Revisiting Dan Hoyle’s ‘Tings dey happen’

'Tings dey happen'
Written and performed by Dan Hoyle
Nigeria Tour – October 2009



American Dan Hoyle lived in Nigeria for ten months in 2005/2006. During that time he was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Port Harcourt, in Nigeria’s restive delta region, the source of most of country’s wealth – and turmoil. He attributes the decision to come to Nigeria to a Professor at the Northwestern University, who, aware of his desire to study globalization (a 2002 grant was spent researching the activities of American companies in developing countries), stabbed at a map of the world and said: “If you want to study globalization, just go right here!” “Here” turned out to be Escravos, a region in the west of the Niger delta.

Hoyles obeyed, and his Nigerian sojourn in Nigeria inspired him to write TINGS DEY HAPPEN, an award-winning one-man performance piece set in the delta and exploring the complicated set-up that is the Nigerian oil industry. Nigerian ‘Poilitics’ if you will.

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, and as 'authentic' (I hesitate to use that word) as it gets.

Much has been written about the Niger delta. It is my guess that an entire publishing industry – academic papers, seminars, lectures financed by Universities and think-tanks mostly in Europe and America – is built on the workings – misworkings more like – of Nigerian oil.

This is not to mention the fact that the bulk of the news about Nigeria in the international media streams forth undistilled from the dark, polluted mangroves of the delta. The 18 – 24 November 1995 edition of the Economist bears as its headline: NIGERIA FOAMING WITH BLOOD. The accompanying image is of an oil rig from which blood is spewing forth, clearly at high pressure. The Financial Times journalist, Michael Peel’s A Swamp Full of Dollars: Paramilitaries and Pipelines at Nigeria’s Oil Frontier, was shortlisted for the Guardian UK’s first book Award in 2009. And then there is a growing genre of ‘Niger delta literature’, inspired by the cataclysmic events of the last decade and half (one of the landmark ones being the 1995 extra-judicial murder by the Abacha government of activist and writer Ken Saro Wiwa, arguably the most prominent environmental activists to emerge from the delta). Books like Kaine Agary’s novel, Yellow Yellow, and Ahmed Yerima’s play, Hard Ground (both winners of the Nigeria Prize for Literature) are set in the delta. A novel forthcoming from Helon Habila, (tentatively titled “Oil on Water”) is set against a background of violence and kidnapping in the delta.

The heart of the petrocracy

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.

The most prominent of the Niger delta’s militant gangs is the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Its spokesperson, Jomo Gbomo (in Yoruba, the language of South Western Nigeria, Jomo Gbomo would mean “child stealer / child snatcher”) communicates with the outside world through press releases in flawless English and sent by email. They may be militants but they are not morons.
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.

‘Young Diplomats Club’

Things get very interesting, and funny, when the stage shifts from the delta, to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital (and former administrative capital), where a “Young Diplomats Club” meets on the 1st Thursday of every month.

No one escapes the satire that is generously piled on. “Problem is everyone thinks I’m Russian,” complains a Serbian official. The diplomats have learnt the ropes, the workings of oil. They understand that the “government doesn’t have to pay attention to the people; its citizens are the oil companies”, that their oil giants are “not just pumping oil, Dan; we’re managing war”, and that the militants are “trading oil futures.”

They can also be condescending , in a manner given only to non-Africans who have experienced the conquered land in a way that none of the natives will ever be privileged to, and are equipped with the intellect and education to analyse and draw parallels. In the words of an “Ambassador”, “You have to remember, development is a very Western concept.” Another diplomat confidently asserts that “Africans don’t have revolutions… just coups.”

Occasionally a harsh reality shines through the self-assuredness, dissolving it into shame. “Two Hausa-speaking persons in the entire State Department – and we’re pumping 4 million barrels per day right under the nose of 70 million Hausa Muslims,” one American diplomat rues.

W is for Warlords

The warlords themselves are given a chance to strut the stage, a task they fulfill with relish. One of them – who appears to have been patterned after Mujahid Dokubo Asari, a high-profile militant leader who in 2004 founded the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force) – triumphantly declares: “Before, I was activist, but nobody want to talk to me. The CNN calls me warlord, then everybody wants to talk to me.”
This is a telling reference to the role of the media in the turmoil in the delta. The Niger delta has provided plenty of fodder for foreign news organizations. In 2007 the Nigerian government accused the CNN’s Jeff Koinange of bribing MEND militants to gain access to their camp, and to get them to show off the Filipinos they were holding hostage.

Hoyle’s warlord has perfected arguments for his acts of economic sabotage. Accused of bunkering, he replies: “How can we steal oil which belongs to us?” Perfectly rational query. How can you not see reason in that? The land belongs to the people, and they have farmed and fished off it for centuries. Is it therefore hard to understand the disenchantment set off by the arrival of oil companies with their lavish lifestyles and equally lavish oil spillages?
And when one of the four mobile phones Mr. Warlord is carrying starts to ring he complains bitterly that “warlord is very busy job I don’t recommend.”

A swamp full of ruins

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).

The storyteller

In Hoyle’s words, one of the missions of Things dey happen is to “shake people out of apathy… a lot of educated people [in America] don’t know where Nigeria is.” Which is true of course. Recall the almost-Vice President who never owned a passport until well into her forties, and who, by the time she was campaigning for office, had only ever visited four countries in her lifetime.
More than 20,000 people have seen TINGS DEY HAPPEN in the US, according to Hoyle. Good news, I say – since the bulk of Nigeria’s oil is exported to America.

It’s a good thing he was never himself kidnapped; he actually admits to being “better as a storyteller than as a kidnap victim.”