Reflecting the Niger Delta: Tolu Ogunlesi on Tings Dey Happen

On 3 Quarks Daily Tolu Ogunlesi writes about American Dan Hoyle’s Tings Dey Happen.  Dan Hoyle was inspired to write a one man play about Nigeria and the oil industry after being a Fulbright scholar in at the University of Port Harcourt, in Nigeria’s oil and conflict rich Niger delta:

TINGS DEY HAPPEN is in Pidgin English. When I heard Hoyle was going to be performing in Nigeria, at the invitation of the State Department, I decided I had to see the show. More than anything, I was curious to see what Hoyle’s idea of pidgin amounted to. There is so much contrived stuff that passes for Pidgin English in popular culture, that I really didn’t have any significant expectations.

By the end of the 75 minute performance, which took place at the heavily guarded American Guest Quarters on the Ikoyi waterfront in Lagos, I was more than impressed. Hoyle’s pidgin is impressive, as authentic (I hesitate to use that word) as it gets.

Hoyle cuts right through to the occasionally dark, often comical heart of Nigerian society. Early on in the one-man show (Dan plays all the voices, and they are myriad), a Nigerian explains that in Nigeria there are “no friends, only associates.”

Gangs roam the delta, but in Hoyle’s world, criminal and crude are, quite refreshingly, not synonyms. Some of the militants speak good English. They even have a sense of humour. “There’s no sign that says ‘Welcome to Nembe Creek’, ‘cos if you haven’t noticed, you’re not welcome,” Hoyle’s white character is told. Not long after the militants add, perhaps tongue-in-cheek: “We are too intelligent to kidnap you.” Perhaps this is because they know that he is merely an academic, with little potential for generating a decent ransom.

There is plenty of backstory to the troubles in the Niger delta. Those troubles did not start with the emergence of the postcolonial state, or with the militarization of the delta during the regime of late Nigerian dictator, Sani Abacha. Things dey happen makes attempts to historicize. One of the locals traces the conflict from the arrival of the Portuguese of the 15th century (the Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive Nigeria’s shores), on to the British (19th century), and then Royal Dutch Shell (mid-20th century). Long before crude oil, there was palm oil. And there was of course the transatlantic slave trade, in which rival ethnic groups fought wars to generate a supply of prisoners to be sold to the white man.

The despoliation is total – physical, ecological and psychological. Unable to farm or fish, and with night turned to perpetual day by the bright orange of burning wells and flared gas, villages teem with “professional beggars”, many of whom eventually end up as militants. The young women take up prostitution, earning relative fortunes from selling their bodies to loaded oil workers. One of the girls  breaks it down rather crudely for Dan: “Me you we fuck you give me money… I be ashawo.” But soon the girls are complaining: “You don’t even fuck us anymore.”

I venture paid-for sex is the last thing on a man’s mind when all around him the land, and water even, are on fire. Hundreds of expats have been kidnapped since the delta insurrection started in 2006, most of them released only on the payment of huge ransoms. Some were held for months before being released. (Shell claims that more than a hundred and fifty of its staff were kidnapped between 2006 and 2008).
Perhaps the oil workers – thousands of miles away from the plush offices where the real decisions are made and where the real money is counted – have a right to be baffled at the anger and violence directed at them by the locals. As a Shell staff laments in the performance: “In Scotland nobody asked McDonalds to build a fucking school!”

A Community Relations Officer, a member of the unwieldy clan of bureaucrats spawned by the attempts of oil companies at ‘developing’ their ‘host communities’, feeling left out in the scheme of things (“you have talked to so many people, but you haven’t talked to me, why?”) comes to the strangely comforting conclusion that “Black man will always be poor, white man will always be depressed.”

Black poverty or white depression notwithstanding, TINGS DEY HAPPEN ends on a rather celebratory note, with a party, at which Nigerian music stars 2face and Daddy Showkey make an appearance (or at least their music does).

Below is an interview with Dan Hoyle on his play:

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