BY ISRAEL USULOR
Early in the morning of the second day of camp, we congregated in a small hall which could barely contain us. The Camp Director, Mrs Bidemi Kola, came to address us and issue few orientations. She spoke clear English with a voice that always sounded to me as if it was cracked. She had a particular signature hairstyle made of rubber twigs. She always dressed simply and anytime I saw her, she walked very slowly, almost absentmindedly. I liked to think she was a good woman.
In the hall, we were split into platoons. I was placed in Platoon Six. I shared this platoon with the likes of Erudite Professor Olutayo Johnson, a cerebral chap from Ondo State, who would later become a very close friend and ally.
That same day, we lined up for online registration through thumb printing which popped up your data from the NYSC Central Server. The queue was long and tiresome. It was not like the ATM queue that you can jump or manipulate, because soldiers were available to whip you into line. I stood on the queue with stupid fear and anxiety. What if I forgot any of my documents at home? What if I don’t have all the needed passports? What if my thumbprints failed to register? What if they sent me home? What if? What if? What if? Stupid, stupid, stupid anxiety. But I could tell I wasn’t the only one with such anxiety especially when a lady was sent home for not having all her papers.
After the verification, I collected my kits comprising of one trouser, two white shots, two white shirts, one crested vest, one boot, one white canvas, two pairs of stockings and one cap.
With the exception of the cap, the shirts, and the shorts, all the other items of clothing were oversized. The boot, I exchanged with a fellow with a bigger leg, the trousers I went to resize at the Mammy Market at a very high prize. That very day, the tailors at the Mammy market elevated the art of exploitation to a bizarre apogee. It cost me N2, 000 to slimfit my khaki. Not fair! That was a job of N200 in the streets. I paid the exorbitant fee because the khaki was completely out of shape. I wondered why I had to enter my cloth size in the NYSC enrolment form if I was still going to get something totally disproportionate to my slim self.
That afternoon, I wore my khaki and of course felt proud. I called my mum, my brothers, everyone callable and told them. I was just happy. I was overjoyed.
One of the most frustrating things in any NYSC camp is for you not to have an android phone with a good camera because the first thing you do after wearing your khaki is to take pictures and update your Facebook status. I didn’t have a good phone then! I had to borrow coper Jay’s phone, snap and then transfer the photos through Bluetooth to my Nokia Asha 200. That evening, I updated my Facebook status with the khaki photos with these words: “Life is turn by turn”.
As of that afternoon, I hadn’t hooked up with any girl. There was still time!
That same afternoon, we lined up at the parade ground for preliminary orientation and drills. Not long after I took my position on the line, I heard a voice saying “sarge your phone! Sarge your phone!” The voice was that of a chubby lady who hung a Bagco bag on her left shoulder as if she was going to pick okra from the farm. She kept walking back and forte, penetrating the whole parade ground from row to row, vertically and horizontally, repeating the same “Sarge your phone! Sarge your phone”. I have been standing there for several hours, tired and famished. We were waiting for the soldiers and Man O’ War to start giving us military drills. The woman’s voice made things worse for me. I had no idea what she meant by that, so I tapped Professor Olutayo Johnson who was next to me on the line and asked him to help me interpret what the woman was saying. “She is saying “Charge your phone!”” he explained. I beckoned at the woman and gave her my Nokia Asha 200 to “sarge” for me.
She would take the phone to Mammy Market and charge it at a fee. I later learned her name to be Mercy and we later became friends such that on several occasions when my pockets were dry, she charged my phone on credit and even free of charge. I imagined she would make a lot of money before the end of camp. For, one of the most frustrating things at the Ekiti NYSC Camp was that you cannot charge your phone at the hostels. There was constant electricity which hardly blinked, but there were no wall sockets or extensions. The authorities had made sure none of the hostels had wall sockets, all you see was a very big bulb glowing from the concrete ceiling. Finish! Mrs Bidemi Kola, the Camp Director kept warning in her usual cracked voice that “if you want to charge your phone, go to the Mammy Market! Do not temper with electricity connections in your hostels.” It was very annoying! I imagined they simply created a business for the locals.
There were no signs that the soldiers were going to start the drills any time soon. It was the first time we were assembling at the parade ground after wearing our khaki. They just kept bouncing around the parade ground in their characteristic stern faces, observing men’s faces and looking at our beautiful girls. They insisted that corps members stay on line according to their platoons. No one was allowed to sit down and rest, no squatting, just keep standing. I wondered what their intentions were. Soldiers don’t have emotions, the only emotions they show are anger and rage, they don’t care about your pain and they were killing me softly that afternoon.
All the vagaries of weather happened in Ekiti state in their extremes. Any day it rains, it rained cat and dog and sunny days felt like oven. That day, the sun was in its best elements as it blazed like the hot coal that powered Titanic engines. My patience was stretched to its limits and my endurance level had fallen to minus zero. My feet hurt so much from the pain caused by my tight boots. The most excruciating pain I experienced in the NYSC camp was the ones caused by my boots, my trainers and even the rubber canvas I thought was big enough to give my feet some space. But none of them seemed to size me anymore. For the first time in my life, I yearned to walk barefooted. Putting my legs in any shoes felt like matching razor blade, yet it was compulsory to wear them. If you dared remove them, the soldiers would tag you persona non grata.
At about 4pm and after about 4 hours of standing at the parade ground, I decided it was time to brave the odds and sit down on the ground and rest. I can’t kill myself! And the soldiers can’t do anything. Yes, they can’t do nothing! I’m not a soldier! Is it a crime that I have come to serve my country? You people want to kill me for my mother? Your plan no go work! I sat down! And nothing happened! Many people copied me! Soon, we were all sitting down.
The drills finally started at about 5pm by which time I was disinterested. All I wanted to do was to go back to the hostel, take my baths, go to Mammy Market and eat at Mama Ejima’s place, and then come back and rest my head on my flat mattress. But I could not leave until the soldiers were finished. I hated them, but I was powerless! They did things by force, even the drills were done with force. They taught us how to “remove head dress”. It was on camp I learned soldiers refer to cap as “head dress”. They taught us how to salute and greet Governor Ayo Fayose whom they insisted we must call “Oshokomole” which was his nick name. The Governor was coming the next day to observe the swearing-in and oath-taking ceremony which would officially flag off the service year.
At the end of the drills, I dragged myself to the hostel, picked my rubber bucket and went to the tap to fetch water. We never lacked water at the camp. There were several big water tanks positioned close to the gate, and there was never a time it failed to rush.
At the tap, I met a girl who also came to fetch water. Apart from the parade ground, kitchen and Mammy Market, the tap was another good place to hunt for girls. And this girl was there. She was so beautiful. She had large almond eyes that were so attractive. Her skin was so spotless that I could see the roots of the hairs on her legs and the veins on her laps. Her eye lashes seemed to blink twice when she blinked once. I looked at her and observed very intently, imagining things. Her eyes caught my own and I quickly turned my face away. Wow! “This is the one!” I said to myself. “Israel go and talk to her” said the devil that was pushing me. I yielded to the temptation. I decided to play a smart one. There was a long queue at the tap, so fetching water that evening wasn’t easy. I took her bucket, maneuvered and manipulated my way and had it filled with water. When I brought it to her, she lift her head from her Apple phone and said “thank you”. Her voice was so tender and it melted my heart.
“My name is Israel. Can we meet at Mama Ejima’s place by 8pm?” I asked.
“Ok! That’s fine” She said as she left, heading towards the girls’ hostel. When she had gone, I remembered I didn’t ask her own name, I didn’t take her phone number and that I didn’t fill my own bucket when I went to fill hers. I was stupid, foolish and mesmerized. “Israel you are stupid! Very stupid!” I said to myself stupid self.
Of course, I later went to Mama Ejima’s place that evening and I couldn’t find her. The next day, I saw her with one of the soldiers. I kuku ma respect myself and kept a safe distance!
I will hunt another day. There was still time!
Read part 2 here
Israel Usulor is a journalist and short stories, writer. You can reach him via @JonalistIsrael, 08104082159 and [email protected]
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