Bottles of Beer. Bottles of Spirit. More beer. Even more bottles of spirit. Alcohol was the dominant noun at Mama Ada’s small shop, and while Tuesday night was not a conventional time of the week to unwind like this, there was little else to do. I had just completed my compulsory year of national service five days earlier, and since there was no place of work to which I had to report just yet, I could not think of a better way to spend what I intended to be my last night in Eastern Nigeria, before heading back home to that ancient part of the South-south, which boasted of a great empire in times past and which was blessed with red earth. Yemi and Dafe, fellow ex-corps members, equally intended to leave town the following day, and we felt it was only right to partake in one last drinking session together before going out to face the reality that awaited us with open arms. We cracked dirty jokes, we shared memories, and more importantly, we got voluntarily intoxicated.
From passing out in toilets after trying out combinations of Coca-cola and cough syrup for the Codeine effect, to bribing the Local Government Inspector with recharge cards so he could look the other way whenever we embarked on those prohibited inter-state trips, there was a lot to remember, much to reflect on, and in my fading sobriety, I found time to think. I thought about the huge grimace which had found its way on my face on the day I opened the letter revealing my Place of Primary Assignment, realising that the money I had paid to those “agents” at the NYSC Orientation Camp to facilitate my posting to an urban area had gone to waste. I remembered how the rickety bus provided by the local government council had barely managed to make it through the terrible road network, and I remembered how Funke had begun to weep the moment we first arrived at the lodge reserved for corps members. Funke had left for the nation’s capital the previous day, and I was pretty sure that she would make fun of herself whenever she found time to remember how she let those tears ruin her mascara.
It was easy to remember the particular flat which I made my home in that lodge. This was because in a flat made up of three rooms, I was one of only three males. Two of the three flats were occupied by six females, and this meant that the problem of feeding was solved. I didn’t remember taking hold of any pot or bending down to light up any stove while service year lasted. All I had to do when hungry was sing “what’s on the menu?”, and while the girls found it annoying sometimes, they had come to love me for who I was. We lived as a family, and my laptop (which I had to charge at a guest house two fences away due to poor electricity) was the flat’s cinema. I still wondered how I did not get to sleep with any of them. There was the make-out session with Clara, but that was it. She wanted commitment, and since I wasn’t exactly willing to give that, her legs stayed shut (to me at least). Apparently all nine of us in that flat were too closely-knit, so it was easy to get “brother-zoned”.
However that did not mean that my life during service year was an entirely celibate one. After all, I didn’t get posted there just to take photographs, or as my wingman Yemi loved to put it, “I nor come this state to come break egusi”. There were those nights with Chinyere (one of the SS1 students whom I taught Biology at the local government area’s public secondary school), when my roommates had to excuse me and I had to use my lips to stifle her cries of “Osahon, weli ya nwanyo…Osahon, i ga gbu m o”. There were also those trysts with Nkechi whom I met when we assisted the Independent National Electoral Commission with the voter’s registration exercise (for a nineteen-year old she had a lot of experience when it came to bed-wrestling), and there was the pregnancy scare which Yemi faced two months earlier when he invited a certain Oluchi over, after which she didn’t see her period for some time. Her cycle eventually began after Yemi had gone on a three-day fast, and we both decided to slow down the rate at which we went downtown, unless we wanted to share the fate of Seyi who had to seek redeployment in March from Akwa Ibom to the nation’s capital.
“We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land…..”
There was no way I could forget those Community Development Service (CDS) meetings, whose outcomes left me wondering what we were really developing, and where I was always reminded that spoken English was not really as easy as it seemed, never mind that we were all (supposed) graduates. There were also those NCCF meetings I just couldn’t bring myself to attend, though I managed to get a certificate just to please my mother (whom I lied to most Sundays whenever she came up with the “did you go to church” question?). I failed to see the need to join a fellowship headed by Daniel who usually beat me at drinking contests, and whose assistant coordinator Esther spent four nights in a week at the back seat of Mr. LGA Ward Councillor’s car. NCCF Papa and Mama, yea right!
Then I thought about my family. I thought about my mother, who had struggled to raise one son and four little daughters since her husband passed on eight years earlier. I thought about my younger sisters, the eldest of them in her second year at the university studying Political Science, the youngest in JSS1. I had to be a man for them, start earning, start making them feel the fact that I had completed the basic part of my education. I thought about the high rate of unemployment in the nation, and how graduating with a second class upper division like I did was not enough to land you a white-collar job these days. I had not forgotten the Immigration fiasco that happened earlier in the year, and hoped that things would not get so desperate for me. No, I did not want to spend the following months being part of a house-cleaning or dish-washing roster back home. Well I had to leave there first. There was nothing in this place. This was easily the second worst state in Eastern Nigeria, second only to that other state known for salt. The roads were terrible, the towns were dirty, even that part of the state which used to be a commercial hub in West Africa had become messed up. Yet the governor wanted to run for Senate after doing nothing for two terms, and even erected a billboard which depicted Jesus endorsing him to aim for the National Assembly. Such blasphemy, such shamelessness! I thought about my mother’s prayers in form of text messages, and her pleas over the phone for me to return immediately owing to the nightmares she had been having, nightmares which I had dismissed as mere imagination influenced by Nollywood movies she must have seen the night before……
“Them dey come o! Osahon, Yemi, make una move o! Them don reach here o!”
Dafe had gone to relieve himself in a nearby bush, and for a few seconds my inebriate brain could not register the reason for his panic, but it was when I saw him running towards us with just his yellow T-shirt and his pair of black underwear that I realised the gravity of the situation. We had reckoned without the Ngwa masquerade group in our decision to hang out that night. The Ngwa masquerade group, one of the most feared traditional societies in these parts, usually went around at this time of the year, night after night, for the purpose of “purifying the land” in preparation for the annual Nni-Mmo festival. We had run foul of the instructions of the town’s chiefs to remain indoors during late hours, and as Dafe ran past us scantily clad, we tried to run into Mama Ada’s shop, but she had since sensed danger and secured the locks. We then tried to run, but the excess alcohol had taken its toll, and in time we found ourselves surrounded by members of the group.
“Abeg, abeg, we nor know say una dey waka this night”, Yemi pleaded, as the muscular males who made up the group set about tying our hands behind our backs with strong ropes. “We be corpers, we bin just dey chill for this corner. Abeg, we bin nor hear when una dey come.”
“Oh! Una be corper sef”, bellowed a thick-set man adorned with cowries on his wrists, knees and ankles, and who could easily be taken to be the group’s leader. “Na una dey come our area, dey drink anyhow, dey flog our pikin dem, dey kpoki our girls, una nor even dey try loyal to men dem wey dey here. My chi nor dey sleep. Una don enter my hand today. Una wey get bright star naim our Deity even dey like”.
Further supplications fell on deaf ears, and in a matter of minutes, we were marching through thorny bushes, in a manner that reminded me of my days at the three-week NYSC orientation programme. Each of our captors acted as a platoon commander, slapping and kicking us into order whenever we failed to place our feet as they wished. As we moved in a manner totally bereft of our free will, I thought about all I had heard about the traditions of people in these not-so-developed areas of the state. My mind equally raced back to the day Yemi narrated one of his many encounters which he had while teaching History at the local government area’s secondary school. A student had asked him about some obnoxious Western custom he had read about, and Yemi had replied by saying “this is 2014, all those barbaric practices don’t exist anymore.” How wrong he was! The story of the corps members in Ogun State who experienced spiritual attacks was well known to us, but at least those ones lived to tell the tale. Yemi and I were not exactly sure about breathing the next day’s air.
We soon found ourselves in the middle of immensely thick vegetation. All the while, I had been mumbling all the words of prayer I could remember at that point in time; The Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23, even the Hail Mary I learnt during my days at the Catholic secondary school I attended back in my home state. I was met with no response. No thunderclaps from the sky. No earthquakes. No heroic surprise from within the bushes. The God which my mother loved had clearly abandoned me this time, I said to myself. But fear became horror when I saw Yemi beaten to death with sticks and cut into pieces with machetes, pieces which were thrown into a small fire quickly made for the purpose. Some unique supper they were going to have. They couldn’t be bothered about the fact that he was, until five days earlier, a “government pikin”. Well at least we would make the pages of the following day’s newspapers, bloggers would scramble for who would be first to publish our story, and our fates would inspire prayer points at fellowship gatherings.
The (perceived) leader of the group walked towards me, his machete glittering on both edges, and with each step muttering “na Deity get this one”. I was on my knees, so doing the intended to my neck was going to be easy. I thought about my dreams, I thought about my mother’s nightmares, I thought about my promises of a better life to my sisters, and I wept quickly enough while my head was still on my shoulders (my tears would probably have measured more than the urine on my trousers), I saw my life flash before me, and as he raised his machete, I wished that the NYSC scheme would be scrapped before any of those lovely girls came of age.