BY ISRAEL USULOR
“Oboy shift na!” shouted Oyelowo. I knew his name because he had it boldly embossed on his cap. We were at the kitchen where we had gone to collect the evening meal. It was to be our first meal from the NYSC kitchen. The previous day, the authorities had handed us a 21-day meal ticket. Each day had “breakfast”, “lunch”, and “dinner” clearly typed out on three rows and each time I visited the kitchen, a row was ticked. There was a lot of frenzy that evening because it seemed everyone wanted to know what NYSC food tasted like. People were excited and the whole kitchen was rowdy. Even people who could afford Mama Ejima’s food at the Mammy Market opted for “kitchen food” that evening. Everyone you see was clutching a brand new food flask.
“Shift go where now?” I responded in a calm voice since I didn’t know how to shout back. I knew Oyelowo to be talkative, so I didn’t want to offer him an open invitation to yab me. Oye, as he was fondly called, was not even on the queue, he was just moving around like an inspector whose job was to whip people into line. Even I too was out for mischief. Indeed, I was not moving. Anytime the queue moved, I took just a single step instead of two or three forward. My slow-motion was completely intentional because there was a lady at my back and she had a large milk factory. Each time she moved forward, her milk factory grazed my shoulders, thereby sending shock waves down my spine and causing a tingling sensation on both my toes and inside my head. Don’t blame me. I can’t kill myself and if you put sugar in my mouth, I won’t spit it out. Besides, I’m a child of God, it’s just the devil won’t let me have peace in this camp.
The food that evening was white rice and stew. When I succeeded in collecting my ration, I went straight to the hostel, sat on my bed, and opened my food flask like a coveted trophy. I had no spoon, so I used my hand to eat.
The food was tasteless! The only taste my taste buds could detect was that of fresh tomatoes. I wondered how they made the food such that a cheap and vital ingredient like salt was missing. I finished the food anyway because I was hungry and I had started to watch my spending habit. The 12k that followed me to camp was remaining just 6k after only three days of camping.
I had no problem with the taste of the kitchen food. How can I have problem with it? Do I have money to be visiting Mama Ejima’s place three times a day? I will manage the food biko! But my problem was that it was usually very small. Accepted, the food was tasteless, but let it be big enough to satisfy me now.
After few days of visiting the kitchen and seeing that there was no improvement in the size of food, I became frustrated by hunger. The activities on camp were very strenuous and energy-demanding such that one needed to feed well to avoid stories that touch. Days went by and the food kept getting smaller instead of bigger and I kept getting hungrier and thinner. I decided to remedy the situation and the only way to do that was to steal food from the kitchen.
Stealing from the NYSC kitchen was very easy and I and my friends did it in three ways. Corps members took turns to serve in the kitchen according to platoons. Therefore, it was easy to get accomplices. So the first method was to make sure that only our friends got posted to the kitchen as cooks and stewards. I made friends with those who served in the kitchen. For instance, on the day that Platoon Five served in the kitchen, I lobbied the Platoon leader and got Coper Jay and Miss Cozy posted to be among the stewards. It was like politics since I was pushing in my friends to go and represent my interest. I succeeded. That day, I got triple rations!
The second way was simpler and it also involved having a friend in the kitchen and among the stewards. The game was simple. I just go to the steward, collect my food and leave without having my meal ticket ticked. If my meal ticket was not ticked, it means I have not eaten, so, I can keep collecting food as many times as I wanted and finally tick the ticket when I ate to my satisfaction. Strangely, I felt no remorse! Maybe because it was fun, or I was stupid or foolish and selfish. I was not the only one doing that. Yet, deep down, I knew that we deserved better than the food we were eating because I suspected the authorities were hoarding food.
A few more days later, the authorities seemed to have discovered our trick. They stopped platoon leaders from appointing stewards and instead, picked those they wanted by themselves. This time around, my pockets were completely empty. We decided to implement plan C.
“Coper Jay” I called one evening. He just came back from parade ground where he was training for the upcoming football competition.
“Oboy how far now?” He asked, dropping his boots and picking a bucket to go to the tap.
“Oboy wahala dey o! Moral low o!” I responded.
“No worry, wait for me, we will go to the kitchen together” He said as he sauntered off.
At the kitchen that evening, I had no idea what Coper Jay had in mind because none of our friends was among the stewards, so there was no way we could get away with any form of treachery.
Not long after we joined the queue, Coper Jay started an artificial stampede. In the midst of the chaos, we disappeared from the queue and sneaked into the main kitchen. There was no one in the kitchen except one man who had run out to see what was causing the stampede. Coper Jay carefully opened the latch and slipped in like a cat. I followed. We came face to face with food. There were large pots in every corner, with long wooden ladles hanging on them. There was a big cooler behind the door and it was full of wrapped eba. Coper Jay picked five wraps of eba and I picked four wraps. He opened the soup pot, took a ladle and scooped soup for himself, and poured large quantities into my food flask too. The soup was very thick, thicker than the one being rationed outside. The wraps of eba too were stronger than the watery ones we received at the dining.
“This people are wicked” I said as we carefully returned to the hostel to enjoy our loot.
From the loot, I took one wrap of eba and two chunks of meat to a new girl I was trying to woe. Her name was Halima.
I first met Halima during our first rehearsal for Inter-Platoon Drama Competition. I joined the Platoon Six Drama Troup not only because I loved acting, but also because I wanted to escape the parade.
To me, the parade was an uphill task and throughout the camping period, I never picked up on the parade drills or skills. I hated the boring monotony of match past. I hated repeating one thing over and over again for that is what a military parade is. Although I loved watching the military parade for its sheer beauty and uniformity, I never wanted to participate in one. I also loved the tunes the NYSC band played for the parade as I would sit at one corner of The Pavilion and listen to them especially anytime they played James McGranahan’s “Showers of Blessing”. The trumpeters were superb and intoxicating to the ears. But that never helped me to enjoy the parade.
Yet, the parade was compulsory for everyone except if you were sick or had other important assignments you were handling for the platoon. There were many upcoming competitions, so one had to be involved in one thing or the other. I didn’t want to participate in the parade and they were forcing me to do it because of my height. The commanders looked out for tall copers and those who would stand out. I kept running away but there was hardly anywhere to hide on camp. I had to find a way out.
I invited one of the soldiers to the Mammy Market and bribed him with two bottles of Star Larger Beer. But surprisingly, after drinking the beer, he stood up and told me “stand up let’s go. It’s time for parade”. I was furious and livid. Poor me, I couldn’t do anything.
Out of frustration, I ran to the Platoon Six Drama Director, Corper Abiodun and introduced myself, telling him I could act very well and that I was a dramatist. Graciously, he told me to not only write the script, but to also direct the drama during the Inter-Platoon Drama Competition. I never went back to parade.
It was during one of the rehearsals that I met Halima. Corper Halima who hailed from Adamawa state was an excellent actress. At the end of that drama, I started having serious feelings for her. She was so beautiful. She had peculiar cat eyes that actually moved like those of a cat. She was not tall and she was not short, she was just there, cute and petite. I fell for her and people noticed our closeness during rehearsals. We were getting serious attention. Tongues started wagging. I didn’t care, for she was the only girl I truly felt anything for on camp. In fact, l loved Halima. So many things happened between us thereafter.
Read part 3 here
Israel Usulor is a journalist and short stories, writer. You can reach him via @JonalistIsrael, 08104082159 and [email protected]
Note: This story is entirely a work of fiction and a product of the author’s creative imagination. Any resemblance in characters or occurrences is merely a coincidence.
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