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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Challenges and Trials of a Nigerian NYSC Member


Martins chibuikem


Challenges and Trials of a Nigerian NYSC Member


As I held my call up National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) letter in my hand, I wondered what it would be like to finally go for youth service. Looking back at all that I have been through in school including the gruel some 2 years I had to wait to be finally mobilized for youth service, I wondered if the wait was worth it. As a graduate in Nigeria, if you don’t serve you will definitely find it hard to get job. So it is as important as your university degree it self. The National Youth Service Corps is a mandatory one year program in which graduates from different schools serve the nation for one year in a place where they will be posted. They say its voluntary but it is what we call optionally compulsory. The government has made it such that if you don’t go for service, you may not be able to find a job because every potential employer will require you to present your discharge certificate; a certificate given to you at the end of your one year service.

For the umpteenth time I glanced through my call-up letter allowing my self to savor this taste of victory over the under graduate life I had lived for the past two years after my finally exams. I made my way out of the student affairs office of our school into the office surroundings and walked past the gate of the set of offices that served as the administrative blocks, trying desperately not to over display the joy that is ripping through my soul. Over and over again I muttered under my breath ‘thank God! So this thing is over’. I gleeful crossed the narrow tarred road separating the rest of the school from the admin block almost skip-walking in my steps, made it into the adjacent grass-less football pitch I had known for almost 7 years, then past the block of buildings that constituted the school of engineering, taking one last glance at each of the building especially the new robotics and automation block where we had our project defense. God! I will never see this buildings again, not after what I passed through in this school. I almost ran into one student making her way to the admin block ‘sorry!’ I exhaled as I quickly stepped on the main campus tarred road leading to the main gate looking to see if I can notice any familiar face who I will finally break the news to. As I slipped past the school gate I whipped-out my phone, went straight to a recharge card vendor’s kiosk bought two 100 naira recharge card, one for my MTN and the other for my Airtel line (my phone is a dual sim phone).I recharged my phone and called my number one and two cheerleaders; my Mum and my sister.

My mum was so excited she broke into songs on the phone, for her it was a miracle because when I got that admission the family was in such a financial mess that they could not afford the fees, in fact we could barely make three square meals talk less of the pleasure of going to school. She was overwhelmed with joy and she praised God for giving me the faith and strength to go through school despite the odds. So was my sister and them my father. After the calls I took I bike and made my way back to the lodge where I was staying with Emeka.

As early as 5 am the next morning I was I wide awake determined to find my way to Itesiwaju local government area in Oyo state. That is what is stated on my call up letter. I was to find my way to the NYSC orientation camp in Iseyin, Itesiwaju local government in Oyo state. I had never heard of the place before and there are no government provision as regarding getting there, no specials buses for corps members who have been recently mobilized for orientation, nothing. The mention of Oyo state reminded me of Ibadan, which is the capital city of Oyo state at least I could recall that from my primary school days when we used to recite 30 states and capital. I started making calls asking directions of how to get to Ibadan, common sense told that if I can get to Ibadan then from there I can start finding my way to Iseyin. Before long, I came to the conclusion that I had to board a bus going to Lagos, then stop somewhere in ijebu ode where I would now find a bus going to Ibadan or I could alternatively get to Lagos and then board a bus to Ibadan. The first plan sounded more adventurous so I stuck with it. I had been to Lagos but never stepped my feet on the soil called Ijebu ode. Few minutes to the hour of 7, I picked up my already packed light traveling bag, a back pack, bid my dear old friend Emeka good bye and set off to a land I have never been before. I got to the bus terminal in no time boarded a small bus going to Lagos. After e few delays the bus departed for Lagos. As we settled down into our seats I took I quick glance around the bus, paying special attention to the young people in the bus, my instincts convinced me that some of them where also students who have just been mobilized for the national youth service and before long my instincts were proved right. I was sitting in the third row which is second to the last in the four rows 3-seater per row bus and as each passenger tried to acquaint themselves with their neighbor I understood that the young guy sitting behind me was a corps member recently mobilized to Oyo state like me. Also the fair girl with the swollen red eyes sitting at the edge of the row behind me also who has been crying since we boarded the bus is a corps member recently mobilized to Lagos state. It took us almost half of getting out of Owerri and Imo State as a whole to convince her to stop crying. She was missing her home and family. Her sister had been at her side of the window all the while we were at the bus terminal sharing her tears and grief and comforting her. At the window side of the first row immediately behind the driver’s seat is a girl who later became my friend in the orientation at Iseyin, her name is Ozioma. She is dark in complexion and pretty much stuck to her self all through the ride.

As we got to Ijebu ode, I called out to the driver telling him I would alight here. He stopped and I alighted from the bus, waved goodbye to the friends I have just got to know in the past 8 hours and joined a waiting bus that was on its way to Ibadan, I quickly scanned the old Mitsubishi bus that would be taking us to Ibadan and discovered mainly local market women who either are going to Ibadan on business purpose on were going into Ijebu ode town, dropping off at various points along the road. I took my seat in the front beside the driver, brought out the remaining bunch of banana left over from the initial bus trip and kept my self busy taking-in the scenery of the express road.

In less than an hour we were at Ibadan. I didn’t know how to get any form of transport to Iseyin so right from the Ijebu ode bus I started asking questions. Luckily an old man in the bus volunteered to help me find my way to a motor park for Iseyin since he was almost going my way. As we alighted from the bus at Ibadan, I followed him as he directed me to where I would get a taxi that would take me to where I would get a bus that would take me to Iseyin Motor Park. Forgive me for not calling the names of these places and bus stops. I had no knowledge of where and where I was going or the names of the bus stops and areas. In fact I could easily get lost in the city of Ibadan and my parents and friends would never know where I was or what happened to me. I was a total stranger and my fate and safety was entirely in the hands of the strangers I was asking for directions. A zillions times I had to explain to people that I was a youth corps member on my way to the orientation camp in Iseyin and I don’t know where it is, coupled with the fact that I could not speak or understand Yoruba which was the language of the people, thank God for few people that understood pidgin English I would definitely have lost my way.

By the time I got to Iseyin, it was almost six o’clock. Iseyin is approximately a 2 hours journey from Ibadan, a very long distance from Ibadan but by the time I got there, I was not disappointed, I immediately fell in love with the town.
It is a small town hinged on every side by hills high enough to be described as mountains with its surrounding jungle. It is a pretty developed town, with a post office, hospitals, a couple of filling stations, schools, tarred roads etc. Magnificently situated within the heart of the town is the Oba’s palace opposite the local market and adjacent the Oba’s palace is the only modern shopping complex in the whole town; a one story building of lock-up shops. The Oba is called the Aseyin of Iseyin. Some other note worthy modern buildings are the town hall situated at the center of the town and the bank buildings, every other building is the normal old structured building crowned with the characteristic old brown rusty zinc that is signature to Oyo state. They stand as testimony to the early civilization of the old Oyo Empire. I also noticed a considerable number of mosques over churches, profoundly stating that the indigenes are predominantly Muslims.

Immediately I alighted from the bus at the Iseyin local government headquarters which is adjacent the technical school that serves as the orientation camp, a swarm of youngsters, hawking all of kinds of stuff beleaguered me with their wares and services which range from taking an on-the-spot passport to buying plastic water buckets, waist pouches, soap dishes, bathing sponge etc. Every conceivable thing that I would need in the camp was on sale. They were prepared and ready for the young new corps member that were arriving the camp from different parts of the country. The weather was not helping either as it was already drizzling, looking around I saw other people struggling with their luggage like me thronging towards a particular gate and immediately guessed that was the camp gate, so I quickly patronized some of the hawkers since they were the welcome party and headed for the camp gate.

It was a secondary technical school with a story building at the entrance close to the gate. There was a makeshift market behind the one story building called the mammy market also known as the camp market. According to camp rules, once you enter the gate as a corps member you are not allowed to go out of the gate except by the permission of the camp director or state co-coordinator. There is a pavilion at the far end of the open football field which served as the ceremonial stand where dignitaries seat for special occasions. Immediately behind the small pavilion is a group of trees that served as our seminar hall, we sat everyday under the shade of those group of trees to receive lectures from the different lecturers and entrepreneurs that came to visit us in the camp. I use the word entrepreneurs because many of the organizations and people that came to talk to us were peddling books or one certification or the other, it was actually a marketing spree. At the left hand side near the gate was group of blocks that must have been the class rooms of the school but for the purpose of the camp will served as registration blocks, then later was converted to camp clinic and hostels when registration is over. With my luggage tagging along I walked into the field thus having a closer look at the far left side of the compound. At the end of the field on the left was a little patch of land that later served as the volley ball pitch, behind this patch of land is the kitchen area and a pavilion that served as the dinning area. Though there are no seats there, we just go there, queue up with our plates and food flask, collect our rations like prisoners, go back to our bunks and eat.


NYSC members in the field.

Talking about prisoners, it really looks like a prison routine or more like a Nazi concentration camp. Every corper is mandated to wear a white short sleeved T-shirt, a white short, a pair of white socks and a pair of white tennis shoes all NYSC branded. In fact you are entitled to a pair of all of that minus the tennis canvas, plus one green khaki shirt, trouser and an orange jungle boots. It is a regimented life as we were told by the officials and the military and paramilitary personnel in charge of the program.

It was a lot of sight to take in after an 8 hours journey through no man’s land, except for few settlements here and there. People were going and coming in all directions, so I had to stop some one and ask ‘where do I start from?’ ‘Are you just coming?’ the corps member asked. ‘Yes’ I said. ‘Then you have to start with admission and accommodation’ he retorted. ‘Thanks’ I answered And turned towards the direction he pointed and moved forward with my luggage on my tail.

It was the pavilion near the kitchen area, which later became our diner. Every body was queuing up behind an already impressive queue. As the queue moved on, we tried to get acquainted with each other, make some bonding and wait for our bags to be searched. The police and man O war guys searched our bags for sharp or metal objects and other forbidden stuffs. After this we moved to accommodation where they allocated hostels and beds to each corps member. But surprising what happened was, we struggled wildly to get at least a mattress, pushing and shoving all the way, wriggled it through the dense crowd to get out of the area and then start bed-space-hunting. For me and my friend Lekan we could not find male hostel 9, so after much searching and deliberation, we decided to settle any where we find an empty bunk or bed space. Luckily we found a hostel with two bunk space and we didn’t hesitate to colonize them.

For the next three weeks, we were going to be facing hours of military drills, parades, and other things that defines a military controlled regimented life. Here goes our routine; you wake up around 3 or 4am, prepare for the reverie for 5am followed by drills, morning exercises, parade, lectures, sporting activities, rehearsals and socials in the night. Some people even wake by 2am. If you don’t wake this early you may not make it on time for the reverie thus incurring the wrath of the soldiers whose duty is to make sure that no body remains in the hostel after 5 am. For some people, this was an awkward routine; waking up by 3am, take a cold bath in the freezing morning of Iseyin and preparing for strenuous morning exercises with shorts t shirts on cold mornings. To me it was awkward, not the early waking part but the fact that I had to wake way ahead of others because I work with the OBS (orientation broadcasting service) crew. We have to set up the PA system every morning and dismantle it every night. So I wake 2 am or 3 so that I can have a quick quiet bath in the dark outside. The major reason why some of us wake up that early was because the toilets were terribly dirty and smelly and the crowd will be much if you don’t make it early. Considering the fact that the camp is made up of different kind of people from different backgrounds, ethnic group, manners and characters, you are bound to see, live, be and deal with the diversity and vicissitudes that come with such a place. So I saw all manner of persons with different paradigms, faith, understanding and perceptions.

After three weeks of camp it was time for us to pass out and go into the world. A lot of us wanted to be posted to towns to serve, where we would have amenities like power supply, banks with ATMs, hospitals, GSM network, cinemas etc. In fact most of us wanted to be posted to Ibadan which was the capital city in Oyo state, though time and time again we were told in camp that accommodation in Ibadan is difficult, but nobody cared about that, when we get there we will sort that out. On the day of passing out, we all received our posting letter, while some were screaming with joy that they were posted to Ibadan others were quietly consoling themselves because they were posted to some place they have never heard of. This time around direct buses were provided. Every local government you are posted to has a bus with former corps members calling out the destination. I was posted to Itesiwaju local government in Oyo state, that shattered my Ibadan dream, but I had to accept my fate and face it. The camp was an extraordinary beehive that day. I picked up my posting letter, said good bye to some of the friends I made in camp, promising I will call them and left in search of my bus. I pretty much spent the entire morning of the passing out day with my friend Shade. I went in search of the bus going to my destination, found it and hopped in. Before long all the corps members posted to my local government came and we boarded the bus and departed. A lot of us were disgruntled; some were crying all because we don’t know what awaits us at Itesiwaju. Basically, all of us in that bus, except for the older corps members serving there had never been there. So the older corps members had to do most of the comforting and encouragement all the way to the place. Luckily Itesiwaju is the next local government after Iseyin, so our drive was not too far. We drove past lots of farm lands, farm settlements, hills, rocks and thick bushes. When we got to the local government headquarters at Otu it was midday, the place was completely a rural area with few modern houses, and many mud houses. There were power lines but they rarely had power supply from what I gathered from the older corps members, but Ipapo and Okaka the neighboring communities have nearly constant power supply. That was the first thing that blew me away. My place of primary assignment was Ipapo, so I asked one of the corps members ‘so you mean that village has power supply regularly’ and he said ‘yes, even if they take it, they bring it back soon’ I was like waooh, constant power supply in the middle of now nowhere? Even Ibadan can’t boast of 5 hours of constant power. The inhabitants of Otu are predominantly farmers and their major farm produce are corn, yam and cassava. The community and its surrounding communities are made up of the Yoruba’s, Fulani’s and some immigrant from the nearby country Togo. We were given a warm welcome at the local government headquarters; the women of the community came and prepared lunch of Jollof rice and chicken for us. From what I heard this is the first time that such has been done. I guess my set was lucky in many ways, not only did the federal government increase the allowance paid corps members, this local government served us lunch and breakfast the next morning. Later in the day one of us wanted to ease her self and needed to use the toilet, but she was told, ‘they don’t build toilets here, we use the bush’ ‘what!’ we all screamed in awe, ‘you mean they don’t have toilets here?’ I asked. ‘Yes’ an older corpers answered me, ‘they don’t build toilets here, all the houses here don’t have toilets’. I was intrigued by this piece of reality as I tried to settle down in Ipapo which is my place of primary assignment; in fact I insisted that the principal get us accommodation with toilets. Ipapo is a 10 minutes drive from Otu. It is a small quiet village with few hills and rocks, very fertile lands and a suiting climate unlike Iseyin that was cold. Another striking thing is that they have clean water underground, all you need to do is dig a few feet into the ground and you will have a well of clean water. Some parts of the land are really rocky with rough terrains while some other parts are fine loamy soil good for agriculture. They don’t have a regular market except for some shop owners; their market takes place every four days at the village market square. On that day people come to buy all they will need for the next four days. The community is made up of Yoruba’s, Fulani’s and immigrant Togolese. The presence of the Fulani’s there really baffled me in the first sight, not that I don’t know that the nomadic Fulani people can be seen any where but they were there in large numbers, building house, owning farms dominating the place. Of course the lingua franca is Yoruba and I couldn’t speak that so communicating when buying things in the market can be a real hard work. So its either I speak Hausa to the Fulani’s who could speak Yoruba and interpret or if am lucky I could run into a fellow corps member who can speak Yoruba or any other person who can speak English and Yoruba. I face the communication challenge especially when I need to buy food stuffs from the local market women.

The students at the school I was posted where something else; very respectful, jovial, playful and can barely speak English, some can’t speak or understand. ‘How do I teach this kids’ was what I kept asking myself and the other corps members. ‘How do you teach them if they don’t understand English?’ ‘Well you still have to teach them, whether they hear and understand or not’ Joseph answered me. Big Joe as we fondly call him is a batch A corps member who graduated of the University of Maiduguri and is based in Jos, Plateau state, he is an indigene of Benue state and was posted to Ipapo, Itesiwaju local government, Oyo state. Unlike me based in Lagos which is just 4 hours drive from Ipapo, he rarely travels to see his family in Jos because its far and with the spat of killings and riot in the cold city of Jos, it better for Joe to stay put in Ipapo, so when all of us travel he stays back in the corpers lodge. He was very helpful to us when we first came, he encouraged us to stay and experience the place because a couple of us really wanted redeploy or be reposted to other places than a village.

By the next morning when I and two of my colleagues went to report to the principal of our school of assignment, we had a mild drama. We actually didn’t want to stay so when we got into the principals office and presented our posting letter, we were supposed to collect acceptance letters from him showing that we have been accepted, but what we actually wanted was rejection letters so we can use it to get a reposting or redeployment to another place. The way it happens is; if you get a rejection letter you now call your contact at the NYSC office to help you work redeployment to the place of your choice. So we were all praying for a rejection letter and luckily the principal said ‘we don’t have accommodation for you so if you want to stay you will have to find accommodation for your self, if you don’t want to stay I can give you a rejection letter’. Waooh! We didn’t expect it to come this cheap and easy, we were actually expecting it to be tough, we were short of words so we told him to excuse us and we went outside and started deliberating on what to do. Each person had to also weigh their chances and the possibility that they can get redeployment. We asked the principal to give us the rest of the day to figure things out and we left. By the next day we all decided to collect rejection letters, but when we got to the principals office he said the school board sat and decided that they are not giving rejection letters, ‘what about accommodation’ I asked, ‘we will provide accommodation’. I didn’t have much of a choice, didn’t have highly placed friends or relatives who would have helped me work my reposting, corps member who had parents, friends or relatives who are well placed in the government can get to choose where they want to serve. That was the case of John, one of us, he insisted on collecting the rejection letter and got himself redeployed to Ibadan where he served with a consulting firm and was paid well. I had to collect the acceptance letter, Wunmi collected also.

Wunmi Bilkisu was the only girl posted to our school in batch B. she was a pretty girl, fair in complexion and chatty when she wants to. I first noticed her in NYSC camp at Iseyin. She was in the same platoon with me and I tried to chat-her-up once but she snubbed me so I practically ignore her from them on. When I saw her in the designated bus taking us to the local government I said to my self, ‘here we are, this will be interesting’. By the time we got to the local government, she was not only crying, but was not feeling ok, her temperature was rising and she could barely talk. As we sat around the conference table at the local government head quarters, she was sitting by my side. I observed her closely and asked her to seek for medical attention with the local government officials she refused, saying she doubts that they have qualified medical personnel here. So I quietly called the attention of the assistant local government inspector and told the woman about Wunmi. They quietly called her out of the welcome meeting and attended to her. Many of us who were in that camp came out ill. I rarely get sick, but in that camp I caught cold and cough and had to go to the camp clinic. A lot of other corps members I knew were also sick. The weather, the routine and the food caught up with many of us. Now both of us were posted to the same place.


Pupils in my class at Muslim High School, Ipapo.

As we stepped out of the principals office, I took time to closely look at for the first what has become my place of primary assignment; Muslim High School, Ipapo. A secondary school of just three blocks, the first block contained the principals office, two classrooms for JSS 2 and 3 and a staff room at the rear, the next block is an uncompleted shabby building with three classrooms, one occupied by JSS 1 and the other two empty. The third block is a modern recently completed building with four rooms also, two of them occupied by SS1 A and B, one is a staff room, while the other is the vice principals office, that’s all. No library, no laboratory, nothing. The rest of the school is a fenceless compound with a football field bordered by vast bush and farmlands and nothing else. ‘What am I going to be doing here for the next one year?’ I asked my self. Majority of the students could barely hear or speak English and I don’t hear Yoruba. The students are very respectful, I guess it is due to the Yoruba culture which requires youngsters to kneel or bow when greeting elders or seniors, so the students almost kneel or bow when greeting teachers no matter where they see you, whether in school or outside the school. Well I decided to explore the place and make the most use of my one year and above all to teach these kids as much as they can take. To challenge them, I tell that no matter where they are, they can still become persons of repute in life and they can make it and become a corper just like me.


~ By Martins chibuikem
Martchyke@yahoo.com
www.houseofdiscovery.blogspot.com


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