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 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2019

Ramblin’ Man

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Just Keep Going North”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

El Corralón

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Marmalade Sky

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

New Books

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trials of Vasily Grossman

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
“Just Keep Going North”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On February 5, 2019, the president of the United States (a certain Donald Trump) in his State of the Union speech warned of “migrant caravans and accused Mexican cities of busing migrants to the border ‘to bring them up to our country in areas where there is little border protection.’ ”? Wishing to see the border for myself, I decided to visit Arizona, where my ignorance of local conditions might save me from prejudgment.

Post
English Referendums and Scotch Voters·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

After years of post-Brexit uncertainty, Scotland’s independence movement has become resurgent

Article
No Joe!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the heart of the US Capitol there’s a small men’s room with an uplifting Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt quotation above the door. Making use of the facilities there after lunch in the nearby House dining room about a year ago, I found myself standing next to Trent Lott. Once a mighty power in the building as Senate Republican leader, he had been forced to resign his post following some imprudently affectionate references to his fellow Republican senator, arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond. Now he was visiting the Capitol as a lucratively employed lobbyist.

Article
Marmalade Sky·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a November Saturday in 1990, Pam went over to Joe’s place to listen to records. It was raining in sheets that whipped around the corners of buildings and blowing so hard that women in heels were taking men’s arms to cross the street. Cars were plowing bow waves through puddles of scum.

As Joe was letting Pam into the apartment, a man emerged from the bedroom with a square sheet of black plastic in his hand and said, “Hey, man, you have the Sassy Sonic Youth flexi!”

Article
New Books·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay:

Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, by Cecelia Watson. Ecco. 224 pages. $19.99.

Four Men Shaking: Searching for Sanity with Samuel Beckett, Norman Mailer, and My Perfect Zen Teacher, by Lawrence Shainberg. Shambhala. 144 pages. $16.95.

Japanese Tales of Lafcadio Hearn, edited by Andrei Codrescu. Princeton University Press. 224 pages. $22.95.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

More than 20 emergency personnel rushed to a park in Queens, New York, to investigate a dead baby that turned out to be a doll.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today