Jessica Wilbanks | Ninth Letter | Fall/Winter 2013 | 27 minutes (6,860 words)

For this week’s Longreads Member Pick, we’re excited to share “On the Far Side of the Fire,” an essay by Jessica Wilbanks, which first appeared in Ninth Letter and was awarded the journal’s annual creative nonfiction award. This is the first time it has been published online.

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If you scraped Lagos of traffic and trade and trash until only green and brown were left, the landscape would look like it does here in the Niger Delta. The afternoon mist shimmers over the burnt orange soil, parrots and cicadas squawk and buzz through lush walls of green, and dark streams run beside the gum trees that shade the footpaths. Deep in the distance smoke from the gas flares can just be seen over the dark line of oil palms at the edge of the horizon. Not so long ago the women here in Akwa Ibom grew yams and maize in patches of cleared bush, but now the only thing that takes root is elephant grass, razor-sharp and inedible. The okra and palm trees are slow to flower, and every year the cassava grows smaller. The men have pawned their outboard motors and left their skiffs to rot on the riverbanks; they say the fish that used to nest in the mangrove roots have fled deep into the sea. Whatever sickness the land has seems to be spreading to the people. The women’s wombs close up too early and when children are born they are often listless and small. Their bellies grow faster than the rest of them and some of them can’t take a breath without choking.

The European aid workers blame the ExxonMobil installation on the eastern side of the Qua Iboe river. They pull well-worn maps from their messenger bags and outline the slow creep of crude oil into the rivers and tributaries, the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill every year for forty years straight. The more adventurous among them sneak out of their heavily guarded hotel compounds to take blurry cell phone shots of the gas flares spitting fire into the night sky. Back in the safety of the hotel they pour tall glasses of duty-free scotch and sit by the pool telling stories until their pale faces turn red with indignation. They talk of what Shell did to Ken Saro-Wiwa, the travesty of Nigeria’s missing $22 billion in oil revenue, the spiraling poverty in the Niger Delta, and the millions of naira the governor’s been handing over to Nollywood stars. In the last hours before dawn the aid workers start slurring their words and widening the circle of blame to Nigeria’s colonial legacy and their own countries’ demand for fossil fuels. When they sleep they toss and turn alone in king-size beds as the rain pounds down onto the hotel’s tin roof.

But there is a woman nearby in Cross River State who says the aid workers are wrong. Helen Ukpabio wears wide-brimmed hats in jewel tones and pumps dyed to match, and in 2009 she was consecrated as an apostle of the Lord. She says that the people of Akwa Ibom are not being ravaged from without, by impersonal demons of political corruption, environmental devastation, and disease, but rather from within, by sin and demonic attacks. The problem here is not material, she says, but spiritual—she says that she should know. When Helen was fourteen she was initiated into the ways of witchcraft and was even betrothed to Lucifer himself. God delivered her (thanks be to His name), but she still sees the world through spiritual eyes. She can look at someone for just a moment and know if they are walking in the light of God or are plagued by spirits of poverty, infertility, and disease. My father, who worships the same God Helen worships, would call this the gift of discernment.

Helen scoffs at the belief that strongly worded op-eds and environmental regulations can put the world right again. The people of Akwa Ibom don’t need better laws, she says, or even food aid. They need spiritual guidance about how to fight evil, and that’s what her ministry offers. In her sermons and books she unveils the mysteries of witchcraft, telling stories of people who go traveling and beg water from strangers only to have spirits creep into them. Once possessed, they themselves become witches and bring sin and destruction wherever they go, unless they are stopped by a man or woman of God like herself. Helen believes that when it comes to witchcraft, not even children are spared. One of her books gives a set of instructions for identifying witches under the age of two: “if a child . . . screams in the night, cries and is always feverish with deteriorating health, he or she is a servant of Satan.” But there is hope; the children can be redeemed. Unlike other pastors, Helen doesn’t even charge fifty naira for delivering witches, and when she comes across one, she doesn’t abuse them. She says she can deliver witches without even touching them, because the attack she makes is a spiritual one. Once the possessed are delivered she sends them back to their families, where, according to her website, they live happily ever after. It may look strange to westerners when she prays over child witches in that particularly ferocious way, but that’s because they are naïve and don’t know that the devil sometimes takes the shape of a lamb.

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