~ Might our spending choices really matter to someone? ~
You’re filling your tank at the local Shell station when you recall the advice of a fair-trade podcaster.
Know where your dollars go.
Your spending can enslave people … or it can set them free from exploitation.
“I wonder who produced this gasoline,” you say. “Who are the actual people involved?”
You blink, and …
You are sitting beside a black woman in a village in the Niger Delta, the largest oil-producing region in Africa.
“Holy cow!” you say, gaping at mud-baked streets and crumbling hovels with corrugated metal roofs. Your eyes dart to a concrete block warehouse, flatbed trailers and men working beside a tanker car on oil-spattered tracks. Then you start coughing. The heat is oppressive and the reek of something in the air brings a spasm to your throat.
“Kind of mind-blowing,” the woman says. “Other than magic, I don’t know how to describe it.”
You give her a hard look, your eyes and mouth agape.
“How did I … ?” you say, groping for words. “What just happened?”
“At least there’s no jet lag,” she says with a chuckle.
A toddler whines and tugs on the woman’s striped skirt.
“Folk like you pop in from time to time,” she explains, lifting the tiny girl to her lap. “Never stay long, though.”
She lifts a heavy breast from her floral blouse and guides the nipple into the toddler’s mouth.
“Name’s Kebe,” she says, offering you a hand. “This here is Promise.”
After a moment’s hesitation, you reach out to shake her hand.
“I expect you’re here to see my husband,” says Kebe. “Unfortunately, he’s on a new derrick. Not expected back for six, maybe eight weeks. But I’d be happy to answer your questions.”
Before you can respond, Kebe is overcome with a fit of coughing that lasts half a minute.
“Damned oil wells,” she says. “What I wouldn’t give for one lungful of old-fashioned air.”
Across the street is a row of tall, soot-smudged apartment buildings. You hear men arguing, a child crying and a dog barking. The sky is sullied with a greasy gray.
I don’t see one green plant here, you think, except for that row of dead palm trees, but they don’t count.
“Daddy planted those trees back in the ‘50s,” says Kebe, seeing where your attention lies. “They didn’t last long after the smoke came. Same thing as killed Daddy. And Grandma and Grandpa before him.”
“What is it …” You wave at the wan sun, groping for words to describe the sooty shroud in the sky.
“Oil flaring,” says Kebe. “That’s what causes the smoke. And the heat,” she adds.
“Oil flaring,” you say with a grimace.
“Yeah,” she says. Then she raises a hand and cocks her head. “Listen.”
In the absence of conversation, you hear a noxious whisper, the groaning hiss of gasses and the distant roar of flames.
A petroleum refinery? you wonder.
“We’re surrounded by oil wells,” says Kebe, “and natural gas is a byproduct. You all wouldn’t waste it in your country. My God, there’s enough natural gas here to power all of Africa but the boss man says it’s not profitable. So they burn it.”
“Burn it?” you say.
“Just outside of town, you’ll see tall pipes with flames stabbing the sky,” she says. “They’re everywhere. Some call it an environmental disaster. We call it hell.”
With deliberate concentration, you settle into a pattern of short, shallow breaths. After a moment, your mind clears.
“Sounds awful,” you say, panting. “How long as this been going on?”
Kebe shrugs. “There’s never not been burning, is what most folk say.”
Astounded, you turn to the crumbled asphalt that passes for a street. A cluster of uniformed school kids walk by, some with handkerchiefs over their faces.
“It’s the same everywhere in the Niger Delta,” says Kebe. “Raises temperatures several degrees. Kills crops. Rots the metal on roofs and cars. Causes all kinds of cancer and sickness.”
“And they’re still doing it?” you say in disbelief. “After all these years?”
“Government banned gas flaring in 2005 but not much changed since then. With so much cash flowing out of those wells, there’s nobody the oil companies can’t buy. Of course, we don’t see nothin’ of that big pot a’ money.”
Kebe turns the child over and gives her the other nipple.
“My brother lost half an arm because one of those wells exploded when he was out fishing. Rained down burning tar, just like Sodom and the Morra. He nearly burned to death, but the company never done nothing about it. Now lemme show you something.”
She steps off the patio with the toddler cradled in one arm. Behind the flat is a black, oily crater. In its center rots a frothing creature that once was a bird.
“River’s a quarter mile from here,” Kebe says, “and we’ve had more oil spills than you can count. So thick, it’s coming up everywhere. Now look at this.”
With her free hand, she pumps an iron hand pump. The water spurts into a concrete basin, charcoal-colored and slippery.
“The clinic told us not to drink it no more,” she says, “but we can’t help it. Said we’re twice as likely to lose our babies, before or after birth, and I know it’s true. Promise here is the first to survive and I didn’t even bother naming her until her first birthday. I still wonder sometimes …”
As she brushes the child’s shiny hair with her fingers, Promise unlatches, engaging you with her bright brown eyes.
“She’s a cutie,” you say. “I can see why you named her Promise.”
Kebe tucks in her blouse and leads the way to the front of the apartment.
“You get the Internet back wherever you’re from?” she asks.
You muse at the question, strangely aware that not everyone in the world is as connected to the Information Age as you are.
“Yeah,” you say. “I do.”
“Do a little research, honey,” she says, “and see how bad gas flaring is. Zoom in on those satellite maps they give you and you’ll see how small this world is. We’re not that far from you all. And you’ll see those huge plumes of gas billowing and burning, billowing and burning, day and night. And think of us sometimes, because we’ve been living this nightmare ever since the first day your mama gave you breath.”
Kebe is overcome with another fit of coughing.
“Go home and tell ‘em,” she says between spasms. “Go home and tell ‘em.”
You blink and …
… you are back at the Shell station with the pump handle in your hand and a full tank of gas. The machine says your credit card has been debited $47.74.
Damn, you think. So that’s what my money is doing to people …
An unsettling perspective weighs heavy on your otherwise steady life.
Image by semajneerg / Flickr.
 “Gas Flaring in the Niger Delta Harming Health, Climate and Environment,” by Justice Nwafor, Earth Journalism Network, 21 October 2022, https://earthjournalism.net/stories/gas-flaring-in-the-niger-delta-harming-health-climate-and-environment.
“Gas flaring in the Niger Delta ruins lives, business,” by Jan-Philipp Scholz, Deutsche Velte, 3 November 2017, www.dw.com/en/gas-flaring-in-the-niger-delta-ruins-lives-business/a-41221653.
“Nigeria: Oil spills lead to increased newborn mortality in the Niger Delta,” by Daniel Pelz and Muhammad Bello, Deutsche Velte, 21 October 2017, www.dw.com/en/nigeria-oil-spills-lead-to-increased-newborn-mortality-in-the-niger-delta/a-41052670.