria is a violent country” we would be stepping on dangerous ground. So I will turn it round. For most of its 50 years of independence Nigeria has been a militarised state. For most of that time the Nigerian state along with its international allies, the multinational oil companies — has been at war with the people of the Niger Delta. Hardly anyone noticed. Yes there was a brief momentary interlude during the month of November 1995 when Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Eight were shamefully executed and the people raised their eyebrows. That is until the mid 2000s when the militant movement began to emerge. Even then it was only to complain about these armed men who kidnapped foreign oil workers, blew up oil platforms and generally disrupted oil production. But then many of the militants grew rich from kidnapping and oil bunkering which is what we in the Niger Delta claimed was “resource control” — “our share”, a kind of tax on oil for the people.
But the monies rarely went to the people. Some militants became super rich, others became gangsters and cultists running protection rackets and terrorizing their own communities and it was women and children who suffered the most. The swamps were swamped with JTF. Boy children became boy soldiers. Girl children became girl prostitutes. The awfulness got worse. Thousands died over a 20 year period. No one ever kept count of what had become an invisible people. Women were raped, beaten and killed. Young men were beaten and killed. Children abused in horrific ways. Nothing changed for the better. It just got worse and worse as a generation of young people were turned into criminals created from a militarised Niger Delta - a time bomb ready to go off at any moment.
If literature represents a nation’s consciousness, that is, an awakening, then the Niger Delta has finally begun to seep into the minds of Nigerians: Ayo Akinfe’s “Fueling the Delta Fires”, Helon Habila’s “Oil on Water”, the yet unpublished graphic novel, “Light Sweet Crude”, a collaboration between Kenneth Coker and Chris Feliciano Arnold; and Christie Watson’s, “Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away”.
Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away is many stories which dance around one central story. Rather like an English maypole where dancers perform circle dances whilst they move in a circle. A little complicated with occasional dizzying junctures which destabilize the center. At the center is the narrator, 12-year old Blessing. Around her is her family: parents, sibling and grandparents; and outside them, the people who live, work and struggle in the Niger Delta.
My first thoughts were, what is an English woman doing writing a story of the Niger Delta through the voice of a 12-year old child? My first task in reading the book was then to clear my mind of any lurking prejudices and doubts I might be carrying. It did not take long before I began to ease myself into the story. The plot is straight forward and in retrospect purposeful.
To return to the valid question of authorship and entitlement. The answer lies in the statement “the proof of the pudding is in its taste”. Behind the taste is a cook and if she or he has taken care and attention in the preparation and presentation the results will be a delicious experience.
Christie Watson, who is a professional nurse, has done exactly that and more. She combines her intricate knowledge of nursing and midwifery with extensive research into the politics, history, cultural practices and traditions of the Niger Delta. The result, Watson manages to pack in a holistic Niger Delta experience — witchcraft, mixed faith families, inter ethnic tensions, pipeline fires, gas flaring pollution, prostitution, child soldiers, militants and cults, poverty, unemployment of indigenous workers, corrupt soldiers, rape and destruction of property, kidnapping of foreign oil workers and most interesting the practice of traditional midwifery by women in the communities.
Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away has at its core, a series of situations that lead us through the chaotic and everyday violence of life in the Niger Delta. Watson uses the voice of 12-year old Blessing to narrate the story. She is an awakening very smart, sometimes unbelievably so, child who carries the weight of the family on her shoulders particularly her older, but sickly asthmatic brother, Ezikiel. Blessing is pivotal to the story as she is at once the family mediator who tries her best to present everyone in good light despite the evidence of their contradictions. Blessing also acts as the conscience of both Nigeria and of her family. Even when they fail woefully she is prepared to seek out explanations and ultimately to forgive.
The novel begins in Lagos where the family of four lives a middle class lifestyle. Very soon things begin to fall apart — a not accidental phrase used by Watson and possibly drawn from Chinua Achebe’s infamous novel — when the father becomes involved in an extra marital affair which leads to domestic violence. Finally he leaves to live with the ‘other’ woman. Left destitute, mother and children have no choice but to move to the mother’s home village in Delta State. Here we meet the grandparents and life changes dramatically from one of relative comfort to one where life is unpredictable and with all the perils of living in the region. The children are shocked by the lack of basic amenities such as electricity and water, the poverty of their grandparents and the village where toilets are perilous pits in the ground teaming with a soup of vile creatures.
Her once available mother is now gone all day and sometimes late into the night in her new job as a bar waitress at the local oil company enclave. Here she meets and begins an affair with an English oil worker, Dan. Their interracial affair is a sight of tension for the whole family especially when they realise they are all financially dependent on him. Ezikiel’s asthma becomes life threatening as money for medication is scarce and to make matters worse, Alhaji the grandfather, believes he can cure the boy of his allergies with his concoctions of marmite and coloured pills. Initially Blessing is aloof and judgmental until her grandmother, a traditional midwife, takes Blessing on as an apprentice.
Watson takes her time to set the scene and introduce the characters. There is nothing hurried about the characters or the narrative, on the contrary at times both seem somewhat labourious in detail. There are moments of intensity such as one particular child-birth in which the husband declares his wife to be a witch and Blessing and her grandmother to be the devil. But there are also moments of incredulity. Whilst the narratives are familiar ones, there is a disconnect between the ages of the children and the words they speak. For example when 14-year old Ezikiel attacks his mother’s white boyfriend, Dan, who has just attempted to give him a bar of chocolate.
“You people come here” Ezikiel slammed his fist on the tabletop, making us all jumpy — “and take our women and our money” — he looked at Mama — “and our jobs”. He looked at Alhaji. Nobody moved. “You pay people to kill us, and you rape our land, then our women! And you give me a chocolate bar?”
Later in the story Ezikiel becomes hospitalised but is prevented from leaving because the bill hasn’t been paid. He moves closer to his dream of becoming a doctor when he is allowed by doctors to join them in their ward rounds and even to make a diagnosis. I find this along with the scene in which Ezikiel slaps his mother, hard to imagine.
Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away is a harsh but very real portrayal of the Niger Delta and the impact of the many violence on family life. There are few moments of laughter as everyone is worn down by just trying to survive. We witness the children’s transformation from dependent spoilt existence in a nuclear household to independent self-sufficient mature contributors within an extended family. Watson’s characters have all the vulnerabilities of the human condition but there is nothing to be pitied — there are no victims here. The men — Ezikiel, grandfather Alhaji and Dan are weakened by uncontrollable rage, an insistence on tradition or simply unable to cope with the rigours of living under the constant threat of violence and hostility. On the other hand, the women — Blessing, Mama, Grandma and even Celestine her grandfather’s young second wife who starts out as flighty and thoughtless, are all presented as strong independent survivors.