BY ISRAEL USULOR

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“Go there go do registration”, said the security man at the gate after frisking through my Ghana Must Go Bag. He had checked my bag very thoroughly, putting his hands in every corner, sniffing every angle like a police dog, scattering all my neatly folded clothes, including my boxers and flipping through them one by one. He even searched the pockets of the undies. I wondered what he was looking for, I wondered if I looked like a smoker, whether he was looking for sticks of cigarette or wraps of marijuana or some pints of snuff. Miss Cozy, the young lady whom I had helped and who I was eyeing was standing behind me and I wondered if the security man would ransack her bag and flip through her pants the same way he was flipping through my boxers like the pages of the newspaper.

Interestingly, I had a knife in my bag, a kitchen knife and he found it!

“So you bring weapon come camp?” He asked, lifting up his head and rolling his eyes ruefully.

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“No sir, na kitchen knife o!” I answered.

“Kitchen knife no dey kill person?” He probed further, making me very uncomfortable. But I had other utensils in the bag, including two pots, a stove, one turning-garri stick, ten spoons, a ladle and five breakable plates. Those were my saving grace. But he confiscated the items all the same, saying “you go collect am when camp finish”

I had made sure I brought all my valuables to camp because I didn’t plan to go back home immediately after the camping period. I planned to kick-start the service year in earnest. This was unusual because every corper liked to return home after camp and tell their village people that “I have gone for service”. I wasn’t sure if I would overcome the temptation of not rushing home to hug my parents.

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I jerked my Ghana Must Go bag and moved to the registration point. It was the first day of the camp opening so there were rarely queues. In subsequent days, I would queue up for several hours to do one thing or the other, with my legs going numb and my head spinning. At the registration point, I met a fellow slouching on a rubber chair. I can’t recall if he was sleeping. He simply passed me a paper to enter my details.

“Go there go carry mattress” he said and went back to his slouching position.

All the mattresses were of the same size. They were narrow, slim and very flat and were meant for only one person to sleep on. Even at that, a fat corper cannot sleep comfortably on any of those mattresses. They were a perfect example of what you would call “student mattress”. But they were not of the same age, some were young, some were old while others were very old with their outer coverings ripped off by bed bugs. None of the mattresses looked new. I reasoned they have been used since the beginning of the camp, so, no need for selection, I just closed my eyes, did tumbom tumbom and picked one, dragging it with one hand like a stubborn goat.

The Ise-Emure NYSC Camp was hardly a sight to behold. The camp was built like a secondary school with boarding houses and a football field at the middle. There were up to eight or nine hostel blocks. There were two blocks of one storey building each. The girls’ hostel was located far away from the boys’ hostel. I didn’t like this because I like mingling with girls. They spice things up. The only places we get to mingle was at the parade ground, mammy market and kitchen. No private visits! That sucked!

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There was one chapel and mosque. There was The Pavilion which faced the open field where we congregated every morning for morning devotion. There was the Mammy Market which was a stretch of land full of several match-box, make-shift shops. It looked like Orie Market back in my village in Ebonyi state. There was the kitchen and the dining hall which hardly contained corpers because of its tiny size compared to the population it is expected to host. I never sat there to eat. In fact, no one did.  There was one lecture hall which was very small.

But one beautiful thing about the camp was that it was tucked inside a forest, away from the city centre, shut out from every noise and razzmatazz. So staying there was like staying with nature. I loved the tall trees at the Man O’ War Ground and I liked taking girls there because it was kind of hidden and one kind hide behind shrubs if soldiers were coming.

All the hostels were numbered in alphanumerics. I was assigned to Hostel A3. I entered the hostel dragging my mattress with one hand and my Ghana Must Go Bag with the other. I was entering the hostel like a refugee who just found a safe camp after a long, tortuous walk.

Immediately I opened the hostel door, the diversity of the Nigeria state hit me from different corners of the room. Languages flew around like debris generated by the harmattan desert storm. The first language that made meaning was Tiv. I immediately felt at home! Apart from Igbo, I have an emotional attachment to the Tiv people. I lived a total of seventeen years in Tivland, so wherever I see them, I feel a sense of brotherhood. I met them and introduced myself in Tiv Language. They were shocked when I told them I was Igbo. One was Igba, a graduate of Statistics, from Benue but who incidentally studied at Ebonyi State University. There was Paulinus, from Ukum; he studied Political Science at Benue State Univeristy. There was John, a graduate of Theatre Arts who would later prove himself to the whole camp as a very skilled dramatist.

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The beds in the hostel were double-decker iron beds. I picked one at the extreme end close to the wall. I placed my mattress on the first deck while Coper Jay who was Idoma from Benue state took the lower deck. I hung my mosquito net and found a wardrobe for my Ghana Must Go bag. The hostel was big with at least 48 beds. My immediate neighours were Maman from Katsina State, Ahmed from Sokoto state, Jumbo from Rivers state, Bola from Lagos state, Paulinus from Benue State and Corper Malam from Kano State.

After settling down, I and Corper Jay went out to eat at Mama Ejima’s restaurant at the Mammy Market. We also wanted to explore the camp and possibly meet new girls and catch them early before other boys arrived. The soldiers were yet to arrive, so the camp was ours for the taking.

The Mammy market in every NYSC camp is a crazy place, but I think the one at the Ekiti Camp was crazier. Everything was four-times the normal price. Strangely, we were buying and patronizing them at that high price. I don’t even know why! Maybe because it was part of the fun or we had no options because we mostly never had money to waste. That was how I bought a trainers canvas I didn’t need just because the girl selling it called me “handsome coper”. I knew I already had two in my bag, but I still bought the shoe anyway, just to impress the girl and possibly see if we could start something. It didn’t work because the next day, she asked me to buy her fresh fish pepper soup and I could not afford it. She never called me “handsome corper” again.

After eating, we went back to the hostel to catch some rest.

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My neighbor, Musa Katsina who just returned from the bathroom was trying to mop himself with a white, short towel. Musa, a quiet fellow had traveled a total of three days to arrive the Ekiti NYSC camp. He told me he had to connect Kano from Katsina and then Abuja, and then Ekiti. It must have been very harrowing for him.

“Musa how far now?” I asked.

“Fine my brother” he answered, still shivering from the cold of shower. There had been a little rain that evening, softening the atmosphere with cold breeze.

“Musa that your place far o! You sure say na Nigeria?” It was Jumbo’s voice. Everybody laughed. Jumbo was from Rivers. He has a biting tongue and seemed very troublesome. There were three very troublesome copers in Hostel A3. There was Corper Simon whom I liked to call Coper Axe Head because his head was shaped like an axe. Coper Axe Head who was from Abia state smoked indian hemp all the time and always kept late nights. When everywhere seemed quiet and asleep around 12am, Axe Head will come quietly and knock at the Hostel door, open it and slip in like a cat. And then when he enters, he starts a stupid argument. I admired his guts for I didn’t know how he became friends with soldiers. I reckoned he smoked with them. There was Coper Ahmed from Sokoto, a very smart fellow. Ahmed had very clear insights on many topics. And then there was Coper Jay whose problem was that he came to camp with nothing, always stealing and using people’s soap, toothpaste, perfume and food.

Everybody was now settling down in the hostel and tongues were starting to untie. It was not long before the room became a cacophony of male voices throwing up arguments in every corner, everyone trying to outdo the other in show of intelligence. Think of a room hosting more than a hundred graduates, in which everyone saw himself as an expert in his own right, a room with young people from different tribes and upbringing, and a room where there are only men.

Yes, a room where there are only men! It’s hard to stay without women. Believe it or not, the presence of a woman in certain places makes all the difference. Why did they locate the female hostels so far away from the boys’? “That’s unwise!” I thought. When there are no women, tempers run high, and men could harm each other. Men need women to calm their nerves. So in a room full of men, testosterone ran high and all I could hear were husky male voices without a soothing feminine voice to balance things up. Naughty me!

Which was why the hostel always seemed to me like a hall full of grinding machines, full of noise. But what could I do? Nothing! Nobody cared about my feelings. In fact, no one noticed! Naturally, I don’t know how to quarrel or to talk back in quick successions like a parrot. So, certainly, that’s a difficult room for someone like me who cannot have an uncontrolled conversation. But I did learn how to live with the noise and even started to enjoy it. I would listen quietly and scribble interesting points and characters.

Of course, I didn’t sleep that night and several other nights especially when the soldiers started waking everyone up by 3am. The noise kept me up till 12am and then the soldiers forced me to wake up by 3am. That made the camp very challenging for me because I was getting only 3 hours of sleep!

Meanwhile, that night, I updated my Facebook status: “Thank God for journey mercies. Ekiti please, be kind to me”.

Israel Usulor is a journalist and short stories, writer. You can reach him via @JonalistIsrael, 08104082159 and [email protected]



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