Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go
Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop
Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn
Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think
—from Zombie by Fela Kuti, Nigerian musician
and self-proclaimed voice of the voiceless
My husband used to beat me. That was how I ended up out there that evening behind our house, just past the bushes, through the tall grass, in front of the pipelines. Our small house was the last in the village, practically in the forest itself. So nobody ever saw or heard him beating me.
Going out there was the best way to put space between me and him without sending him into further rage. When I went behind the house, he knew where I was and he knew I was alone. But he was too full of himself to realize I was thinking about killing myself.
My husband was a drunk, like too many of the members of the Niger Delta People’s Movement. It was how they all controlled their anger and feelings of helplessness. The fish, shrimps and crayfish in the creeks were dying. Drinking the water shriveled women’s wombs and eventually made men urinate blood.
There was a stream where I had been fetching water. A flow station was built nearby and now the stream was rank and filthy, with an oily film that reflected rainbows. Cassava and yam farms yielded less and less each year. The air left your skin dirty and smelled like something preparing to die. In some places, it was always daytime because of the noisy gas flares.
My village was shit.
On top of all this, People’s Movement members were getting picked off like flies. The “kill-and-go” had grown bold. They shot People’s Movement members in the streets, they ran them over, dragged them into the swamps. You never saw them again.
I tried to give my husband some happiness. But after three years, my body continued to refuse him children. It’s easy to see the root of his frustration and sadness…but pain is pain. And he dealt it to me regularly.
My greatest, my only true possession was my father’s guitar. It was made of fine polished Abura timber and it had a lovely tortoiseshell pick guard. Excellent handwork. My father said that the timber used to create the guitar came from one of the last timber trees in the delta. If you held it to your nose, you could believe this. The guitar was decades old and still smelled like fresh cut wood, like it wanted to tell you its story because only it could.
I wouldn’t exist without my father’s guitar. When he was a young man, he used to sit in front of the compound in the evening and play for everyone. People danced, clapped, shut their eyes and listened. Cell phones would ring and people would ignore them. One day, it was my mother who stopped to listen.
I used to stare at my father’s fast long-fingered hands when he played. Oh, the harmonies. He could weave anything with his music—rainbows, sunrises, spider webs sparkling with morning dew. My older brothers weren’t interested in learning how to play. But I was, so my father taught me everything he knew. And now it was my long-fingers that graced the strings. I’d always been able to hear music and my fingers moved even faster than my father’s. I was good. Really good.
But I married that stupid man. Andrew. So I only played behind the house. Away from him. My guitar was my escape.
That fateful evening, I was sitting on the ground in front of the fuel pipeline. It ran right through everyone’s backyard. My village was an oil village, as was the village where I grew up. My mother lived in a similar village before she was married, as did her mother. We are Pipeline People.
My mother’s grandmother was known for lying on the pipeline running through her village. She’d stay like that for hours, listening and wondering what magical fluids were running through the large never-ending steel tubes. This was before the Zombies, of course. I laughed. If she tried to lie on a pipeline now she’d be brutally killed.
Anyway, when I was feeling especially blue, I’d take my guitar and come out here and sit right in front of the pipeline. I knew I was flirting with death by being so close but when I was like this, I didn’t really care. I actually welcomed the possibility of being done with life. It was a wonder that my husband didn’t smash my guitar during one of his drunken rages. I’d surely have quickly thrown myself on the pipeline if he did. Maybe that was why he’d rather smash my nose than my guitar.
This day, he’d only slapped me hard across the face. I had no idea why. He’d simply come in, seen me in the kitchen and smack! Maybe he’d had a bad day at work—he worked very hard at a local restaurant. Maybe one of his women had scorned him. Maybe I did something wrong. I didn’t know. I didn’t care. My nose was just starting to stop bleeding and I was not seeing so many stars.
My feet were only inches from the pipeline. I was especially daring this night. It was warmer and more humid than normal. Or maybe it was my stinging burning face. The mosquitoes didn’t even bother me much. In the distance, I could see Nneka, a woman who rarely spoke to me, giving her small sons a bath in a large tub. Some men were playing cards at a table several houses down. It was dark, there were small, small trees and bushes here and even our closest neighbor was not very close, so I was hidden.
I sighed and placed my hands on the guitar strings. I plucked out a tune my father used to play. I sighed and closed my eyes. I would always miss my father. The feel of the strings vibrating under my fingers was exquisite.
I fell deep into the zone of my music, weaving it, then floating on a glorious sunset that lit the palm tree tops and…
I froze. My hands still on the strings, the vibration dying. I didn’t dare move. I kept my eyes closed. The side of my face throbbed.
Click! This time the sound was closer. Click! Closer. Click! Closer.
My heart pounded and I felt nauseous with fear. Despite my risk taking, I knew this was not the way I wanted to die. Who would want to be torn limb from limb by Zombies? As everyone in my village did multiple times a day, I quietly cursed the Nigerian government.
The vibration of the guitar string was stifled by my middle finger still pressing it down. My hands started to shake, but still I kept my eyes shut. Something sharp and cool lifted my finger. I wanted to scream. The string was plucked again.
The sound was deeper and fuller, my finger no longer muffling the vibration. Very slowly, I opened my eyes. My heart skipped. The thing stood about three feet tall, which meant I was eye-to eye with it. I’d never seen one up close. Few people have. These things are always running up and down the pipeline like a herd of super fast steer, always with things to do.
I chanced a better look. It really did have eight legs. Even in the darkness, those legs shined, catching even the dimmest light. A bit more light and I’d have been able to see my face perfectly reflected back at me. I’d heard that they polished and maintained themselves. This made even more sense now, for who would have time to keep them looking so immaculate?
The government came up with the idea to create the Zombies, and Shell, Chevron and a few other oil companies (who were just as desperate) supplied the money to pay for it all. The Zombies were made to combat pipeline bunkering and terrorism. It makes me laugh. The government and the oil people destroyed our land and dug up our oil, then they created robots to keep us from taking it back.
They were originally called Anansi Droids 419 but we call them “oyibo contraption” and, most often, Zombie, the same name we call those “kill-and-go” soldiers who come in here harassing us every time something bites their brains.
It’s said that Zombies can think. Artificial Intelligence, this is called. I have had some schooling, a year or two of university, but my area was not in the sciences. No matter my education, as soon as I got married and brought to this damn place I became like every other woman here, a simple village woman living in the delta region where Zombies kill anyone who touches the pipelines and whose husband knocks her around every so often. What did I know about Zombie intellect?
It looked like a giant shiny metal spider. It moved like one too. All smooth-shifting joints and legs. It crept closer and leaned in to inspect my guitar strings some more. As it did so, two of its back legs tapped on the metal of the pipeline. Click! Click! Click!
It pushed my thumb back down on the strings and plucked the string twice, making a muted pluck! It looked at me with its many blue shining round eyes. Up close I could see that they weren’t lights. They were balls of a glowing metallic blue undulating liquid, like charged mercury. I stared into them fascinated. No one else in my village could possibly know this fact. No one had gotten close enough. Eyes of glowing bright blue liquid metal, I thought. Na wa.
It pressed my hand harder and I gasped, blinking and looking away from its hypnotic eyes. Then I understood.
“You …you want me to play?”
It sat there waiting, placing a leg on the body of my guitar with a soft tap. It had been a long time since anyone had wanted me to play for him. I played my favorite highlife song. Love Dey See Road by Oliver De Coque. I played like my life depended on it.
The Zombie didn’t move, its leg remaining pressed to my guitar. Was it listening? I was sure it was. Twenty minutes later, when I stopped finally playing, sweat running down my face, it touched the tips of my aching hands. Gently.
Some of these pipelines carry diesel fuel, others carry crude oil. Millions of liters of it a day. Nigeria supplies twenty-five percent of United States oil. And we get virtually nothing in return. Nothing but death by Zombie attack. We can all tell you stories.
When the Zombies were first released, no one knew about them. All people would hear were rumors about people getting torn apart near pipelines or sightings of giant white spiders in the night. Or you’d hear about huge pipeline explosions, charred bodies everywhere. But the pipeline where the bodies lay would be perfectly intact.
People still bunkered. My husband was one of them. I suspected that he sold the fuel and oil on the black market; he would bring some of the oil home, too. You let it sit in a bucket for two days and it would become something like kerosene. I used it for cooking. So I couldn’t really complain. But bunkering was a very, very dangerous practice.
There were ways of breaking a pipeline open without immediately bringing the wrath of Zombies. My husband and his comrades used some sort of powerful laser cutter. They stole them from the hospitals. But they had to be very, very quiet when cutting through the metal. All it took was one bang, one vibration, and the Zombies would come running within a minute. Many of my husband’s comrades had been killed because of the tap of someone’s wedding ring or the tip of the laser cutter on steel.
Two years ago a group of boys had been playing too close to the pipeline. Two of them were wrestling and they fell on it. Within seconds the Zombies came. One boy managed to scramble away. But the other was grabbed by the arm and flung into some bushes. His arm and both of his legs were broken. Government officials said that Zombies were programmed to do as little harm as possible but…I didn’t believe this, na lie.
They were terrible creatures. To get close to a pipeline was to risk a terrible death. Yet the goddamn things ran right through our backyards.
But I didn’t care. My husband was beating the hell out of me during these months. I don’t know why. He had not lost his job. I knew he was seeing other women. We were poor but we were not starving. Maybe it was because I couldn’t bear him children. It is my fault I know, but what can I do?
I found myself out in the backyard more and more. And this particular Zombie visited me every time. I loved playing for it. It would listen. Its lovely eyes would glow with joy. Could a robot feel joy? I believed intelligent ones like this could. Many times a day, I would see a crowd of Zombies running up and down the pipeline, off to do repairs or policing, whatever they did. If my Zombie was amongst them, I couldn’t tell.
It was about the tenth time it visited me that it did something very, very strange. My husband had come home smelling practically flammable, stinking of several kinds of alcohol—beer, palm wine, perfume. I had been thinking hard all day. About my life. I was stuck. I wanted a baby. I wanted to get out of the house. I wanted a job. I wanted friends. I needed courage. I knew I had courage. I had faced a Zombie, many times.
I was going to ask my husband about teaching at the elementary school. I’d heard that they were looking for teachers. When he walked in, he greeted me with a sloppy hug and kiss and then plopped himself on the couch. He turned on the television. It was late but I brought him his dinner, pepper soup heavy with goat meat, chicken and large shrimp. He was in a good drunken mood. But as I stood there watching him eat, all my courage fled. All my need for change skittered and cowered to the back of my brain.
“Do you want anything else?” I asked.
He looked up at me and actually smiled. “The soup is good today.”
I smiled, but something inside me ducked its head lower. “I’m glad,” I said. I picked up my guitar. “I’m going to the back. It’s nice outside.”
“Don’t go too close to the pipeline,” he said. But he was looking at the TV and gnawing on a large piece of goat meat.
I crept into the darkness, through the bushes and grasses, to the pipeline. I sat in my usual spot. A foot from it. I strummed softly, a series of chords. A forlorn tune that spoke my heart. Where else was there to go from here? Was this my life? I sighed. I hadn’t been to church in a month.
When it came clicking down the pipe, my heart lifted. Its blue liquid eyes glowed strong tonight. There was a woman from whom I once bought a bolt of blue cloth. The cloth was a rich blue that reminded me of the open water on sunny days. The woman said the cloth was “azure.” My Zombie’s eyes were a deep azure this night.
It stopped, standing before me. Waiting. I knew it was my Zombie because a month ago, it had allowed me to put a blue butterfly sticker on one of its front legs.
“Good evening,” I said.
It did not move.
“I’m sad today,” I said.
It stepped off the pipeline, its metal legs clicking on the metal and then whispering on the dirt and grass. It sat its body on the ground as it always did. Then it waited.
I strummed a few chords and then played its favorite song, Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry.” As I played, its body slowly began to rotate, something I’d come to understand was its way of expressing pleasure. I smiled. When I stopped playing, it turned its eyes back to me. I sighed, strummed an A minor chord, and sat back. “My life is shit,” I said.
Suddenly, it rose up on its eight legs with a soft whir. It stretched and straightened its legs until it was standing a foot taller than normal. From under its body in the center, something whitish and metallic began to descend. I gasped, grabbing my guitar. My mind told me to move away. Move away fast. I’d befriended this artificial creature. I knew it. Or I thought I knew it. But what did I really know about why it did what it did? Or why it came to me?
The metallic substance descended faster, pooling in the grass beneath it. I squinted. The stuff was wire. Right before my eyes, I watched the Zombie take this wire and do something with five of its legs while it supported itself on the other three. The legs scrambled around, working and weaving the shiny wire this way and that. They moved too fast for me to see exactly what they were creating. Grass flew and the soft whirring sound grew slightly louder.
Then the legs stopped. For a moment all I could hear was the sounds of crickets and frogs singing, the breeze blowing in the palm and mangrove tree tops. I could smell the sizzling oil of someone frying plantain or yam nearby.
My eyes focused on what the Zombie had done. I grinned. I grinned and grinned. “What is that?” I whispered.
It held it up with two of its front legs and tapped its back leg twice on the ground as it always seemed to when it was trying to make a point. A point that I usually didn’t understand.
It brought three legs forward and commenced to pluck out what first was a medley of my favorite songs, from Bob Marley to Sunny Ade to Carlos Santana. Then its music deepened to something so complex and beautiful that I was reduced to tears of joy, awe, ecstasy. People must have heard the music, maybe they looked out their windows or opened their doors. But we were hidden by the darkness, the grass, the trees. I cried and cried. I don’t know why, but I cried. I wonder if it was pleased by my reaction. I think it was.
I spent the next hour learning to play its tune.
Ten days later, a group of Zombies attacked some oil workers and soldiers deep in the delta. Ten of the men were torn limb from limb, their bloody remains scattered all over the swampy land. Those who escaped told reporters that nothing would stop the Zombies. A soldier had even thrown a grenade at one, but the thing protected itself with the very force field it had been built to use during pipeline explosions. The soldier said the force field looked like a crackling bubble made of lightning.
“Wahala! Trouble!” the soldier frantically told television reporters. His face was greasy with sweat and the sides of his eyes were twitching. “Evil, evil things! I’ve believed this from start! Look at me with grenade! Ye ye! I could do nothing!”
The pipeline the men had barely even started was found fully assembled. Zombies are made to make repairs, not fully assemble things. It was bizarre. Newspaper write-ups said that the Zombies were getting too smart for their own good. That they were rebelling. Something had certainly changed.
“Maybe it’s only a matter of time before the damn things kill us all,” my husband said, a beer in hand, as he read about the incident in the newspaper.
I considered never going near my Zombie again. They were unpredictable and possibly out of control.
It was midnight and I was out there again.
My husband hadn’t laid a heavy hand on me in weeks. I think he sensed the change in me. I had changed. He now heard me play more. Even in the house. In the mornings. After cooking his dinners. In the bedroom when his friends were over. And he was hearing songs that I knew gave him a most glorious feeling. As if each chord, each sound were examined by scientists and handpicked to provoke the strongest feeling of happiness.
My Zombie had solved my marital problems. At least the worst of them. My husband could not beat me when there was beautiful music sending his senses to lush, sweet places. I began to hope. To hope for a baby. Hope that I would one day leave my house and wifely duties for a job as music teacher at the elementary school. Hope that my village would one day reap from the oil being reaped from it. And I dreamt about being embraced by deep blue liquid metal, webs of wire and music.
I’d woken up that night from one of these strange dreams. I opened my eyes, a smile on my face. Good things were certainly coming. My husband was sleeping soundly beside me. In the dim moonlight, he looked so peaceful. His skin no longer smelled of alcohol. I leaned forward and kissed his lips. He didn’t wake. I slipped out of bed and put on some pants and a long sleeve shirt. The mosquitoes would be out tonight. I grabbed my guitar.
I’d named my Zombie Udide Okwanka. In my language, it means “spider the artist.” According to legend, Udide Okwanka is the Supreme Artist. And she lives underground where she takes fragments of things and changes them into something else. She can even weave spirits from straw. It was a good name for my Zombie. I wondered what Udide named me. I was sure it named me something, though I doubted that it told the others about me. I don’t think it would have been allowed to keep seeing me.
Udide was waiting for me there, as if it sensed I would come out this night. I grinned, my heart feeling so warm. I sat down as it left the pipeline and crept up to me. It carried its instrument on top of its head. A sort of complex star made of wire. Over the weeks, it had added more wire lines, some thin and some thick. I often wondered where it put this thing when it was running about with the others, for the instrument was too big to hide on its body.
Udide held it before its eyes. With a front leg, it plucked out a sweet simple tune that almost made me weep with joy. It conjured up images of my mother and father, when they were so young and full of hope, when my brothers and I were too young to marry and move away. Before the “kill and go” had driven my oldest brother away to America and my middle brother to the north…when there was so much potential.
I laughed and wiped away a tear and started strumming some chords to support the tune. From there we took off into something so intricate, enveloping, intertwining…Chei! I felt as if I was communing with God. Ah-ah, this machine and me. You can’t imagine.
Our music instantly fell apart.
“Eme!” my husband called again.
I froze, staring at Udide who was also motionless. “Please,” I whispered to it. “Don’t hurt him.”
“Samuel messaged me!” my husband said, his eyes still on his cell phone, as he stepped up to me through the tall grass. “There’s a break in the pipeline near the school! Not a goddamn Zombie in sight yet! Throw down that guitar, woman! Let’s go and get…” He looked up. A terrified look took hold of his face.
For a very long time it seemed we all were frozen in time. My husband standing just at the last of the tall grass. Udide standing in front of the pipeline, instrument held up like a ceremonial shield. And me between the two of them, too afraid to move. I turned to my husband. “Andrew,” I said with the greatest of care. “Let me explain…”
He slowly dragged his gaze to me and gave me a look, as if he was seeing me for the first time. “My own wife?!” he whispered.
Udide raised its two front legs. For a moment it looked almost like it was pleading with me. Or maybe offering me a hug. Then it clicked its legs together so hard that it produced a large red spark and an ear splitting ting!
My husband and I clapped our hands over our ears. The air instantly smelled like freshly lit matches. Even through the palms of my hands, I could hear the responses from down the pipeline. The clicking was so numerous that it sounded like a rain of tiny pebbles falling on the pipeline. Udide shuddered, scrambled back and stood on it, waiting. They came in a great mob. About twenty of them. The first thing that I noticed was their eyes. They were all a deep angry red.
The others scrambled around Udide, tapping their feet in complex rhythms on the pipe. I couldn’t see Udide’s eyes. Then they all ran off with amazing speed, to the east.
I turned to my husband. He was gone.
Word spread like a disease because almost everyone had a cell phone. Soon everyone was clicking away on them, messaging things like, “Pipeline burst, near school! No Zombies in sight!” and “Hurry to school, bring bucket!” My husband never let me have my own cell phone. We couldn’t afford one and he didn’t think I needed one. But I knew where the elementary school was.
People now believed that the Zombies had all gone rogue, shrugging off their man-given jobs to live in the delta swamps and do whatever it was they did there. Normally, if bunkerers broke open a pipeline, even for the quietest jobs, the Zombies would become aware of it within an hour and repair the thing within another hour. But two hours later this broken pipe continued to splash fuel. That was when someone had decided to put the word out.
I knew better. The Zombies weren’t “zombies” at all. They were thinking creatures. Smart beasts. They had a method to their madness. And most of them did not like human beings.
The chaos was lit by the headlights of several cars and trucks. The pipeline here was raised as it traveled south. Someone had taken advantage of this and removed a whole section of piping. Pink diesel fuel poured out of both ends like a giant fountain. People crowded beneath the flow like parched elephants, filling jerri cans, bottles, bowls, buckets. One man even held a garbage bag, until the fuel ate through the bag, splashing fuel all over the man’s chest and legs.
The spillage collected into a large dark pink pool that swiftly flowed toward the elementary school, gathering on the playground. The fumes hit me even before I got within sight of the school. My eyes watered and my nose started running. I held my shirt over my nose and mouth. This barely helped.
People came in cars, motorcycles, buses, on foot. Everyone was messaging on their cell phones, further spreading the word. It had been a while since people who did not make a career out of fuel theft had gotten a sip of free fuel.
There were children everywhere. They ran up and down, sent on errands by their parents or just hanging around to be a part of the excitement. They’d probably never seen people able to go near a pipeline without getting killed. Hip-hop and highlife blasted from cars and SUVs with enhanced sound systems. The baseline vibrations were almost as stifling as the fumes. I had not a doubt that the Zombies knew this was going on.
I spotted my husband. He was heading toward the fountain of fuel with a large red bucket. Five men started arguing amongst each other. Two of them started pushing and shoving, almost falling into the fountain.
“Andrew!” I called over all the noise.
He turned. When he saw me, he narrowed his eyes.
“Please!” I said. “I’m…I’m sorry.”
He spat and started walking away.
“You have to get out of here!” I said. “They will come!”
He whirled around and strode up to me. “How the hell are you so sure? Did you bring them yourself?”
As if in response, people suddenly started screaming and running. I cursed. The Zombies were coming from the street, forcing people to run toward the pool of fuel. I cursed, again. My husband was glaring at me. He pointed into my face with a look of disgust. I couldn’t hear what he said over all the noise. He turned and ran off.
I tried to spot Udide amongst the Zombies. All of their eyes were still red. Was Udide even amongst them? I stared at their legs, searching for the butterfly sticker. There it was. Closest to me, to the left. “Udide!” I called.
As the name came out of my mouth, I saw two of the Zombies in the center each raise two front legs. My smile went to an “O” of shock. I dropped to the ground and threw my hands over my head. People were still splashing across the pool of fuel, trying to get into the school. Their cars continued blasting hip-hop and highlife, the headlights still on, lighting the madness.
The two Zombies clicked their legs together, producing two large sparks. Ting!
I remember light, heat, the smell of burning hair and flesh and screams that melted to guttural gurgles. The noise was muffled. The stench was awful. My head to my lap, I remained in this hellish limbo for a long, long time.
I’ll never teach music at the elementary school. It was incinerated along with many of the children who went to it. My husband was killed, too. He died thinking I was some sort of spy fraternizing with the enemy…or something like that. Everyone died. Except me. Just before the explosion happened, Udide ran to me. It protected me with its force field.
So I lived.
And so did the baby inside me. The baby that my body allowed to happen because of Udide’s lovely soothing music. Udide tells me it is a girl. How can a robot know this? Udide and I play for her every day. I can only imagine how content she is. But what kind of world will I be bringing her into? Where only her mother and Udide stand between a flat out war between the Zombies and the human beings who created them?
Pray that Udide and I can convince man and droid to call a truce, otherwise the delta will keep rolling in blood, metal and flames. You know what else? You should also pray that these Zombies don’t build themselves some fins and travel across the ocean.
© 2008 by Nnedi Okorafor
Originally published in Seeds of Change,
edited by John Joseph Adams
Reprinted by permission of the author.