The White Tent

Written for SableLit Magazine - November 2015

 La Réunion, a French speaking island near Madagascar, is relatively unknown. Along with islands such as Guadeloupe and Martinique, it is a French overseas ‘department’ meaning its currency, political, health and education system all mirror that of France, despite its tropical location. Though I didn't know it at the time, my decision to live in La Réunion was a rare gift. I went from 2008 to 2009 as an English teaching assistant and researcher for a women’s charity.  In my younger state of mind, I didn’t go with much intention, but rather saw it as an opportunity to escape somewhere new. And while I don’t think this decision was fuelled with new aged dreams of ‘finding myself’, there was something about going to a dot of an island that many people had never heard of that reeked of possibility and both terrified and appealed.

Living abroad is always an eye opening experience. But as the days pass and the ‘new foreigner’ fears wane (but never completely disappear), it's often surprising how soon you become acquainted with your new surroundings. It is, after all, part of the package of truly living somewhere else; new ways of living softly become your own. And so, it wasn’t long before I succumbed to the island’s rhythms, knew the best place to buy my Rougail saucisse, found grainy warmth from its lava sand beaches and became friends with its panoramic sea and mountain views.

Generally speaking, I found La Réunion to be an inspiring mirror of how different cultures and religions can co-exist respectfully. This multicultural island hosts a whole array of cultures from Chinese to Indian to Madagascan. And because of its diverse cultures, it felt like such a rare privilege to see the diverse ethnic DNA of its people and how I fitted in perfectly- an unexpected thrill for an ‘ethnic minority’ who grew up in northern England.

 But beyond these trappings of paradise lay an underlying tension that I increasingly could not ignore; the French – Creole divide. While the guide books will tell you that French is the official language, after living there I know that the Creole culture and language is very much the heartbeat of the island. And while the unique mix of French influences merged with the Creole culture is both beautiful and fascinating, there is a certain divide between the two cultures that becomes apparent when you scratch beneath the island’s idyllic surface.

 One particular example of this division came after about six months into my time in La Réunion. I was increasingly disappointed by how few people I knew on the island and the fact that most of my friends were foreign. I really didn't come half way across the world to be a closed off foreigner and I always consider a good sign of having lived well in a country is by how well you know its people. So bearing this in mind, I consciously pushed myself to make an effort to meet new people and do new things. This was how I found myself alone at the visual and interactive exhibition, La Théorie d’Antoine - Extension, where I was invited to leave my bag outside and step into what can only be described as a room, kind of like a white cloth rectangular tent.

Inside were four dancers, all dressed in white, and a chair in which they pushed me around and swung my legs. Through the course of this experimental session, the four of them proceeded to carry me sky high with each dancer taking a limb and turning me clockwise. Afterwards I was led to a makeshift door, again made of cloth, with just a hand sticking out. Feeling very Alice in Wonderland-esque, I took the hand and was led into a dark room where I was taken through the same procedure, only now in sheer darkness. As this finished, I was led back out into the terrace to view the rest of the exhibition. The whole concept focused on the role of choreography and how each new person who entered the tent played a role in this dance sequence without actually doing anything.

The exhibition, however interesting (and slightly strange), was overshadowed by something else; I was there, surrounded by seemingly interesting people, but had never felt so invisible. I had purposely come by myself with an open mind and intention to meet new people, but I didn’t talk to anyone. I’d like to think that I’m a fairly sociable creature and so all I was looking for was someone to throw me a bone; some eye contact or a smile so that I could reel myself into the start of a conversation. But I got absolutely nothing. What else could I do but obviously eat the free food?  I kept on waiting for the silver lining (free wine?) but soon realised there really wasn’t one. 

From my awkward point of view came a more difficult observation. Standing there in my isolated corner, stripped of friends to distract me, I saw a terrace full of white faces. The French-Creole divide that I'd only partially acknowledged before was staring me in the face.  I was forced to wonder why this kind of art seemed reserved for a small minority instead of belonging to everyone, especially on an island famed for its all encompassing acceptance of diversity. That night I felt so out of place and I was mindful of the fact that most people on the island probably would assumed that I was a 'Cafrine' (a name given to people from La Réunion of African ancestry). So it really knocked me off my feet as these people clinked their wine and nibbled on their cheese on sticks while looking straight through me.

Although I see La Réunion primarily as a home to this beautiful blend of ethnicities, this could have easily been in a rural town in Normandy. I was forced to truly acknowledge that, despite the paradise I had associated the island, hierarchies and divides still remain. There are certain places where ‘les 'Métros' and 'Z'Oreilles', terms given to those originally born in inland France, are more likely to live and socialise. My friend Lucy’s predominately white prestigious tennis club came swarming into my mind (black waiters work in the on site restaurant, I’ve noticed). Similarly, there are places where the 'les Creoles', a term also used for those from the island of mixed ethnic heritage, are also more likely to live and socialise. There are places of prestige and ‘highbrow’ culture, such as this exhibition, where French is spoken and Creole, much like my bag at the white tent, is left at the back door. I, as a foreigner, had obviously stumbled into a tent where I did not belong, that was seemingly not designed for my presence.

 I was forced to reconfigure my experiences in light of the island’s colonial history. La Réunion, an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, is owned by France. And while I never fully dissected this, given the unique melange of treasures La Réunion holds as a consequence, this scene made me feel uncomfortable. Are the white elite playing at living on this tropical island while the rest of us watch? They have no profound right to call it home, except from the colonial power of the country that they happen to be born into. Furthermore, as a European citizen who has equally taken advantage of this status, does this make me just as bad? How do I reconcile my experiences here, with my own Nigerian heritage and its English colonial history?

I left early, somehow pushed out of this ‘white tent’ exhibition. Two minutes away from the gallery and I was back into city I recognised, once again reassured, albeit more sceptical, that diversity still does exist.

Looking back at my time in La Réunion, years later, I often wish I’d gone with the same critical awareness that I have now. I think I would have been more likely to give a name to my discomfort. Nevertheless, there are moments that punctuate through words and critical theory that just feel wrong, where the hairs on your arms tell you that something isn’t right. And while I would come across other instances that would further reveal the intricacies of La Réunion’s colonial baggage, it was this experience that was the most telling of my year in La Réunion

Deeper than the pipelines – Oil exploitation in the Niger Delta and the legacy of Ken Saro-Wiwa

Written for the Free Word Centre- 30/05/2015

The average life expectancy in Nigeria is less than 50 years

– United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 2011

“It is genocide. I accuse the oil companies of practising racism because they do in Ogoni what they do not do in other parts of the world.”
– Ken Saro-Wiwa, 1993

The story of oil exploitation in the Niger Delta is one of severe injustice.

Before oil was first discovered in commercial quantities by Shell in 1956, the Niger Delta, home to approximately 31 million people and over 40 ethnic groups, was sustained by a system of rich agriculture and natural resource. Inhabitants also benefited from one of the largest and most important wetlands and marine ecosystems in the world, with an estimated 75% of the Niger Delta population relying on the environment for farming and fishing as a means of sustaining their livelihoods.

It is crucial to remember that though oil production began in 1956, imperialist structures, stemming from the beginning of the twentieth century, facilitated this process. In 1937, under the rule of the British Empire, Shell was given exploration rights to the whole of Nigeria. Therefore, though the discovery of oil was thought to increase the wealth of Nigeria, in a global market desperate for crude oil, the move to oil production wasn’t based on the needs of the indigenous communities of the Niger Delta, but rather part of the expansion of British imperialist powers, which have continued to the current day.

 To date, over $600 billion has been generated from Nigerian oil exports since 1960 and yet the majority of people from the Niger Delta have been left impoverished. The infrastructure implemented for oil production was prioritised over the region’s agricultural dependence, with pipelines built in front of homes and across farmlands. As the pipelines have aged and have been poorly maintained, the area has suffered from constant oil spills, leading to farmlands and forests covered in oil, severely reducing the capacity for growth of crops.

In Ogoniland, an area in the south of the Niger Delta, there were an estimated 2,976 oil spills between 1976 and 1991. Despite the vast quantities of oil being produced in the area, Ogoni villages have no clean water, little health care provision and have received no form of reparation, leaving locals with neither the revenue from oil production, nor the agricultural resource afforded to them previously.

The heavy pollution of water sources has led to a loss of the biodiversity that the Niger Delta was so renowned for, as well as contaminating water used for cooking and bathing, with drinking water containing carcinogens up to 900 times above World Health Organization standards.

Also, contrary to Nigerian law, Shell burns off excess natural gas, a by-product of oil drilling, which creates walls of flames so large that some can be seen from space. Some of these flares have burned non-stop for over 40 years, leaving locals to contend with the constant heat and light from the flames, which among other ailments, can cause sleep deprivation and insomnia.

Unsurprisingly, this has led to catastrophic detrimental health affects for the people of Niger Delta. With an average age expectancy of under 50, people are significantly more prone to suffer from respiratory problems, gastro-intestinal disorders, malnutrition as well as various forms of cancer.

Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ogoni protest

The Ogoni community have historically led fierce opposition against the resource exploitation undertaken by Shell. A well-known figure who was pivotal in peaceful protests against Shell was writer, satirist and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. In 1990, as president of The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), he was central to the creation of the Ogoni Bill of Rights which called for the self-determination of the Ogoni people and which shone a light on imperialist structures at force. The Bill also paved the way for other indigenous communities worldwide to produce similar manifestos.

Moreover, MOSOP, led by Ken, mobilised 300,000 people to protest against the actions of Shell, calling for environmental justice and reparations for the damage done to Ogoniland. This was the biggest protest of its kind against an oil company, forcing Shell to stop oil extraction in Ogoniland in 1993. However, in response, Shell allegedly colluded heavily with the Nigerian military government, who consequently accused Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists – Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine – of murder, conducting a bogus trial for their condemnation. They were executed in 1995. After a lengthy legal battle lasting 14 years, Shell finally paid $15.5 million in compensation to the families of the Ogoni activists killed.

Legacies of Saro-Wiwa

The legacies of Saro-Wiwa and the eight Ogoni activists (otherwise known as the Ogoni nine) leave a heavy but hopeful burden. Whilst their execution was and still continues to be a devastating and terrifying loss, they pay testament to the strength of community leadership and activism. The protests of the Ogoni people prevented Shell from returning to area and have provided inspiration to communities around the world who continue to resist multinational companies. Moreover, protests do continue and organisations such as Social Action, the People’s Advancement Centre, and Environmental Rights Action continue to campaign with and for Nigerians affected by multinational oil exploitation, striving to keep the issue on the international agenda.

However the challenges persist and evolve; the execution of the Ogoni nine showed the extent to which the military are involved in Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta and research has shown how Shell regularly colludes with armed militants, offering financial incentive to violently suppress opposition to the oil operation.

Though there has been no oil production in Ogoniland for over 20 years, oil spills still occur regularly. Though the chief executive of Shell, Ben van Beurden, has recently paid lip service to cleaning up the region, the company continues to show no real commitment to doing so, ignoring the report from UNEP in 2011 which confirms that the Niger Delta has been extensively damaged by Shell’s actions.

Moreover, the reputational damage incurred from the execution of the Ogoni nine means that Shell has adopted the language of sustainability, referring to ‘alternative’ and ‘clean’ sources of energy, under the guise of corporate social responsibility. This serves to soften their image and cultivate a veneer of respectability. In considering the challenges of oil production in the Niger Delta, Shell’s focus on the crude oil theft in the region, without considering the root causes, is again an attempt to stretch the narrative beyond their own corruption. This is further compounded by their association and sponsorship of cultural and educational institutions which, again, serves to soften their image and encourage us to disassociate them from their actions in Nigeria.

Whilst considering the challenges that continue to plight the lives of people in the Niger Delta, it’s crucial to contextualise the situation within the neocolonial structures at force. How has Shell been able to continue these actions for the past 50 years with the complete disregard of the Nigerian people? With more oil spilled in the Niger Delta each year than that of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, whose lives continue to be more important than others and why? How would we react if a similar situation were happening in Norway, for example, or Scotland?

The people of the Niger Delta are living in a state of paralysis. Being denied the benefits of their own land and means of livelihood is keeping them, as Saro-Wiwa described, in a state of slavery. What was so powerful about the protests of MOSOP and the Ogoni nine was that they called for more than an end to oil exploitation, but for the real autotomy of Nigerians – they called for Nigerians to be seen and heard. And this remains the biggest threat to the current neocolonialist structure, which remains rooted in the archaic notion that the people of Africa cannot and should not be in control of their own land. It is this fear; of the loss of neocolonial powers and the notion of meaningful autonomy for the people of Niger Delta, benefiting from their own resources, that runs deeper than the pipelines

Another creative resolution? Read more fiction

Written for the RSA -20/01/14

When was the last time you read a good literary book? Or recommended one? Though a staple for some, reading a good novel increasingly feels like a luxury not all of us can afford in the midst of busy schedules and digital distraction.  Additionally, in a time where literary novel sales are declining and libraries are closing, it’s clear that our appreciation for the literary masterpiece is waning. It also seems as if children are beginning to mirror our increasing disengagement with literature; according to the National Literary Trust, only 40% of children aged 8-16 read daily in 2005, a figure which dropped to 30% in 2011 and by a further 2% in 2012.

However, a study in Science journal connects reading literary fiction with Theory of Mind; the ability to emphasise, imagine and understand the mental states of others. As part of the study, one group were given excerpts of literary fiction, while other groups read popular fiction and non-fiction. When finished, participants were asked to take a test to assess and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. Interestingly, there were stark differences between those who had read literary fiction and those who had read non-fiction. Those who read the literary fiction excerpts exhibited increased levels of empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. Participants who had read excerpts of popular fiction were also deemed less able to connect empathically.


The differences between literary fiction and popular fiction stir a series of old rivalries between ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ interpretations of literature, but I think what is most important is the potential for literature to enable a person to think and feel creatively. Good literature gives space and time for the reader to delve more creatively into the psyche of their protagonist and to explore human complexities and behaviours. But as we become increasingly embroiled within the world of social media, everyday communication is often whittled down to 140 characters and appreciation in the form of ‘likes’ and retweets has become a normalised endeavour. Our thoughts are increasingly becoming condensed and immediate for social media consumption as are our reactions. Though clearly beneficial in certain respects, the world of social media often provides a somewhat one dimensional approach to communication, often bereft of emotionally sensibilities.

Reading literature, it seems, is fast becoming the equivalent of ‘slow’ food – wholesome and most probably good for you but without the immediate gratification and universal appeal of faster alternatives. Tellingly, on speaking on Radio 4’s Front Row earlier this month, writer Ruth Rendell connects the belated literary success of John Williams’ novel Stoner, a novel in which a young farm man  falls in love with literature, with our literary nostalgia and claims the novel reminds us of a love of literature that we as a society seem to be gradually forgetting. But in thinking more widely about this loss, we need to consider and examine the detrimental effects of the increasing absence of literature, particularly when considering its role in the development of empathy and emotional intellect.

In contemplating the RSA’s current discussions on ‘the power to create’, it’s clear that reading fiction is certainly not the only wayto delve deeper into what creativity at the heart of RSA might look like (if only!). But it’s interesting and important to consider our collective levels of empathy and emotional intelligence when thinking about channels of power and creativity. And while recent debates are still at the forefront of the RSA psyche, maybe reading literature is not a bad start…