Saturday, July 26, 2014

DNA-Out of Print Short Fiction: GARIMA GOEL

Petroleum Venus
Garima Goel

Dec 15, 2010
We are out in red, yellow and green, celebrating under the clear, dry sky of December. The four months of rains are behind us, except on the coasts, where you never know. It's not March the sixth, when we turned into the first African nation to slide out of British rule. I was born almost four decades after independence and in my young country, where very few live to recount the stories of the freedom struggle, today is a bigger day. An English company uncovered oil off the coast of Ghana last night. The British are back and this time nobody seems to mind.

The sleepy news channels are confused, excited, and upset; their reporters did not get a whiff of the drilling activity in the Atlantic backyard. Everybody is breaking the same news at the same time. No exclusives! Suddenly, nobody seems to care about the ongoing twin-murder trials in the Accra court house, where the defendant broke down last Monday, sending tremors into Ghanaian drawing rooms. The soap opera-like trial was the top story for sixteen days and now, overnight, a new reporting beat has been pumped out. On GTV News something was seesawing back and forth on top of a hole all morning and the reporter said it’s a pump – a similar kind was used to pull oil out of the well last night.

In his message to the nation, an emphatic President John Kufuor said, ‘With oil as a shot in the arm, we’re going to fly.’

I texted Ajoba. ‘OIL!’

The phone beeped. ‘I am Petroleum Venus.’

I imagined oil running over her body, down her diminutive waist.

Jan 1, 2011
Our classes haven’t resumed. Celebrations continued into Christmas and with details of the exploration pouring in, nobody wants to sit in the classroom anyway. They named the field Jubilee – the special anniversary of our quest for black gold. She hasn’t been easy, they tell us, relenting after forty-six years of probing. Had I been asked, I would have named her Golden Jubilee. Three kilometres down the water, she glitters beneath the salty seabed.  She is the largest of her kind in West Africa, they say, and pumps out the sweetest crude there is. Her reserves are endless, surprising drillers every day. And she is all ours, they tell us. Thanks to Jubilee, soon we will be awash in gas, oil, cheap gas, cheap oil. The petrol pump nearby will never run dry, electricity and cheap fuel will not be rare anymore; more factories, more jobs, and the silent street outside my window will be abuzz with motorcars. There is to be a petrochemical department at the University. Yes, President Kufuor, I will fly!

 If you ask me, right now, I want to go to the coast and watch the waves crash against the steel legs that stand around her, swaying with the drilling platform. Petroleum Venus.

Under the blinking lights at the New Year’s Eve party, Ajoba was wrapped in silver plastic. All the others girls had painted their nails black, only hers were gold. There was a joyful madness about yesterday’s party, fuelled by Jubilee’s discovery. Much before we ran out of drinks and the music turned soft, every conversation danced around the forthcoming largesse. Our cocoa output is declining every day and though we are still the seventh largest gold producer in the world, the mines are aging, somebody said.

‘There really isn’t much left in them except for the low-grade metal they spit out,’ somebody else added.

The final round of shots, like every round before that, was toasted to Jubilee.

‘Till the last barrel’s out!’

May 5, 2011
Foreign correspondents are pouring into the country every day. For years they have written stories of despair about Ghana, painting us with the same brush they use for our neighbours Angola and Nigeria. Armed with vaccines for hepatitis A, yellow fever, meningitis, rabies and typhoid, they are back for a new narrative – the Jubilee. But they aren’t satisfied with the pretty sound bites from the President who tells them our oil output will more than double in the next eight years. They ask about the paradox of stunted growth and development in resource-rich African countries, the so called oil curse that has plagued our neighbours.

‘What’s your game plan to take the wealth and dodge the curse, Mr President?’

Yes, we have heard about Cabinda. But Ghana is not an African country, it is an oil country. These correspondents were not around when Labadi road, which ends at the mosque behind my house, was renamed Jubilee. They weren’t privy to that warm night under the blinking lights, when Petroleum Venus hung heavy in the air, oil caressing her long legs. They raise their eyebrows in suspicion when told Ghana has met its moment. The President shouldn’t have gifted them paper weights with a drop of golden oil suspended mid air.

‘You are drilling in the shadows of ravaged neighbours, Mr President.’

Bastards! We know that. I vow to not watch CNN this week.

Feb 10, 2012
The stench from Cabinda is reaching Ghana. Cut off from the other seventeen provinces of Angola by a strip of Congo, this oil patch looks like a mass grave if you believe what everyone’s saying. Work at Jubilee is in that boring phase, where reporters find it too technical to explain what’s going on. So Cabinda, our oily cousin, is the new national obsession.

Crisscrossed with tribes and clans, Cabinda has never stopped fighting. It fought Portugal out and now it fights Angola, everyday. The history of Cabinda is a history of insurgency, our textbooks say. Last week somebody called somebody ‘fiote’ there. It is so commonly used by other Angolans and many Ghanaians for Cabindans that it surprised everybody who heard that somebody was offended because a black man called him ‘black’. With blood shot eyes he passed his large knife across the man’s neck in one swoop, they tell us. Other armed men rushed to take stock and one thing led to another, everyone says.

The killer’s tribal chief released a video soon after. With his back to the camera, he said it’s not a sheer coincidence that this conflict-ridden territory is rich in oil. He kept accusing them, without really saying who they were. Pointing to the ravaged land around him, he said Cabinda was dotted with drilling rigs, but not a single pipeline crossed its heart. Our petrol pumps are dry, whatever little we manage to smuggle into the region is sold at vulgarly high prices, he said.

‘Here we are. In a deep hole that oil resources have dug for us.’

Ajoba squirms with pleasure when I tell her why everybody surrenders to Petroleum Venus. She drags me closer with those bare legs, oil splattered all over. She glows.

Jan 30, 2013
Jubilee has brought a lot of white people to Accra. The English firm has leased out different jobs to American oilfield companies. The cement for lining the wells comes from outside Ghana, as do the strong steel pipes that guzzle oil as soon as Jubilee opens her mouth. For her upkeep, petroleum engineers are flown in from all over. A special security team of Ghanaians, supervised by a solid American, guard her all day, all night. I never got close enough to see the waves crash into those steel legs and sway with the rusting platform. The cacophony of motor horns is still missing from the Jubilee road behind my house.

Oil is two-hundred-and-twenty-six pesewas a litre.

The petrochemical course at the University hasn’t yet started. They say these things take time and that we shall have a faculty by next semester. I have enrolled into the general science graduate program in the meanwhile. Ajoba, who also wants an oil degree, thinks it’s useless to study anything else.

‘Oil is our only opportunity.’

She hates college now, so I cut classes too.

Ajoba doesn’t mind when he puts his English hands on her hips. He is a well-inspection officer at Jubilee with suntanned arms, she told me. She has stopped listening. She no longer walks like she has oil pumps in her boots.

April 20, 2013
In March, oil became the second largest source of government revenue, overtaking cocoa, and is just behind gold, our President of fourteen years announced. He won his fourth elections last week.  The election celebrations however have been moved to another date due to disturbances in Axim, the closest land post to Jubilee.

According to a neighbour who works there, the problem started on the tenth day of Muharram when Jubilee’s guards at Axim were mourning the death of the Prophet’s grandson. Before namaz, they used cooked rice to stick Imam Hussein’s poster inside the control room, which was almost entirely manned by Ghanaians. They tied a few flags outside before going around the back to wash their feet. The American supervisor asked them to take it all down.

‘In all fairness, something like that just doesn’t fit here.’

They refused. They told him a young Christian man John fought alongside Hussein in the battle of Karbala. The supervisor hesitated but pulled the poster down himself.

They ran to him with whatever they could grab – pans, spoons, sticks.

‘Yah Hussein!’

Dec 28, 2013
‘Ghana remains a net oil importer today,’ a tv reporter said.

The first fruits of Jubilee were not eaten in Ghana. They were shipped elsewhere.  There won’t be an oil degree, without which Petroleum Venus will never be mine. She is unpredictable – calling me to her rich meadows and herself failing to show up every other day. The English man probed her virgin meadows, discovered her and locked her bounty in large barrels. He can always go back for more. In the evenings, while I sit in the dark, he changes out of his filthy protective oil suit and drinks too much and flirts too much. He also laughs at us, an entire generation blind to the real price of oil.

‘Till the last barrel’s out.’

Writer’s note: ‘Petroleum Venus’ is borrowed from the title of a novel by Russian author Alexander Snegirev.

Garima Goel is twenty-two-years old, and currently studying political science in Hyderabad. She has lived in Manipal, in Bihar, and in Bangalore where she worked as a reporter for Reuters; hence when asked, 'Where are you from?', she can never answer. Garima is a member of Bangalore Writers Workshop, a community which welcomes new writers. She likes well-stocked kitchens, collecting play tickets, and Ogden Nash's poems.

1 comment:

  1. this story has an interesting almost reportage style which makes the subject matter and message of the story even more poignant.