So I saw these Ajuwayas today in their green khakis and the sight sent me down memory lane to the day I was to leave NYSC Camp at Umudi-Nkwerre, Imo State. Coming to terms with destiny to serve in Imo was a difficult one – having tried all the backyard runs to serve in Abuja – albeit the Camp proved to be fun.
I was unsolicitedly advised, on reaching camp, to join OBS (Orientation Broadcasting Service). My adviser claimed my membership of OBS would guarantee my deployment to Owerri (pronounced o-we-re). Owerri was the bait. Truth be told, as much as Jos folks liked being complacent about our cool city, I must admit, Owerri was more alluring with its lush green parks, artistic roundabouts, exquisite buildings and tolerably hot, but humid, weather. Not to talk of the mami-waters (very pretty ladies), especially the yellow pawpaws, that flooded the city. Chai!
To reach Owerri, I had to spend my entire creativity and strength in the OBS in order to bring out the best of the team so that the Camp Director, or whoever was in-charge of placements, would reserve no excuse to deny my posting to Owerri. Yeah! Camp was fun, I had so much money to spend plus the little allowee I received on camp. Stupid moi failed to include ‘Savings’ in my mind’s dictionary, a mistake for which I would pay a steep price much later.
On the last day of the camp – judgment day – the day when serious camp participants, and even busybodies, would be rewarded with juicy postings in the city, I wore my happiest mood. I watched as 30-seater air-conditioned commuter buses labeled with names of different LGAs cruised in to convey their prospective corps members to their base. Mbaise, Mbano, Okigwe… I read the inscriptions on the buses, shaking my head in the it-is-not-my-portion way as each of the buses tried to locate a parking space. Names were called according to Platoons and PPA letters were handed out to the corpers, and suddenly, an atmosphere of mixed emotions took over. There, you heard the name of Jesus used and abused to exclaim excitement, anger and sadness. “Jesus!” Dupe yelled, and I knew it was Owerri from the manner of calling out the name. But when Solomon crowed “Jizoooz,” I knew it was most likely the dreaded Umudi-Nkwerre. When yours sincerely was called upon, I borrowed the aura and the matching ego of the Camp Commandant. I strode a bit majestically to receive my letter, my crown of glory, having kept the faith. But alas, I didn’t win the race.
“Owerri Grammar School…” I read it aloud to the hearing of potential haters. “Yes!” I pumped my fist into the air and leaped joyfully. The letter was concealed in such a way that it revealed only one’s name, call-up number and institution. Where else was Owerri Grammar School supposed to be if not in Owerri? I asked myself conclusively. Nike, my close friend in OBS, whom I was sure the OBS coordinator had an eye on, caught my elation and came towards me. Even before the second week of camp, everyone on the OBS crew knew she was going to be posted to Owerri. She pulled me aside and urged me to unstaple the remaining contents of the letter so we could compare PPAs – place of primary assignment – and possibly arrange an accommodation together in the city. The shocker came after I unfolded the letter. I rubbed my eyes twice and stared at the same unchanging words. “Where were you posted?” I asked soberly.
“NTA Owerri.” She patted my shoulder and walked away leaving me dumbfounded and staring into the paper and wishing for a miracle or voodoo.
I read it again: “Owerri Grammar School, Umouye, Imerienwe, Ngor-Okpala Local Government Area.” My eyes reddened and a ball was formed in my throat. I had to remind myself that it was not just for the sake of the dangling thing in-between my legs that made me a man; I was also a man because I was supposed to possess a brave heart. My erstwhile ego was dissolved by that nerve-breaking posting letter. “Where the hell is Ngor-Okpala?” I asked the wind and the tree whose shade afforded me no coolness. I would later learn that Umouye was the village, Imerienwe was the AUTONOMOUS community and Ngor-Ofala – as Sani, my Hausa friend, would say – was where we were going.
I raised my head and saw a Molue bus as it sought its parking space. The driver had to fight with the gear and steering before the car finally came to a halt amid squeaks, shrills and an almost powdery emission of carbon monoxide. Its colour seemed like green. Overexposure to sunlight, dust and rust, the beaten patches of the bus’s metal body gave it an overall coat of brown. While I contemplated the colour I saw a cardboard sheet with a bold inscription: ‘Ngor-Okpala’. “Tufiakwa!” I had already started learning Igbo by force. In anger, I strolled to the nearby Mami Market to get a drink only to realise that the sellers too were already parking their makeshift market and hopefully awaiting the next camp opening. Our own camp had ended.
Still in fits of intense annoyance, I walked towards the bus and there she was. Dorcas. My camp crush who gave me so little time and attention on camp was seated with her forehead nostalgically glued to the side window. Her eyes were evidently emptied of tears. It was a good opportunity for me to be superman. The seat next to her was unoccupied. So, I flew to her rescue, not minding the rustiness, odour and tormenting heat of the bus. Saving Dorcas became my first priority.
“Hi,” I crooned as I sat beside her.
“You? You followed me here again?” She shook her head mildly and released a charming smile. I saw gloominess leaving her face.
“It’s not like I asked to be here,” I shrugged, and we laughed briefly.
Soon the bus was filled up and the driver had to fight with the gear, clutch and steering to set the car in motion. It was when we hit the road that the Local Inspector stood up, introduced himself, and then declared that each of us had to pay N100 for the journey. At that moment everyone became a thug or at least an activist ranting and raining insults on whoever was the architect of fare-collection. In the end, just as Nigerians do after demonstrating against fuel hikes, we all conceded without further qualms.