It’s 4:30am. Another day begins in this jungle where you have to see out three weeks with nearly two thousand other persons in the name of serving your country in another region, and the soldier (or whoever it is) in charge of blowing that trumpet is more than glad to interrupt your dreams. It’s not like the dreams were sweet anyway, they were more like memories. Memories of your very first day here, when you had to run along with your luggage on your head and you were addressed with that ever unflattering title, “Otondo”. You try as fast as you can to wear your cap, slide into a white t-shirt plus a pair of white shorts, and fix your reluctant feet into a pair of sneakers of which you only managed to find your size after series of exchanges. The tap predictably refuses to lend out water that morning, and you are just lucky to get your teeth cleaned before you are all chased out to begin the day. In spite of all your efforts you are deemed too slow in the opinion of the men in khaki, and for failing to “double up”, it is in frog jump motion that you get to the field which serves as the parade ground.
After a short prayer session which you could care less about, the entire ground breaks into the NYSC anthem, of which you hope not to ever act out the words “under the sun and in the rain”. The Orientation Broadcasting Service treats you to some amateur news reporting, and soon after the day’s morning parade begins. It wouldn’t be easy to control that number of youths at the same time, so you are divided into platoons, and left at the mercy of soldiers, some of whom seem to have perennial mood swings. The exercise routine is rigorous, you can hardly breathe, and you are tempted to tell the platoon instructor that you are not being trained to become military personnel, but you know better than to address these hardly-ever-smiling soldiers. A marching session begins almost immediately, and the instructor bellows a series of quick instructions, your best being “stand easy”.
7:30am means breakfast time, and that morning’s menu is bread the size of a toddler’s fist, alongside brown hot water which virtually tastes of smoke. You instead opt to go get something at Mammy Market, the general camp market where everything from slippers to buckets go for two and a half times the usual price. Your trip to Mammy only happens however after you witness a little drama at the hostel where you live. A fellow corps member wails about his two missing Blackberry phones and threatens to involve his hometown’s “Eze Dibia”. Upon close scrutiny it’s discovered that he dozed off with his phones on the bed rather than in his waist-pouch, and everyone nearby berates him for his naivety and carelessness.
Your meal barely digests when the trumpet sounds yet again. It’s time for some unnecessary yet compulsory lectures, your speed lets you down once again, and again you would have to get to the lecture venue in frog jump motion.
“Which kain soldiers be this sef? Person nor go fit chop make the food enter body again?”, mutters a fellow corps member who’s also unfortunate to be frog-jumping with you, expressing his obvious displeasure at the really short interval laid out for breakfast.
“Guy, na true dem talk o, camp nor be the same thing with excursion”, you catch enough breath to tell him in reply.
The lectures begin, and you wish you had brought your pillow along. Well it can’t be that bad, you say to yourself. Yea, not as bad as the day of the corpers’ swearing-in ceremony, when you all had to wait for hours under the sun for the arrival of the Governor (his able representative actually), and members of the Red Cross had their hands full. You decide to distract yourself with two beautiful ladies in your platoon, your wacky sense of humour pays off, and phone numbers plus Blackberry (or Android) pins are soon exchanged. The lectures eventually end after four tortuous hours, and well aware that there are no ATMs around, you opt for camp lunch in a bid to be nice to your pocket (or waist pouch.) The jollof rice is poorly cooked, and your stomach begins to rumble, but you know better than to give in. You think about the deplorable state of the toilet facilities and the fact that black nylons are in short supply, so you choose to hold it all in, at least until the day your bowels eventually can’t take it anymore and you venture into the bushes in the dead of night.
Another trumpet sound means time for another parade, in comparison with which that of the morning proves to be a mere warm-up. The marching routine is more intense, each instruction takes much longer before perfection, and a little mistake from you on the “quick mark time” means you have to go down and endure another session of “grabbing your antennas”. Your limbs are almost losing their usefulness, and you wish the man next to you has something nicer to say.
“You think this is suffering? Wait until Man O’ War day”, he says, sounding like someone who has previously gone through service year. He is right though; ‘Man O’ War day’ would entail getting dressed in ill-fitting khaki outfits, climbing ropes, crawling under barbed wire and moving across such other unkind structures, like you were in a true military drill or in an audition for an action movie.
“Ehen, shey dem talk say enough fun dey this place,” cuts in another platoon member, who looks rather old to be participating in service year. “Dem even talk say dem normally dey share ‘bulletproof’ for camp. Why dem never share give us for here now?” All of you within earshot hand him a curious stare, to which he reacts by smiling sheepishly.
The day’s torture ends shortly after sunset. It’s beans for supper, and you are not ready to do further harm to your bowels, so you stroll out to Mammy Market, this time in the company of 595, a lady from the same platoon, whom you had got to know days before. She tells you of her favourite colours and the names of her brothers as she helps herself to food and drinks on your bill, and you don’t seem to mind when she orders some more for her roommates. You both appear to share a whole lot as you engage in witty conversations that evening, and you feel something special is brewing, never mind the fact that on each of the next four consecutive days you see her with a different guy, and ultimately, with your platoon instructor. The 10:30pm trumpet means lights out, and you try to steal a kiss, but the killjoy Man O’ War officer nearby keeps screaming “lover-boy, oya go your room.” Well you are in no hurry. There’ll be other times and locations, you say to yourself; there is always the campfire night to make an impression, and then the OBS studio and the uncompleted structure near the NCCF building would always have their uses. (Even the parade ground proves useful, as you find out on the night before you all eventually leave the jungle.)
You reluctantly head to your hostel, where the man sleeping next to you quizzes you as to where you’ve been all evening. “Decamping is real o”, he teases you, reminding you of 531 and 761 (a married woman) who were decamped the week before after both were found expressing their new-found love along the grasses behind the camp clinic. Darkness ultimately engulfs the jungle, and you close your eyes in sleep, not so sure who to dream of.
“Nigeria’s a$$ (ours)…..Nigeria we serve.”
(Follow this writer on Twitter @Le_Bouquineur, or add up on Facebook as Jerry Chi)