Philip Aghoghovwia on Nnimmo Bassey’s We thought it was oil but it was blood

Poetry and Activism as (New) Modes of Eco/Environmental Inflections in Nnimmo Bassey’s We thought it was oil but it was blood – Philip Aghoghovwia

In We thought it was oil but it was blood Nnimmo Bassey walks through a thin line between poetic commitment and socioenvironmental activism in bringing into the public sphere issues of sociocultural and environmental justice. The poetry collection carries the tone of subversion and defiance and the mood of anger provoked by a deep sense of denial, a collective deprivation of the people from access to the commonwealth which the oil brings. And the environment too, which suffers pollution as a result of mindless drilling of pipes into what he calls “mother earth”. Bassey creates a text that is at best poetic activism and at worst an environmental rights manifesto. His call for environmental justice at this conjuncture of on-going conversations on climate change indicts the oil extractive industry. The anthology, which Vanessa Baird describes as “dedicated to campaigning for environmental justice” (39), is a creative effort to capitalise on Bassey’s already established stature as an environmental rights activist. He poetically draws attention to corporate lawlessness and environmental crimes inflicted on local landscapes that bear fossil fuel for the oil extraction industry. His account of these spaces of environmental scrubland in the oil industry is concrete, for he has travelled throughout these parts to see first-hand how oil and other big businesses have destroyed local landscapes.

The South African climate justice activist Patrick Bond in his polemical account of climate crises, a treatise he aptly entitled Politics of Climate Justice, identifies emerging grassroots movements committed to the cause of climate justice within the doubtful international debates on Climate Change. In what he subtitles Paralysis Above, Movement Below, Bond brings to the fore a markedly ethical difference in two main approaches to combating the environmental challenges that confronts the planet. The first, paralysis above, which he ascribes to governments, non-governmental agencies and big corporations, Bond discusses the way in which “the inability of global elite actors to solve major environmental, geopolitical, social and economic problems puts added emphasis on the need for climate justice philosophy and ideology, principles, strategy and tactics” (185) to be devised and mobilised from among the governed-masses, the very poor grassroots people. This, he names “Movement below, [that] best fuses a variety of progressive political-economic and political-ecological currents to combat the most serious threat humanity and most other species face in the twenty-first century” (185). In the discussion of movement below Bond turns to the people-oriented street marches, demonstrations and campaigns to stop pollution of agrarian life in rural communities. There he lays out an illuminating account of grassroots successes and landmark victories over Big Oil, Big Coal, and other mining corporations in local spaces. While articulating efforts made so far by grassroots movement to stage resistance against these big corporations who engage in what he sees as a continued attack by capitalism on nature, as “environmentally voracious capitalism” (214), Bond insists that with little, steady strides, collective will and strategic civil disobedience and unwavering resolve of ‘native’ people around the world, we can arrest the polluting trend and save the planet from corporate greed (189-214).

What I draw from Bond’s book is his identification of pockets of local dissident groups as palpable examples of how global politics of climate justice can be effectively revitalised and re-appropriated to better serve the interest of indigenous peoples across the globe. Crucially, while Nnimmo Bassey is primarily discussed here as a poet, I want to locate both his poetic and political practice of petro-environmentalism within this category of socio-environmental justice crusaders. To my mind his poetics embodies the spirit (zeitgeist) of this movement from below that Bond discusses. In we thought it was oil Bassey confronts the reality of the oil encounter with a vision that is discerning and perceptive. His poetry brings into sharp focus “the value of imaginative writing as a site of discursive resistance” (Huggan 703) for questioning environmentally exploitative attitudes of corporate institutions such as Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) in Nigeria and elsewhere.  

In “When the earth bleeds” he creates a narrative that ridicules the logic of petro-modernity by providing a strong critique of modernity’s promise to bring succour to life’s drudgery which seems to define humanity’s existence in the Niger Delta. He suggests that petrocapitalism has negatively impacted on nature, that its logic of progress through oil exploration and development inflicts violence and death on the earth:

I hear that oil

Makes things move

In reality check

Oil makes life stop

Because

The oil only flows

When the earth bleeds

A thousand explosions in the belly of the earth

Bleeding rigs, bursting pipes

This oil flows

From the earth’s sickbed

Because

The oil only flows

When the earth bleeds

They work in the dark

We must lift up the light

Quench their gas flares

Expose their greed

Because

The oil only flows

When the earth bleeds

In conference halls

We talk in gardens of stones

The ocean waves bathe our eyes

But in Ogoniland we can’t even breathe

Because

The oil only flows

When the earth bleeds

What shall we do?

What must we do?

Do we just sit?

Wail and mope?

Arise people, Arise

Let’s unite

With our fists

Let’s bandage the earth

Because

The oil only flows

When the earth bleeds

The oil only flows

When the earth bleeds (17)

While attempting to lay-out and define his project of environmental rights activism in this poem, Bassey’s polemical narrative of environmental justice instantiates a “form of testimonial literature” (Eke, Kruger and Mortimer 67). The poet provides the reader with a counter-narrative to the hegemonic narratives that political gatherings on account of climate change engender in the public sphere. In fact, Bassey seems to testify to how collective responsibility on behalf of nature might be a most effective way to wrestle the planet from corporate greed. What fascinates about the poem is the way in which the poet breaks with conventions of the writing medium; it seems to, for he writes with an insurrectionary fervour as if he were addressing a gathering as on a street live demonstration. Here is a poet with an abiding commitment to the politics of non-silence. He seems to suggest that, neither passive lamentation where “we just sit”, “wail” and “mope”; nor the repeated speech-making accounts of environmental devastations are enough to apprehend petro-imperialism. Hence he pokes at the ostentations of conference talks where stakeholders are insulated in “halls” and “gardens of stones” where “ocean waves” adds to the insulation from the grim reality of the planet in peril. So he deploys concrete, eye-catching metaphors of “bleeding rigs”, “bursting pipes” to conjure up spectacular images of apocalyptic import as a way of inciting affirmative action in “bandaging the bleeding earth”.

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One thought on “Philip Aghoghovwia on Nnimmo Bassey’s We thought it was oil but it was blood”

  1. Bassey is a great writer, he has expressed the basic need of our land and also how to resolve the issues of oil pollution in the oil producing region. Great job too Philip for this exquisite write up.

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