I awoke with a jolt and immediately glanced at my watch. It read 9:25 am; I must have slept for roughly an hour before being awoken by the bizarre ringtone of the passenger beside me. I had no idea what song it was but it was absurdly loud and more like noise than music. The journey back to Abuja was a rough one and I couldn’t fall asleep again thanks to the poor state of our Nigerian roads. It was an air conditioned bus, yet I woke up sweating profusely . . . I wondered why. I looked through the window as we drove by towns and villages admiring the scenery. Then, I remembered one of my favorite novels as a kid – “Eze goes to school”. I recalled how he counted the number of palm trees on his way to the city and I decided to give it a try. However, I soon found it to be a tiresome, herculean task. “How was Eze even able to pull that off?” I pondered. The journey was really boring and making conversation was not an option as the people sitting on both sides of me were elderly women.
I resorted to music. I brought out my headset, plugged it into my phone and played ‘Anamachikwanu’ by Ill Bliss and Phyno. The dispirited expression on Peter’s face after he heard the sad news flashed through my mind. I recalled his incessant bragging and confidence and remembered the way the smirk instantly wiped off his face as a look of slight unbelief and sadness overtook him. I began to feel a bit of pity for him. Almost immediately, lighter memories flooded in as I remembered Chidinma. The excitement at Peter’s misfortune must have made me totally forget about her. I paused the music and checked for network coverage; I had full bars. I dialed her number immediately and she picked on the first ring. I apologized for my sudden disappearance and used the urgency of my journey as an excuse. I asked her where she was at the time and she told me she was about leaving school for Onitsha. “Where were you posted to?” I asked. “Rivers” she said casually. My eyes popped as I heard her reply. “Are you serious? I thought you would have been posted to Sokoto”, I teased and we both laughed. She then asked where I was posted, to which I asked her to hazard a guess. She said “Zamfara?” I laughed and told her I was also posted to Rivers. She seemed pleased to hear it, I wished her well and hung up only to see the elderly lady on my right looking suspiciously at me with a hint of a smile.
The rest of the journey was uneventful and I arrived home around 4pm. I took a bath and had a sumptuous meal . . . special thanks to my mum. Soon after, I started arranging my stuffs in preparation for my trip to Rivers State the next day. I opened my bag and brought out my call-up letter to take a closer look and to find the exact venue of the NYSC orientation camp. ‘Nonwa Gbam, Tai Local Government Area’, it read. “What kind of a name is that?” I thought to myself. The worst part was that I couldn’t even pronounce it well so I had to call a friend that was at the time, serving in Rivers to send me a voice note on its pronunciation and directions to the camp. I retired for the night once I was through with the conversation since I had to leave early the next day.
I arrived Port Harcourt city around 7:30 pm, it was a long and exhausting trip. I immediately headed to my cousin’s place in Rumuokoro to spend the night. The next morning, I rushed to a nearby market to buy some materials I would need for camp. At about 12:10 pm, I left for Nonwa-Gbam-Tai as it’s popularly called. Tai LGA is mostly made up of Ogoni people who speak the Tee and Baan languages. They have very funny traditional names and most of them sound as inscrutable as Chinese at times. For instance, the traditional ruler of one of their major kingdoms is called Gbenemene Tua-Tua Tai (I am very serious!! That’s his real title!!!)
Tai was less than an hour drive from Port-Harcourt. There was a bus going directly to camp from the bus stop so that made it much easier locating the place. As I alighted from the bus, I dragged my Armani branded Echolac box (you know na) behind me into camp. As I walked in, I remembered my secondary school days as a boarding student. Nevertheless, in stark contrast to the smiling teachers, I was greeted with stern looks from the military and para-military personnel. “Have you been checked?” One of them shouted. “No” was my prompt reply, he then pointed to a very long queue of prospective Corpers waiting to be checked in. I quickly joined the long queue and waited my turn.
As I stood there, I searched for familiar faces and almost immediately, spotted John; one of my friends from secondary school who I hadn’t seen in quite a while. John is a fat guy and as such wasn’t difficult to spot. “John” I called out, but he couldn’t hear me because of the distance between us. I had no plans of walking that distance to meet him so I let sleeping dogs lie. “Please are you the last person on the line?” I turned to see an average size guy asking. “Yes” I replied, he stood behind me in the queue and soon introduced himself as Obinna. We got talking almost immediately. Obinna is a Manchester United fan while I’m a supporter of Chelsea so it was no surprise when we started arguing about our respective clubs’ dominance in the league as we waited patiently for our turns. As we argued, I heard my phone ring . . . it was Chidinma. She had just arrived camp and wanted to know where I was. I looked around and saw her about thirty metres away standing with her luggage like a confused observer. I waved so she could see me, she did and walked over to where I was standing with Obinna. “Are you planning to stay for three years?” I teased as I saw the number of bags she came along with. “Maybe” She replied and we laughed over it. I introduced her to Obinna and together, we all waited until we were checked in.
The whole process of registration was really strenuous. After photocopies and submission of certain documents, we collected our hostel allocation slips, signed for mattresses and proceeded to the hostels to keep our bags and mattresses. I was allocated to hostel B2 along with Obinna while Chidinma was allocated to hostel C3- a female hostel. The hostels were practically empty with the exception of the bunk beds which were arranged very close to one another. We came out soon after to complete our registration and then collect our khaki wears and other camping gear. We were then arranged into different groups called platoons. I was sent to Platoon 5 . . . so was Chidinma while Obinna was sent to Platoon 2. By 7:30 pm, we had finished all that needed to be done and then walked Chidinma down to her hostel before leaving for ours.
As we entered the hostel, we were shocked to see how rowdy it had become. Almost everyone was trying to arrange and rearrange their bags and bunks in a desperate search for comfort. People discussed in groups while a few had already fallen asleep amidst the near pandemonium. I looked around, there were no ceiling fans, no wall fans, no standing fans and to crown it all, no sockets of any kind on the walls. “How was I going to survive in a place like this for three weeks?!” was the question on my mind as I walked toward my bed. I had chosen the lower bunk while Obinna went for the top one, we sat and discussed what we were going to eat that night and where we could buy it. “They sell food just down that corner” Bayo said pointing towards a place I later discovered to be the Mami market. Bayo was one of the guys that occupied the bunk on the right of ours, the other guy was Arinze. Bayo must have been eavesdropping on our conversation. He offered to accompany myself and Obinna, we agreed and together left for the canteen. After eating, we retired to our hostel, by then it was a few minutes to lights out. I set my alarm to wake me by 4:30am since I had heard stories of how callous soldiers could be in camp and I didn’t want to fall prey.
I woke up and looked around to see some people already awake. Obinna was fast asleep while Bayo was snoring. I wondered if it was his snore or the alarm that actually woke me (I strongly suspect the snore). Arinze was up already but still lying on his bed. I stood up and woke the others so we could all prepare for the morning parade. We went off to brush our teeth then took our buckets to the taps to fetch water. While we did all these, Arinze remained on his bed. When I got back and saw him still lying there, I asked “Won’t you prepare?” He mumbled something about being too weak and continued pressing his phone. I took a quick glance at my watch before heading to the bathroom, it read 4:45am. “I still have fifteen minutes to prepare” I thought to myself. I was so wrong . . .
I stepped into the bathroom, took off my clothes and picked up my bar of soap. The moment the soap touched my body, I heard a loud annoying sound coming from the hostel; it was the sound of the beagle. Fear and anxiety overtook me as I heard shouts of “Move it! Move it!! Move it!!!” coming from all angles. The soldiers were everywhere chasing people from the hostels; it was chaos. With lightning speed, I rubbed the soap all over my body, picked the bucket and just poured the water from my head down, then I grabbed my towel and dashed out. Just as I left the bathroom, I saw one of the soldiers looking menacingly at me. “To the parade ground” he shouted. I ignored the instruction, ran in the other direction and hid between two abandoned boxes. Whilst crouched there, I saw Arinze being chased by a soldier carrying a bucket of water as he speedily ran out clutching his shorts in one hand and his sneakers on the other.
I hid till I was sure they had all gone before sneaking out of my hiding place and hurrying towards my bunk bed. To my surprise, Obinna and Bayo were already there. They had hidden themselves in the toilet as the soldiers chased all and sundry to the parade ground and had returned when all had calmed down. We hurriedly dressed up and left the hostel for the parade ground. It was still very dark outside, so we expected to get in unnoticed. We were so wrong . . . The moment we left the hostel door, a torchlight was flashed from behind as a loud bass voice said, “Hey, you three, Stop there . . .”
. . . TO BE CONTINUED
By Emeka ‘Mexy’ Madubuko . . . It was a great year
Follow him on Twitter @supermexy