In what can easily be seen as a parable about the corruption surrounding Nigeria’s oil wealth, Adagha uses pathetic fallacy and foreshadowing to make the disastrous ending of his story inevitable. The four separate sections of the structure also pace this development clearly.
Irony and Anticipation
The first section presents Namidi’s discovery of the leaking petrol pipe and his decision to exploit it. Adagha ironically emphasises life at the beginning of the story to set up a contrast with the ending. The plantation is ‘an emblem of life’ and the description includes such details as the ‘high-pitched whistle of birds’, the ‘early morning dew’, ‘the endless reams of foliage’ and ‘trees that glistened with sap’. However, Adagha even at this early stage includes threatening notes: the sun is ‘blocked away’ and Namidi’s face is ‘a picture of dark brooding’. He also creates tension by building up the anticipation before the discovery of the petrol by including the ‘small moment of prickling silence’, the ‘state of waiting’, then Namidi ‘listening, watching and sniffing’. In this way, the reader shares Namidi’s curiosity and sense of surprise at his discovery.
The Effects of Poverty
It may be easy to condemn Namidi for his greed in his determination to keep the discovery to himself and benefit from it, but Adagha balances this with a clear presentation of his poverty – the village is ‘no more than a clearing in the jungle’ and the huts are built on a ‘paltry piece of land’. Namidi feels a failure because he cannot afford the ‘expensive’ fees for his children to attend the mission school. It is not surprising that he feels ‘the indescribable weariness and dreariness’ of his life. His wife suffers too: Mama Efe is described as ‘a thin, shrivelled woman’. Adagha makes clear that Namidi has been reduced to desperation by the circumstances of his life. While men came to lay oil pipes through the village ‘many years ago’, the wealth accrued through the discovery of oil has never reached the village.
Adagha provides much of the foreshadowing through the prophetic questions and imagination of Mama Efe. It is she who immediately queries, ‘What if a fire starts, eh?’ She is presented as much more alert than her husband. While Namidi ‘tossed’ away the ‘brief pang of foreboding’ when he notices ‘the doubt and anxiety’ which ‘clouded her face’, Mama Efe does not vocalise the ideas in her head, which are graphic. She imagines ‘a flash of blurred images writhing inside a great flame’. Adagha uses death-related lexis throughout this section of the story, with adjectives like ‘funereal’ and ‘ghoulish’, while the owl, ominously flying during the day, ‘sounded a doleful note’.
The second part of the story is brief and functional, but contributes to the sense of inevitability. Namidi cannot keep his find a secret as soon as he encounters Jackson, whose eyes are ‘darting about, searching for clues.’ As he runs off ‘towards the village’ it is clear that Namidi and his family will have competition for the oil.
The Disastrous Battle for Oil
The climactic disaster occupies the third section of the story, which is accentuated by the contrast Adagha creates between the adults and the children. Ochuko has already been presented as an emblem of innocence and irrepressible energy. Adagha uses the verbs ‘bouncing’, ‘humping and jumping’ for his movement and his voice is ‘breathless’. This characterisation continues in the third section as Ochuko and his friend Onome are ‘laughing and swinging’ in play; they ‘giggled with glee’, the alliteration emphasising their carefree happiness. The contrast with the adults is clear. They ‘swarmed’, a verb normally used for insects, they ‘jostled and fought’, their buckets ‘clashed and flashed’. The assonance and vigour of the verbs make the petrol collection into a battlefield. Meanwhile, with deft use of pathetic fallacy, the sun is ‘gliding overhead like a circle of fire.’ The desperate greed of the adults is also communicated by the phrase ‘ceaseless mania’ and the verbs, which ironically suggest nutritional properties for the oil – it is ‘swallowed’, there is ‘sucking’, and Adagha uses the metaphor of ‘the avid thirst of animals long deprived of nurturing milk.’ The whiteness of milk accentuates the irony of the metaphor; the oil is far from ‘nurturing’; it is ‘foreign to its depths’.
Adagha portrays the explosion as a hell-like vision, appropriately beginning with the fall of innocence as Onome drops from the tree at the ‘flash of light’ and ‘deafening explosion’. Apocalyptic references to fire continue, with a ‘blanket of yellow light’, ‘a gut-wrenching choir of yelling’, people who ‘broke out frenziedly from the smoky interior’. This line of imagery reaches its climax with Ochuko’s perception of ‘the demons’ which are ‘screaming and gathering behind him in a swift veil of smoke and blackness.’
Fading Light and Hope
The final part creates a bleak coda to the story. After the imagery of fire, this part is dominated by ‘darkness’ and ‘silence’ as Ochuko seeks sanctuary beneath his mother’s bed. Again Adagha uses poignant irony, with the lamp ‘gallantly’ still lit – the lamp ‘which his mother always kept alive’, though it is clear his mother herself is no longer alive. Ochuko, though he has survived, lies like a corpse with animals crawling over him. The ‘coming dawn’ offers no relief, an ironic reversal of the customary optimism of references to sunrise.
Oil was first discovered in Nigeria in 1956 and the country holds just over 2% of the world’s reserves. In the approximate half century between that discovery and the writing of this story, oil had become and remains a major contributor to the country’s economy. However, it has also been a source of conflict. The economic benefits have not been shared across the country, with some amassing huge wealth while much of the population lives in poverty. This background is clearly relevant to Adagha’s story, which focuses on rural Nigerians who have enjoyed no share in the country’s oil wealth. It is therefore no surprise when Namidi’s first response to the find is to ask ‘of what benefit would this be to him?’ That is the same individualism and lack of community concern which has characterised the country’s oil industry – as he also recognises, ‘no man lacked the capacity for greed and treachery.’ But Namidi is a character without position or connections; when he and his fellow villagers interfere in the system which has excluded them, the result is disaster.
Narrative methods to consider:
- Focalised third person narration
- Change of central character