Commentary — September 6, 2012, 11:03 am

Samuel James’s Scenes From Nigerian Oil-Refining Communities

This month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine features ”The Water of My Land,” a portfolio of photographs by Samuel James, who spent two months this past February photographing life in the riverine communities of the Niger Delta. Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa and the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the United States, but many delta residents have been shut out from this multibillion-dollar industry, and so have resorted to the clandestine trade of bunkering crude oil and refining it themselves.

Through his photographs, James hopes to convey how communities engaged in this relentless and destructive practice are risking everything, including the river upon which their lives depend, in order to survive. I spoke with him at the Harper’s offices in New York City about some of his pictures:

 

sj_nd_20120320__mg_0501

All images © Samuel James
 

“This man is preparing for a night of cooking diesel. The boat behind him contains crude oil that was bunkered from a pipeline close by. Right now it is low tide, revealing oil stains on the roots of the mangroves. These are from oil spills and waste emanating from the refineries, which have suffocated all life in the water. Expansive ‘dead zones’ that look like this are scattered throughout the Niger Delta.”

 

sj_nd_20120328__mg_3426

“The refining process itself is extremely risky. It requires boiling crude oil at high temperatures, then channeling the vapors into a cooling chamber filled with water. The technology is very rudimentary. For generations, men in the Niger Delta used this same process to distill palm sap into a potent gin known locally as Ogogoro. Sometimes wood fires such as the one in this image are used to boil crude. But more often, workers fill open pits with crude oil and light them on fire. The fumes and waste produced are toxic and flammable. Whole camps can, and often do, explode. You can tell where diesel cooking is going on because people are burned all over their bodies.”

 

sj_nd_20120320__mg_1143

“Here, a man is working with a flashlight, manually tossing crude oil into burning pits to keep the refining process going. He is cooking under cover of night in order to evade the roving militias and government authorities who track the smoke from these operations. The river is very quiet during the day, with very few boats on the water. But when you move through the hidden channels at night, you see a swirl of activity. Surrounding you on the riverbanks are roaring bursts of light as workers toss crude oil onto the fires. The flames explode momentarily then simmer down again into darkness.”

 

sj_nd_20120222__mg_2972

“In 2009, the federal government instituted an amnesty program whereby militants disrupting the oil industry in the delta were invited to lay down their arms in exchange for a small stipend. The major militant commanders were granted multimillion dollar contracts, and there has since been an uneasy peace in the creeks. However, the fundamental issue of mass unemployment has yet to be addressed. Here, a group of ex-militants are unloading drums of diesel at a jetty. This work is provisional and unreliable. Many complained that it paid far more to carry a gun.”

 

sj_nd_20120307__mg_8581

“This is a jetty where diesel fuel gets unloaded from the creeks to be sold to local fueling stations. This particular community’s entire economy revolves around the trade. Depending on shipments coming in from the creeks, you’ll find entire families working down at the jetty. Young men will unload the 300-pound drums from the boats. Groups of children will then gather to push them out of the water and into the mud, where their mothers will siphon the fuel into smaller jerricans. Here, a man has come to sell ice cream out of the back of his motorcycle to children who have finished work for the day.”

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Yumna Mohamed:

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

  • c

    horrific I can say;going back in time to the jesse incident where several lives were lost in the fire that engulfed a whole community as a result of activities remotely connected and similar to the author’s.i weep from heart for my dear country and the inhabitants of the Niger delta.Bad leadership or uncaring one who couldn’t be bothered with the environmental and economic plights of this areas largely caused by exploration activities .Needless ,I blame these people who for the worth of 50 naira perennially engages this illegal but now accustomed trade to survive.I weep!

  • northierthanthou.com

    Wowo! …fascinating images. Damned shame to read the story behind them.

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2014

Gateway to Freedom

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Guns and Poses

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Christmas in Prison

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Poison Apples

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Growing Up

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Sarah Topol follows the trade routes used by arms smugglers, Eric Foner explores the hidden history of the Underground Railroad, Karl Ove Knausgaard recounts a humiliating episode from grade school, and more
Photograph by Angela Strassheim
Article
Growing Up·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The best coming-of-age stories have a hole in the middle. They pretend to be about knowledge, but they are usually about grasping, long after it could be of any use, one’s irretrievable ignorance.”
Photograph by Ben Pier
Article
Guns and Poses·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“‘It’s open shopping,’ he said. ‘A warehouse. The whole of Libya.’”
Map by Mike Reagan
Article
Gateway to Freedom·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The Vigilance Committee survived until the eve of the Civil War, and over the course of its several incarnations it propelled the plight of fugitives to the forefront of abolitionist consciousness.“
Photograph by Amani Willett
Article
Christmas in Prison·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Just so you motherfuckers know, I’ll be spending Christmas with my family, eating a good meal, and you’ll all be here, right where you belong.”
Photographer unknown. Artwork courtesy Alyse Emdur

Amount that President Obama has added to America’s “brand value” according to the Nation Brands Index:

$2,100,000,000,000

A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.

A former New York City police officer who had been arrested in 2012 for exchanging online messages about cooking women alive and eating them, and for illegally accessing data about potential victims in law-enforcement databases, was sentenced to time served.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today