By Tade Thompson
“Being desirous, on the other hand, to obviate the misunderstanding and disputes which might in future arise from new acts of occupation (prises de possession) on the coast of Africa; and concerned, at the same time, as to the means of furthering the moral and material well-being of the native populations;”
General Act of the Berlin Conference on West Africa,
26 February 1885
There is a story told in my village about the man who fell from the sky. The British also tell this tale in their history books, but it is a mere paragraph, and they invert the details.
In October 1884 I was a Yoruba translator for a British trading outpost. This man from the sky, we called him Budo. He was in the custody of the English, who questioned him. They tortured him with heat and with cold and with the blade, but they did not know what answers would satisfy. I know this because I carried their words to him, and his silence back to them. His manner was mild and deferent at all times, but they held him in isolation. For good reason they considered him dangerous. I will explain this later.
One afternoon while most of the English were sleeping a white man arrived at the gate demanding admission. One of the Sikh sentries told me he was a scout, and appeared bruised, half-naked and exhausted. He was too out of breath to speak, although he seemed keen to give his report. Kenton, the NCO of the military contingent, asked one of my brothers to bring water while he soothed the scout. The man took two gulps, splashed some on his face, then looked up at Kenton. He said one word.
The scout vomited over the floor.
Kenton ordered the men to revive him, but I saw the fear on his face, though at the time I did not know what “French” meant. He also doubled the guard and conferred with other white men. I remained at the periphery and kept quiet and still. Experience had taught me that they often forgot about my presence when I remained silent.
“Let me tell you about the French,” said one of the enlisted men. “They’re very dirty, you savvy? Never do they wash. Eat frogs, don’t they? Kill their royals with a goolly-tine.”
“What’s this goo-lly-tine?” I asked.
The man made a chopping motion across his own throat, then guffawed. I could not imagine the spilling of royal blood and I thought to myself what curious creatures these French must be.
At that moment Kenton strode out of the Commanding Officer’s office, red faced in that way white men get when they are drunk or angry. His gait was too assured and stable for inebriation, and besides, I had never seen Kenton imbibe. He was sober in all manner of things. He was, as he passed me, muttering to himself.
“Make ready. Make ready. All the fornicating heathen gods! Make ready, he says.” Kenton stopped, swivelled and stabbed me in the chest with his index finger. “You. Get me the Black. Right now. No, wait. Clean him up and give him some water and corn meal. Then bring him to the office.”
Budo sat cross-legged on the ground and ate with his hands, slowly, deliberately, concentrating on each morsel. I tried to speak but he held up his hand. He was one who favoured full attention on any task at hand. I therefore concentrated on his features while waiting. He was darker than most, lanky, with sunken cheekbones. His hair had grown out in captivity, but it was not tangled. He had a Widow’s Peak but large eyes dominated his face. His muscles were flat, like a blanket on his bones. He wore a tattered, filthy loin cloth of indeterminate colour and powerful stench.
I had grown soft in the house of the oppressors and I am ashamed to report that I could not stand the sight of him, used as I was to more genteel surroundings.
He drank water in the same way he ate and I grew impatient. From Budo’s cell I could hear the steady hammer of the brothers securing the fortifications and the regular footfalls indicating the drills of soldiers preparing themselves. The predominant smell in the cell came from the outhouse. This was by design.
When Budo looked my way I felt more naked than he. “Tell me why they want me.”
He stood. “Take me to Kenton.”
“Change your clothes,” I said, offering him some cotton shorts, but he would not take them.
“There is no time for that.”
At this point I should probably tell you why the English wanted Olufemi Budo when they should have been counting their Enfield rifles and begging their gods for a functioning Maxim.
I have mentioned that Budo fell from the sky. Nobody saw him fall exactly, but some fishermen discovered him in a palm tree one morning, injured, unconscious and wearing a peculiar contraption made of leather and strips of rubber. It was a system of belts and bladders that none of the villagers understood enough to save. When he regained consciousness the first thing Budo asked for was his harness, but nobody understood what he meant. His Yoruba was correct, if stilted and precise. He suffered from malaria and had several fractures which the bone-setter took care of. They also fed him agbo iba until his fever broke.
Our village was a sleepy place about a hundred miles from the west bank of the Niger. We used to be an occasional reservoir for the transatlantic slave trade before it was abolished. Then we became a reservoir for enforced labour without pay, which I could not distinguish from slavery, but the British priest assured me this was the better condition. Honest labour, he called it. They made us build infrastructure—roads, houses, railroads–designed solely for the purpose of taking goods from the interior to the coast where ships waited to sail for Liverpool and Portsmouth.
Before Budo landed on us our weapons were cutlasses, spears, amulets, charms, bows and arrows and leather vests, none of which worked against English steel or gunpowder. The mounted raiders from the Oyo Empire defeated us with ease when they needed slaves.
There were no raids while he recovered. He hobbled around on a thick stick staring at everything from the mud used for mortar to the umbilici of newborn babies. He looked at millet harvests and rubber trees. He sometimes asked if anyone had seen a flying orchid, but we did not understand him.
From the outset he was an object of curiosity in the village. Children followed him about making fun of his shamble or his strange pronunciation of Yoruba words. He garnered a lot of attention from the young ladies as well. It is not hard to intuit why. He was not one of us and hence had mystery. He did not speak much, and one could project celestial intent on his most mundane action. He had preternatural interest in everyone and everything around him. I am unsure if he deflowered any of the admirers, but the smiles and significant looks were suggestive.
He stayed with the medicine man for eight weeks, until his bones knitted. The village chief summoned him after that, and he came into the royal hall flanked by two rod-bearers. I was a member of court at the time, and Budo was asked to explain himself.
“Please forgive me for not greeting you in the proper manner, kabiyesi. My joints are still stiff from my accident.”
“Keep your apologies to yourself,” I said. “Just tell us where you are from.”
“Of course.” Budo kept his eyes on the chief. “Kabiyesi, I do not remember much since waking up. My injuries have robbed me of much of my past. But I do remember the path to many technologies and special engines. If you will permit me I can direct them towards the betterment of your village while I try to work out precisely what happened to me.”
The chief whispered to his praise-singer. The speaker, the abobajiroro, said, “Can you fly?”
The chief whispered again. The speaker said, “Your Lord and Earthly representative of the orisha asks what you mean by ‘betterment’.”
“I mean the discouragement of the whites and their assistants, the ones who raid your village.”
The chief whispered. The speaker said, “Budo will be allowed to establish these technologies. He will be assisted by the most gracious Lord’s own daughter, Omolola.”
This alarmed me. I had hoped to be placed in charge of monitoring the stranger to increase my standing, but the main problem was that Omolola was unpredictable and difficult to trust. When she was sixteen her father sent her to the court of the Alaafin of Oyo as an ambassador to negotiate the amount of tribute expected. The defiant slaver Francisco Marinementus was at court, present for her plea, and became infatuated. He wished to add her to his harem which was rumoured to be at least one hundred strong. She threatened to geld him in perfect Portuguese and dissuaded the old man, much to the amusement of the Alaafin and his advisers. Omolola was married to a nobleman and had six children, however her husband was weak and ineffectual. Her prodigious sexual appetite was well reported, as was her spouse’s inability to satisfy, and yet all her children bore a striking resemblance to him. This was a puzzlement to me until I overheard her speaking to one of her husband’s wives.
“I only take lovers when I am bleeding or pregnant,” Omolola said. “If the train is full there can be no new passengers.”
She took to her new duties with great dedication, never leaving the stranger’s side, and I spied on them. Budo performed arcane experiments with rubber and iron and malachite and other minerals while Omolola watched. He had close to a hundred bags of coal. For reasons I could not understand Omolola instructed the young men to gouge out holes in the trees, including the Iroko tree in the square.
They argued. Their voices were loud but I did not understand what it was about.
“Yes,” said Budo. “You are right. Rigid is better, but takes more time and skill. A non-rigid—“
“—Is a flying bomb. I will not be a part of that.” Omolola did not like losing arguments.
In between this activity they copulated compulsively. I envied their vigour and youth.
Using untreated leather and alloyed iron sheets he built armour for our men. He attached metal tanks to each hollowed-out tree. I could not help myself, I had to ask what they were for.
“They are boilers,” said Omolola. “The coal furnace heats water and generates steam. A one-way valve allows it to generate steady pressure.”
“Pressure for what?” I asked but she spied her lover entering his bunk.
She became feral and dismissed me. “Abyssus abyssum invocat.”
Deep calls to deep. I taught her that when she was twelve. She had been my most talented student. She was also a painter and sculptor. Wild of heart, fickle, capricious, but brilliant. Not to be underestimated.
In all of his actions I saw that Budo was cultured, had good manners and could read and write. He scratched out symbols in the dust, frowned and drew others. For days on end smoke, steam and foul smells emanated from the building where they carried out their research and erections. Budo listened to all the stories of the griot. He attended the chief who laughed with him and at him, sparking my envy.
When the raid happened we were prepared. The older villagers such as myself hid where we could observe. The young women and men went to their designated jobs as soon as lookouts reported redcoats. They fired up all furnaces. Omolola set dials on mechanisms that were little more than naked mainsprings. “No time for aesthetics,” she said, when I asked.
The British came with rifles and swords, most likely planning to intimidate us into surrendering our healthy ones without a fight. I am not ashamed to say I was in favour of this non-violent approach. Appeasement ensures survival. The English stood back and barked instructions to the Indians in their turbans and the black collaborators who made up the front line. They fired a warning volley from their Lee-Metford rifles even before they reached the village. This was their way. When I was a child we used to call the guns lightning sticks or amunowa, bringers-of-fire.
The blacks and the Indians broke cover, exploring the village, puzzled. The English came on their heels, sweating, arrogant, expectant. One man noticed the small furnaces smoking on the trees, but had no time to examine them. Misshapen bladders of black rubber rolled out from doorways of buildings and huts. Archers nocked, aimed, and let loose their arrows, puncturing each bag, releasing a green miasma that crept forward, hugging the ground, engulfing the invaders. I was curious about the smell, but Budo had us wear gas masks and we looked like glass-eyed demons to each other.
The invaders choked on the noxious gas. “Fall back!” screamed someone, but the moment for retreat had passed. The mainsprings wound down at the same moment.
“Get down,” yelled Budo at everyone.
The men nearest the tree were lucky. They died instantly, heads pulverised as the steam vented and the metal projectiles flew in every direction. Each tree discharged a foot-long metal missile. Men further away took hits to the belly or chest and died in agony. The ones furthest did not die. The depleted force embedded the rods in their bodies. They screamed in pain, and would live until they succumbed to inevitable corruption of the flesh.
Some of these tree-cannons failed. Boilers ruptured without building up the necessary pressure to propel the projectiles. Furnaces fizzled out. The rods went awry. Despite this, enough fired to discourage the English force.
We celebrated with loud cries and songs thanking Olodumare, the creator. Our mistake was to misidentify a skirmish for the war. The second wave hit before we could reload Budo’s magnificent weapons. They gave no quarter. They razed the village and killed old men, women, children. The English singled out Budo for particular cruelty as the architect of their suffering but also for his secrets. He never talked.
Omolola and her six children disappeared.
That was five months before.
If Kenton wanted Budo it was for the engines of war trapped in the prisoner’s head. The problem would be how to motivate Budo to give up his secret knowledge. I translated rapidly.
“…Légion étrangère, Algerian infantry, Penal Light Infantry Battalions, Zouaves and a smattering of mercenaries,” said Kenton.
“They came up river?” asked Budo.
“Under false Trading Company flags, then disgorged troops on the west bank of the Niger.”
A map sprawled over the table showing the rivers Niger and Benue, and where they met to form a Y. A Matroyschka doll marked the position of the French.
“How seasoned are your men?” asked Budo.
Kenton shrugged. “They are well-trained. Some have seen battle against the Mohammedans and a few of the older ones are veterans of the West Africa Squadron that was tasked by the Crown to catch or sink slavers. Make no mistake, we would have been able to defeat them quite easily, but our little…afternoon tea with your village left our numbers depleted. We have never lost to the French.”
Budo stroked the map. I noticed the cartographer frown and he seemed about to speak when Kenton silenced him with a look.
“What will you do for me in return?” asked Budo in halting Yoruba.
“Release. Full exoneration. You’ll have the thanks of the Crown,” said Kenton.
Budo laughed when I translated. “What do I care for their Crown’s gratitude?”
“You can receive papers that force anyone to assist you, or forbid any impedance. This is worth more than sacks of gold,” I said.
“I don’t care for gold either,” Budo said. “Why are you trying so hard to convince me? Do you enjoy being their slave so much?”
“I am not a slave,” I said.
“No, just a traitor.” He scratched his crotch. He had nits on his head and, I felt sure, his pubic hair as well. “Tell your Kenton that I will require absolute and immediate obedience of all my instructions if I am to do this on time.”
The first thing he did was snatch ink from the cartographer and request writing surfaces.
I will not pretend that I fully understood what happened in the days and weeks that followed. Budo supervised the making of engines using a complicated combination of dried bamboo sticks, repurposed iron and steel, rubber, gunpowder and different crystals of myriad colours. Kenton came into the workshop one day and picked up one of the contraptions which was a pole with a large but hollow ball of steel on one end. He looked at me, but I could not tell him anything. He was tired and worn out.
“You hate us, don’t you?” said Kenton.
I could not speak. All I had to do was lie, but despite all of my compromises I did not have this in me.
“Try to remember that we are people. These men have wives and children in England. I have family. I also have instructions that I must carry out.” He frowned, then turned and left.
We waited for the French just like my village waited for the British. The English still armed themselves with bolt-action rifles, but Budo had marked out places they could not walk. His eyes held a glint that was not battle-thirst. He wanted to see how well his mechanisms would work.
Rather than over-extend himself trying to defend the compound Kenton deployed forces to the south-east direction to meet the French. When the battle joined a light rain fell, drizzling, cooling every surface, causing mist to rise from the heat of the noon sun. They used conventional weapons, sinew, and raw courage. The foreigners shot at each other, and some died, some lost limbs, fighting over land that was not theirs.
Kenton never expected to win in the bush, outnumbered as he was. They fell back to the compound where they had dug foxholes and other places to hide.
To the French the compound must have appeared as a leafless forest where the trees were all six-feet high poles tipped with shining metal balls, shallow mud all over the ground and an after-smell of mulch and burnt rubber. They examined the buildings and the barracks, but found all empty. One legionnaire touched the nearest ball. Nothing happened. Then at the far end of the compound Budo emerged holding a device that looked like two polished iron hemispheres joined together with wires and metal spokes pointing outwards towards the enemy. It was the size of an adult goat, with thick cables growing out of each core and trailing behind him, woven into a tangle held up by seven infantry men. He wore elbow-length rubber gloves and half of his face was covered by a dark screen. He wobbled with the effort of manipulating the thing which looked like a giant insect.
“Close your eyes,” he screamed, and activated a trigger mechanism.
The crack that ensued was louder than thunder. Men howled with fear and despair. I had to look. A ball of fire rolled away from Budo about a foot off the ground. It seemed slow, but it bounced from pylon to pylon, leaking strands of electricity like thread from a weft coming undone. It passed through the first man and stripped his skin off in sheets, leaving a blackened skeleton. No scream. The bones crumpled to the ground, hissing in the mud.
The fireball ran amok. The first one fizzled out, and Budo fired again, and a third time. There were puddles of flesh, molten gore, bones, and equipment heating and blowing up everywhere. The breeze filled our noses with sulphur and ozone and excreta. A French flag burned in isolation, lonely as the cries of dying men. The compound was alive with flames.
Scouts confirmed that the survivors had fled.
Budo pointed his fearsome device at the heavens and fired. A glowing ball of yellow light floated straight and true into the sky, trailing lightning that struck trees, flagpoles and the roof of the officer’s mess before disappearing into the clouds. I thought it was out of character for him to celebrate in this fashion, and I was right.
He dropped the smoking engine on the floor and took off the gloves. He yanked me by the arm and took me to Kenton who was yelling huzzah with his men.
“Tell the white man I have finished my task and will be on my way,” said Budo.
“Is he jesting? I don’t know if this was science or sorcery, but I have to take you to London. The Queen will have use for your talents. You’ll be under guard until I can arrange passage for you.”
I did not translate this for Budo. I said he would be released later. I wanted to spare him the feeling. Time enough to break his heart on another day. There are many events in the womb of time which will be delivered. He smiled and at that point I noticed that he was counting. His devices were also ticking, winding down to something.
“You are wrong about the French,” said Budo in English.
Kenton looked stunned, but I had already begun to suspect that Budo knew more than he revealed.
“They are not monsters any more than you English are,” said Budo. “I met many French men and women while I was in Milan and Venice. They are like you.”
“You’ve been to Italy?” said Kenton. His right hand hovered around his pistol holster.
“Many times.” Budo turned to me and said, “Run. Don’t look back.”
This was a gift, undeserved, perhaps because he knew I did him a kindness in my speech. Or perhaps he pitied my age. I sprinted away, and heard Kenton shout my name twice before a mighty rumble drowned his voice out. I looked back, like Lot’s wife, and saw the finger of God smite the outpost. An oval, brown airship hovered within the smoke of the burning buildings. A weapon projected down from the gondola and shot flames at the survivors.
Something else: I saw Omolola. She hung in the air strapped to a gas bag that strained to ascend, tethered to a tree. She helped Budo reach the airship and they floated away.
That was the last I heard of them.
The governor general of Nigeria, Lord Lugard, wrote an account of this event in volume IV of his diaries.
In 1894 a small British outpost valiantly resisted a surprise French incursion. They fought to the death, every last man Jack, preferring to burn the coastal foothold rather than surrender.
Our history is not written in the pages of books, and the story of Budo is repeated by storytellers and griots all over the West Coast of Africa, in Brazil and in Haiti. It is told by campfire and moonlight, and it is commemorated by masking. Whenever you see a Yoruba festival with a masquerade sporting gigantic goggles and strips of rubber as tassels, you are watching a re-enactment of Budo’s exploits.
One image remains clear and frightening: the eyes of Omolola as she rescued her lover. I could see that she would have burned through any number of enemies and razed the forest to the ground if it stood between her and Olufemi Budo.
It will soon be time for me to leave this world for the next. My breath comes a little harder, my thoughts a little cloudier.
My tale is done.
About the Author
Tade Thompson lives and works in the UK. He writes crime, speculative fiction and general fiction. He is an occasional artist, enjoys jazz, but cannot play the guitar to save his own life.
About the Narrator
Suyi Davies Okungbowa is a Nigerian author of stories featuring African gods, starships, monsters, detectives and everything in-between. His godpunk novel, David Mogo, Godhunter, is out from Abaddon in July 2019. His internationally published fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Podcastle, The Dark, Mothership Zeta, Omenana, Ozy, Brick Moon Fiction and other periodicals and anthologies. He is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona, where he teaches writing, and has worked in editorial at Podcastle and Sonora Review.