Odion was fourteen years old when the white men first came to Igbanke, a little mining village at the border of Benin City. He was playing with his little brother on the beach shore one breezy harmattan afternoon when he spotted them. Giant metal monsters afloat on the sea. Seeing three of those in the distance, Odion did not know what to think of them. “Boats?” he pondered at first. No. None of the boats he had seen were that big. And he had seen lots of them drifting across the Mekrou and Alibori rivers. Or perhaps those creatures that lived in the depths of the oceans? The ones his grandmother always told him stories about? Maybe they had emerged to bask on the surface, or to take their revenge on humans for all their wrongdoings. Whatever they were, they seemed to be getting bigger and bigger, until Odion thought that they would eat him up. He took his brother by the hand and ran back home to report what he had seen.
“We cannot trust them.”
“You do not even know what they want.”
“They have hair on their faces like dogs!”
“They come in peace.”
Odion eavesdropped on the meeting of the chiefs that was ongoing in his father’s living room. He sat, perched on the doorstep with his ear pressed against the mighty iroko doors, which were shut to ward off the likes of him. They are talking about the white men, he concluded.
At first, he thought them strange, but they visited the village so often that sighting them around the streets soon became a part of everyday life. They would give out strange sweets to the children they found in the boulevards and even offer piggyback rides. The village had warmed up to them. The mothers cooked soups and presented it to them in beautiful calabash bowls. The fathers drank palm wine with them in the cool of the evenings as their intoxicated laughter would fill the air. The young women seemed charmed by them as they would often whistle and blow kisses when they passed.
One of them in particular, Alan, grew quite close to Odion. He would visit their home frequently, almost never failing to bring those strange sweets with him. He would tell Odion and his brothers stories about “The land beyond the stars” where he came from. Where the houses scratched the sky and white powder fell from above and covered the ground. Odion was intrigued and always prompted him with questions about this strange land that sounded too impossible to exist. But before him was a white man. With skin as white as the ablo rice paste that his mother made on Sundays.
“Alan?” Odion beckoned one day, while he sat next to him on the beach shore, with his head on his shoulder, watching the tide pull back and forth in the cool of the November noon.
“Yes, Odion?” His voice was warm and mellifluous, which Odion liked about him. His slender but strong arms rested behind him, while propping him up. His hands were rooted in the cold sand as his head tilted upwards, soaking in the barely existent sun on his slightly freckled face, while the occasional wind tousled his thick, brown, neck-length hair. Odion gazed up in childlike wonder, his hazel eyes almost pleadingly. “Can I come with you? To the land beyond the stars?” Alan seemed pensive for a moment. He tucked a lock of hair behind his ear.
“Why would you want to leave?” His manner was rather gentle and genuinely inquisitive.
“You have everything you could ever want. A home, family, a community that loves you…”
“I want to see the land beyond the stars,” Odion said more calmly, before looking again towards the sea.
One week later
Odion skipped his way over to Lugard street close where Alan lived. They were reading a book together called THE MILL ON THE FLOSS. Alan had given it to him and promised to read it with him. It was quite a big book. And quite a strange story in it as well. Why was Maggie so obsessed with her brother? And why did Tom go to the pond just to see a pike? (Whatever that was) Strange very strange.
Odion approached the door of Alan’s mud-bricked Tata house and knocked. He was greeted by silence”
“Hmm” he thought. “Maybe he’s not in.” Just as he was about to turn back, he heard some whispers from inside. He crept to the side of the house where the window hung and stood beside it. So as to not be seen.
“We will subjugate them from tomorrow.” One voice boomed.
“But nothing. The queen cannot wait any longer”.
What could they be talking about? Odion pondered curiously.
“She demands livestock. African livestock.”
Odion gasped in horror. Surely they did not mean…slaves?
“What was that?” The voice inside sounded startled.
Odion ran. He ran as fast as his legs could carry him. Through the fields and the boulevards. All the way to the Oba’s palace, past the grasping arms of the royal guards and threw himself on the raffia mat, right at the feet of the king.
“Oba ghato kpere ise.” Odion panted while saluting the King. His head still to the floor.
“What is the meaning of this?” The Oba demanded furiously.
He seemed to have been in the middle of a meeting with the chiefs and his father just so
happened to be present. “Odion what are you doing?” He whispered, embarrassed.
“Your highness, I bring news concerning the white men.”
“Speak, child.” The Oba replied, more subtle.
“They plan to take us as slaves!”
A cascade of shocked gasps filled the room from the chiefs. The Oba remained silent, then started to cackle maniacally. Odion looked up in disbelief.
“You…you knew about this.”
“Knew about it? Child, I approved of it.” The Oba rose from his throne and strolled over to the edge of the room.
“The white men from the land beyond the stars have promised us allies, weapons, machinery of which the people of the Benin Kingdom have never seen before. We will become unstoppable in battle. A true force.” He looked up, as if anticipating for the victories yet to be won.
“Your people have done nothing but adore you. Hold you in such high esteem and yet you…you sell them off as slaves?” Odion’s voice was broken and on the brink of tears.
“Silence child!” The Oba barked. “You do not have the faintest thought of what a King would do for the betterment of his Kingdom! And if it comes to human life then so be it.”
“Your highness, did you not think to include we, the elders in such a matter?” One of the chiefs requested, while the others murmured in unison.
“I am king. And I take no orders from you or anyone else. I command it!” His neck veins bulged as he pointed his walking stick across the room.
Odion rose up, jaded and lunged for the Oba. “How could you?!” Only to be held back by his father.
The guards were already springing into action behind him. They snatched Odion away from his father and bound his arms behind his back.
The Oba ambled grandly to where Odion stood and lifted his chin with his finger.
“Do not be so glum, Okhuo. You will be the first of our kind to witness the white man’s land and make our Kingdom great again. Take him.”
Odion’s father threw himself at the feet of the king and pleaded on his behalf.
“He is but a child, your highness. He does not know what he does.”
The other chiefs joined him and wept, but there was no changing the Oba’s mind.
Odion gazed onwards to the sea. It was larger than any river or stream in Igbanke. His frail body ached from hours of standing on deck and having very little to eat. He shuddered at the occasional gust of ocean wind that blew at his bare shoulders. His arms were sore from being bound to the ship’s mast. His face was streamed with the white residue of dried tears. The child beside him flinched, as if he just woke up from sleep and wailed when he remembered where he was. A hot tear rolled down Odion’s cheek and splattered on the wooden floor. He rested his head on the mast and sobbed. Everyone he trusted had betrayed him. Who knew what awaited him? As he embarked on a journey to the land beyond the stars; The land of no return.