solar tree art by Brianna Castagnozzi

The Last of the Mbahuku Tribe
by Oyedotun Damilola

The sun was taking a siesta. A zephyr roamed about, basking in the ambience of scintillating petals. I squatted in front of the botanical garden, encased in the glass greenhouse, feeding all my senses on the bougainvillea, engrossed in the violet and white colors married on a sepal tube. A streaked coffee-brown butterfly perched on the petal of a clematis flower. The scenery brought me a heart-warming tide. The urge to enter the garden crossed my mind. A fervent desire to brush my fingers on the velveteen hair of plants. The yellow stamens of the lovely hibiscus flower called out to me with a lush smile. An upstanding apical bud equally seized my attention, too. Fuck it,” I muttered. I was about to radio the control room to unlock the garden when my receiver grunted. The voice was Ben’s.

“Simi, please head back to CCS. There’s something you must see.”

Ben’s voice was laced with anxiety—his words picky. Judging by the tone. I could tell my presence was of utmost importance. When I returned to Central Control Station, Ben’s proximity to the LCD television made him myopic. Intermittent blue dots appeared at the center of the thermo-screen, approaching with a moving circle ringed and maintained as a spotlight on each. I rubbed my eyes for a clearer view. Uncertainty and optimism stood high as a turban on my head. I counted roughly ten, perhaps eleven people. The glee forced its way out of me, obscuring my thinking.

“Are they what I think they are?” I asked Ben, still wrapped up in the active screen.

“There’s only one way to find out.”

 The elation in me began to deflate when I noticed the heavy presence of the Guardians at the settlement gate, suited up, clutching their weapons, assuming assault positions. I wouldn’t blame them, though. In the past we have had people dress like vagrants who needed help, only for them to reveal their true identity as rogues. I watched the tablet device held by Commander Abbey. The cameras planted at various vantage points scanned everything in a 360 degree radius and captured every intricacy of our visitors. How the hell did they survive the intense heat? The miasma out there was enough to shut down their entire nervous system before they reached our borders. But here they were, alive, though I couldn’t accurately say if they were without sickness. Illness was the least of their problems. WhiteWaters had a healing chamber that kills antibodies in the human system. Abbey zoomed the camera in on them, checking for weapons. Of course they had weapons. Who wouldn’t? He collected the megaphone from a Guardian.

“A tray will be sent to you from the gate,” Abbey said. “Drop all your weapons in it. Retreat three steps back, turn around with your hands behind your backs. Do not turn until you are asked to do so.”

It was protocol that these instructions were given to newcomers, however irksome it was. I expected that these people would ponder on this for a while. They mumbled esoteric yarns to themselves. I was rooting for them. It had been so long since we had newcomers in our peace-filled home. I longed for new faces. There were questions I wanted them to answer.

The first person to relinquish his weapon on the stainless tray glinting in the pervasive sun was a bespectacled man. Others followed suit, dropping everything with metal in it. A lady with a slanted weal on her face, wearing brown dreadlocks, black gloves, and ash ripped jeans steadied her eyes on the camera. She clasped her wooden bow and quiver behind her back, refusing to capitulate. Why must there always be one obstinate person, I thought. The bespectacled man spoke to her, hammering on the consequences of her petulant action.

Abbey began the countdown. Once it clocked down to zero, they would have to leave our gates, or else the laser would tessellate, extending its killer lines forward. Finally, the obstinate one gave in, placing her bow, quiver, and a mottled dagger on the tray. Guardians went out to restrain them—we couldn’t take any chances.

“Welcome to WhiteWaters,” Abbey said, watching them as they were marched in a beeline to the waiting room.

We are settlers of about twenty thousand people. Our heavily guarded wall was built with igneous rock, processed in an oven, and strong enough to insulate us from the seismic eruption hundreds of miles from our reach. We get our clean water from the aquifer, decontaminated through an underground pipe heated to purify the liquid that flows through it. In the western portion of the vast cultivated land, marooned among snaking vines at the edge of the ridge, a turbine system built by Dr. Grillo enables the power to run through the greenhouses protecting our plants from the weather. He says the sun is vexed, that her lethal rays will damage our budding plants.

In case you are wondering how our settlement has managed to live in oneness, sharing in the copious food resources, you will be pleased to know that our crossbreed seeds—monitored in a conical giant vase and nourished with earth minerals—have proven to grow in buoyant health. We owe all of this to Dr. Segun, volcanologist who foresaw the outburst of the lava, causing havoc on villages in its reach. This, the media called The Great Heat.

The newcomers were seated under the cool ambience of the air-conditioner, waiting to be interviewed. For the eighteen years I have lived in this settlement, there had never been hostility among us. All of us ensured rules were adhered to. To become a member of WhiteWaters, enjoying the benefits, an assessment of the mind was paramount before a newcomer was given citizenship.

Social worker, Mrs. Ada, a poised lady always garlanding a crest of aplomb on her head, was the next point of contact. A former secretary to Dr. Segun before The Great Heat, she was responsible for assessing the diverse group of people. One after the other, she called in the newcomers. I stood behind the rectangular glass, watching. A bottle of water was placed in front of the first person, and a snack to munch on. The man grabbed the drink. Slurping sounds broke the silence in the tranquil room. The questions roll out—six key questions:

—What happened to your former settlement?

—How did you find this place?

—Have you committed a crime before?

—Are you willing to adhere to the rules of this place?

—What skills do you have that will be of benefit to this place if you are given the right to stay?

—Do you promise to take up responsibilities, living in harmony with your neighbors?

The answer the newbies gave was a uniform yes, though a number of them gave reluctant responses. I figured some terms in the oath of acceptance didn’t sit well with them. Eight of them were desperate to live in this idyllic place. They were in a hurry to collect the form and append their signatures on it. Who wouldn’t?

Their hungry pores drank gluttonously from our balmy air. Their eyes and ears picked up the tweeting finches perching on the almond trees. While entering, the new people clearly noticed the sense of healthiness spreading around. No one would vacillate in becoming a member after sighting these things. The only two who seemed like trouble were the archer lady and a teenage boy who wouldn’t stop darting his eyes around the room.

I watched the archer who gave her name as Uki. She asked Ada if she could feast her eyes a little.

“Be my guest,” Ada said, reclining on the chair, taking down some notes.

Uki, still in the interview room, looked through the window. The flourishing copse waved their leaves at passersby. Everyone was engaged in one activity or another. I couldn’t tell if Uki was unsatisfied with the sight, or perhaps she thought this place was a mirage of something malevolent.

“Tell me something,” Uki asked Ada when she sat down. “I want to believe a place as comfortable as this would punish miscreants, right?”

Ada nodded. 

Uki engaged her interviewer some more: guessing the kind of the job she did, if she was married with children, how she managed to care for her family when she was married to one thing—this job.

As if things work like that here, Ada chuckled to herself.

Uki didn’t seem like a dissident. The Great Heat changed the world when it hit. People lost hope in the goodness that was once smeared on the faces and sprouted in the heart of many. We were the lucky ones.  

Dr. Segun foresaw the scourge that would ravage the earth. In one of my numerous yarns with him, he made mention of the anger Mother Earth is venting on earthlings. How long has it been that we have abused Earth, with our archaic and neoteric practices of culture, religion, and technology bruising her. I didn’t blame Uki for having a hard time believing our settlement was too good to be true. Sooner or later, she will grasp the reality of this paradise.

The Assembly, which met at the dome, was made up of people from different tribes and communities who were saddled with the responsibility of being spearheads of the settlement. Dr. Segun had envisioned an egalitarian system. In his defense, the world works better when class is severed. He who was the genesis of this place didn’t see himself as superior to others. “It has been my calling to redeem the world,” he had said umpteen times. There were little chatters here and there as we waited for Dr. Segun to arrive before the meeting commenced. He arrived at last, apologizing for the delay.

“I was invited by Salihu,” he said, taking his seat. “He was explaining to me one of his latest discoveries, the genetic mutation of a cow which underwent an artificial insemination.”

It was time for each of us to submit our weekly reports. Just as we were about to kick off, a faint quake shook the ground. We gazed at each other, at the ceiling. The cause of the seismic disturbance was the aftermath of The Great Heat that gathered us here in the first place. No one went out anymore, except the scientists. Ben monitored the accelerated readings on the thermo-screen to watch out for anomalies.

“There’s no need to be afraid,” Dr. Segun said in his placid tone of assurance.

Besides being a figure we all looked up to, his words carried the weight of certitude. We believed him. Why wouldn’t we? When the Environmental Hazard Control Agency foresaw eruption hazards, Dr Segun was steps ahead, creating an alternative. We all would have suffered third-degree burns, at night in our homes, when the magma poured out lava.

The reports were read out, ranging from plants, animal husbandry, health, education, and security. Ikey’s reports left us in awe. He had discovered fragments of a crystal among the debris of a collapsed rock. A granulated mixture of these fragments with a wee amount of basalt dust created a viscous substance perfect for covering a scar without a trace. We all laughed when he called it a permanent concealer.

Everything seemed to be on course. Dr. Segun turned to me, asking my thoughts about the newcomers who arrived at our gates yesterday. “Tell me. Do you see them as a good addition to our community?” 

I wasn’t certain why he wanted my opinion on this. “Sir, that question should be for Mrs. Ada. That is her area of expertise.”

He laughed, still insisting on my opinions. I cleared the imaginary blockage in my throat. In times like this I had to be fair, not allowing the urge to make new friends with the newcomers cloud my judgment.

“They are good people, sir,” I said, maintaining a steady eye contact with him.

He pulled out a file from a manila envelope and put on his glasses. This time he was the one that cleared his throat.

“It says here that some of them showed great enthusiasm for acceptance. Desperation sat obviously on their faces. Though one of them showed hostility.”

I allowed him to educate me some more. What did I know other than spending my time in the botanical garden, the library, or visiting Ben—who was obviously bored of the dim chiming computers and the sporadic blue flickering of the power signal picking up sensors from the watchtower. On some days I visited the hospital wards to see how the sick were recuperating.

He disbanded the meeting after all was said. He insisted I stay back, and gave me a personal assignment: find out if the newcomers were fraudulent. After all, rival groups have always wanted to take over our homes.

That evening, the newcomers were given temporary permits. Until we were certain of their truthful natures, there were places that were restricted to them. The dome was one of those places. Reverend Chuka often warned about being consecrated before coming into the sanctuary.

Uki seemed like some sort of recluse. She wore a stern face, sat on the seats lined along the paseo. The others had acclimatized most especially the children among them. The newcomers had received all of their belongings back, except their weapons. A house for their stay was also given.

“You don’t mingle with people,” I said, sitting next to Uki.

She responded with a shrug, apathetic. Dr. Segun says I have a knack for the inquisitive but it’s hard to see through a person who won’t even open up to you. What I could unravel from her hungry eyes was an unquenchable thirst for all she surveyed.

“I see your sunburn is healing quite quickly,” I said, trying another approach. “We have a full bed of geranium. A little of that ointment on your skin will work like magic.”

I shifted my gaze to lovers clasping each other’s hands. They were sitting on the manicured lawn, staring up at the stars waking up from the comfort of the emblazoned sky. Mother Earth truly blessed us for keeping her habitat in shape. I looked back at Uki as she tightened the lace of her boot, a pedant hung loosely from her neck. The small red shiny glass pendant, serrated edges with a tiny tail at the base, reminded me of an item near my stack of books.

“Where did you get that pendant from?” I asked, eager for a response.

She tucked it inside her tank top and closed the zipper of her jacket.  “What concern is that of yours?” 

“The pendant bears a striking resemblance to those of the Mbahuku tribe. They are a reclusive tribe offering sacrifices to the volcanic god. According to the books I’ve read, this tribe was the only one who could speak to the infuriated volcano spewing lava toward settlements.” 

“The pendant is adamantine,” she scoffed.  

The ground shuddered. Light bulbs flickered, tethered together on the fence. A statue of an eagle fell to the ground. The elderly guided the children to keep them from getting hurt.

“Such a perfect world you have here,” Uki goaded.

Every 23rd August was a day we dedicated to celebrating Mother Earth. Apprentices serving in one department or another have an opportunity to show off all they have learnt so far. We all look forward to this day, thanking Mother Earth for the blessings she has showered us with since we started to co-exist.

The newcomers were on a three-month probation period. Two months had gone by already. After one more month, if they kept up with their good work and manners, they would become full-fledged citizens of WhiteWaters.

Light rainfall pattered the ground before dawn charged up the sky. The whirring engines were ready as always. The event kicked off with the anthem of WhiteWaters, composed by the music department. The wording of the song perforated our minds, reminding us of the oneness that permeates our existence. “We should all be grateful for this opportunity,” Dr. Segun used to say.  

Next, drones went to each child, dropping sweets and candies and chocolate bars covered in colorful wrappers. The newcomers were not excluded. It was sacrosanct that everyone participated in the blissful day. Titillating smells of food traveled from the bakeries, soon to be served at the palatial dinner for everyone’s comfort. Folks filed out in their uniforms, parading, singing, waving their flags. In the middle of the gay community’s parade, a Hispanic lady went to one knee and proposed to her Nigerian girlfriend. Cheers thundered from all sides as they kissed.

Dr. Segun took to the podium to give a speech like he always did. He charged each person to be better in their dealings. “Here, there are no classes,” he said. “There are only authorities to keep us in shape. The vision to build this place was centered on my love for humankind.”

The celebrious audience rose to give a standing ovation when Dr. Segun made a ground-breaking announcement. Our scientists have improved our solar panel system so that when the sun sets, a maximum amount of energy is stored from the remnants of the heat lingering in the atmosphere.”  

Dearth of fuel was no longer a challenge. Solar panels could now easily power the entire city’s buildings and factories.

“I will leave the rest for now,” Dr. Segun continued. “I am sure most of you are bored with all this science talk, but I had to share at least that, because it is such an exciting breakthrough.” He was still talking when it struck me that I hadn’t seen Uki anywhere. I left the gathering, moving through sweaty bodies and smiling faces, snaking my way out of the throng.

I went to the botanical garden. People were often found there engrossed by the beauty of the iridescent cordate flowers. There was no sign of her there, however. Perhaps she had no interest in home-grown plants. 

Why is she so hard to crack? I thought. I meandered through the administrative block and health center, heading straight to the Center for Artifacts. I lingered a little there. Pictures, bones encased in glass, historical drawings, patched declarations of writings in Latin, and the constitution for indigenes in WhiteWaters were all arranged on the walls for our perusal. Still, I didn’t find her. 

My last stop was the aquarium. Aquatic animals inside acrylic glass frolicked about. Pop music softly serenaded the people who came here. “Where the hell are you, Uki?” I said into the air.

At times when I felt the need to clear my head, to dislodge the mountainous thoughts of what will happen when the lava comes to our domain, I’d visit the athenaeum in the dome. Seeing animated pictures of water fountains, and the architecture of a paradisal construction placed on top of the center table, these structures helped me to think better. 

I reached the door of the athenaeum, searching for my keycard. I couldn’t find it. The strange thing was, the door was opened. I didn’t expect it to be opened, considering the librarian should also be at the celebration. Walking inside with faint steps, I sensed an intruder’s presence. The thud of books on the tiled floor proved my intuition correct. I hid near a book stand, moving slowly, craning my neck to see who was here. How could I not know it was Uki?

“I knew you were an imposter from the first day I saw you,” I said, coming out in the full regalia of bravery.

She paused her rummaging. Books were scattered on the ground, some half opened, others face down, kissing the ground.

“First you stole my keycard. Now you are here searching for what to steal.”

“It’s not what you think,” she said, turning to face me.

Dr. Segun was right about her. He saw through her from the first day she stepped foot in here. She admitted to stealing my keycard, though she claimed the people who she came in with had nothing to do with her ill-practice.

“I was a stray. They helped me,” she continued. 

In truth, her words were seasoned with sincerity. But I shook off the soft voice telling me to believe her. “Why should I believe you?” I asked, moving to detain her.

“I am looking for a key. It holds the power to save humanity,” she said, lifting her shirt and showing me a tattoo on the left side of her stomach. I moved closer, marveled at the intricacy of the drawings. It was a full moon, inside it were stars like a constellation forming the face of a smiling woman. Beneath this drawing was the head of a deer. Flowered plants grew on each tine of its antler, stretching to form a canopy. Little birds cavorted on the plants, some roosting, others were flying higher towards the moon. “Believe me when I tell you that this heaven you think you have created will come to ruins when the lava hits your doorstep. The volcano is enraged. I know you can sense it, too.”

I ran my hand over my hair, pondering the candor of her words. What if she was sent by a group waiting to unleash hell on us? She could also be a spy. I didn’t know what to conclude. All my life I had been trained to study people for their true nature. Dr. Segun ensured I read a lot of books on human consciousness and psychoanalysis of the criminal mind. Now it seemed as though all my years of learning were a waste.

“I need to ask you something,” I said, moving closer to her. “Your response will determine if I believe your story about this key, or if you will be handed over to the Guardians.”

She sighed and nodded.

“Are you a member of the Mbahuku tribe?” I asked, maintaining eye contact with her.

She shut her eyes, and then opened them. She showed me the pendant she’d earlier hidden, a symbol of her people. I took it from her, opened a history book, and went straight to the page about this secluded tribe.

She was telling the truth. The key held the solution to humanity’s survival. The earthquake and volcanic eruption were both aggravated when the key was stolen from its rightful place. I studied her tattoo closely. I had seen the markings before.

The building began to shake again. This time it lasted longer than usual.

“If you know where to find this key, I suggest you tell me now,” Uki said, holding a pillar to keep from falling.

I scampered to my room, she followed me. Old and young were running away from the celebration, going inside their homes. A tocsin reverberated through the air. A voice urged everyone to remain calm. 

“The wall will hold, I insisted while entering my room. The key Uki spoke about was a neck piece the color of a kolanut, a sickle-shaped piece with a crescent engraved on it. Dr. Segun had brought it out from a music box and presented it to me on my fifth birthday. It stayed around my neck until I turned eighteen and felt I no longer needed to wear this knickknack.

I hung the key around my neck again for the first time in years. We left and went to CCS. I briefed Ben about this mission. He unlocked the gate, giving me the key to a hovercraft. The waterways were the easiest mode of transport out of here.

Dread gripped my heart when I sighted hot springs planted around the landscape like ridges. There were a few seconds of repose after which lava sprang out like ballistics, landing on innocent trees who disintegrated from the torture of the acidic substance. Uki led the way, gingerly leaping through the zigzag openings caused by the earthquake. She was taking me to where her people resided, hopeful they would still be there. 

I thought of the disaster that would soon hit her people. Why live in such an adverse environment when they could have a better life at WhiteWaters? It seemed I would never know. 

We hurdled through the debris impeding our path, bypassing burning-hot scoria that flew us. We carefully kept our bodies steady when we passed a kipuka, and stayed away from hydrothermal activity booming only metres from us. I almost asked Uki to turn back. Why would anyone remain here among such dangers? She forged ahead though, not allowing despondency to dwindle her strength.

“Madira,” she shouted when we approached a cave. “Emma, Fisayo, Kewe?”

The lava hit rocks near the cave. A conduit had given way to slithering lava. An avalanche of broken boulders flooded the area.

“No one is here,” I said. “This whole place will come down in ashes. It’s best we leave now.”

She ignored me, again shouting names of her clan members. A goat ran past us, followed by a boy, and then an elderly woman clutching a bent walking stick. More people came out of hiding. Uki’s face sparkled with joy. 

I removed the key from around my neck and handed it over to Uki. The elderly woman, who I presumed was the leader, spoke some Swahili and rubbed my cheek as she collected the piece from Uki. She pulled out a neckpiece that was the perfect complement to mine.

I said a silent prayer, hoping I wouldn’t be swallowed by the earthquake, or worse, burnt by the lava. The elderly woman joined my neckpiece with hers. The union of the two pieces formed a medallion—a full moon at the center, and a thunder sign at the tail the color of pale steel. She went to the cave, tracing the fissure. 

The cave juddered. The woman’s shriveled hands searched the crevices with all manner of dexterity. At last, she found the spot she was looking for and inserted the medallion inside the crack. It went in easily, swallowed by the hole as though the hungry cave was in urgent need of it. She stepped back, watching, as did we all. 

The cave made groaning sounds and a few rocks fell from the ceiling. Stones from the cave moved in unison, merging, shedding outer layers of dust and dirt. An opening in the cave gave way to a rod with ancient inscriptions, rising from the floor. The rod began to spin its way back toward the opening from which it emanated. We all watched it return to its hole in grand style. Locks and rocks gritted against each other, jamming. The mouth of the cave shut. The noise ceased. Lava streaming down the landslides stopped abruptly. The quaking also stopped. The coagulated clouds in the bleak sky disintegrated, paving the way for the yellow-golden sun to break out of its veil and shine.

“Is it over?” I asked, my heartbeat returning to its normal rate.

The elderly woman came to me and held my hand. She spoke Swahili to me. Uki translated to me.

Your father, Dr. Segun, had come to us saying he wanted to study the cave. We permitted him to do so when he showed us his identity card as a volcanologist and seismologist. He showed us a map, claiming there was a cave that held power to save humanity. Such knowledge was hidden from outsiders. We told him to leave, that no such thing existed. The cave he sought held great knowledge that could shape the world. That power in the wrong hands could bring an end to humanity.

Little did we know that your father had been seeing one of our daughters, your mother, and that she was pregnant. It’s a law that no member of the Mbahuku tribe will have such relationship with outsiders. We thought your father was willing to become a member of our tribe when we saw the honesty in his eyes, his desire to father the child.

Your mother died during your birth and your father was nowhere to be found. Somehow, he had brainwashed your mother into revealing the location of the key and the cave. He must have tried to remove the key when it broke into two. He took the half of it, leaving the other part inside. When we learned of this deception, we found he had also carted away scrolls that had been entombed there for centuries.

“So you are saying it was the knowledge in the scroll my father used to build his world?” I asked, wiping up the warm tears that rained from my eyes.

The settlement you reside in provided many with new homes. But it angered the gods of the cave. Earthquakes, volcanoes, sandstorm—these were the effects of your father’s actions.

She thanked me for returning the other half of the medallion. I told her of the creations which Dr. Segun made from their knowledge, encouraging them to follow me to WhiteWaters. She declined, saying someone had to protect the cave. Then she said that since I was also a member of the tribe, I was always welcome there.

I thanked her warmly and we departed. The vents along the path were cooling off. The heat that once swirled around vanished. I saw an obelisk towering near the cave.

“What will you tell your father when you get back?” Uki asked.

“I am sure he wanted me to return it. That’s the reason he handed down the other part of the key to me in the first place. You know, my father has good intentions. He wanted your kind to share your knowledge for the sake of humanity.”

Uki smiled and wished me well. I wanted her to come back to our settlement. She liked it there, I knew it. We were about to part ways and I wanted to hug her. She kissed me, not minding who was watching. I definitely would come see her soon.

 Droplets of serein fell on my head as I entered the hovercraft. I gazed back one last time, resting my eyes on her before I started up the hovercraft and drove off toward home.

Oyedotun Damilola (he/him) is a Nigerian who writes contemporary, speculative fiction, and non-fiction about pop culture. He likes to explore various themes ranging from the queer, environment, war, culture, tradition, myth and folklore. 

He has works published and forthcoming in Reckoning Press, Kalahari Review, (Africa Risen anthology, 2022), Clarkesworld, and Our Move Next Anthology

When he’s not writing you can find watching series and animations, surfing Pinterest for ancient items. 

You can connect with him on Instagram, @dhamlex.
Twitter, @dhamlex99