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:

 

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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.”

 

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“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.”

 

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“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.”

 

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“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.”

 

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“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.”

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

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The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

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