Saturday, May 30, 2015

Preview: Twenty-One Days #5

CHAPTER FOUR: Day one

Tuesday, 5th August 2014

Oluomachukwu arrived at the NYSC Orientation camp quite late, even though she started off her journey early. While Okechukwu slept after their late-night drinking session, which she regretted at that moment, she had to pack her box. She had contemplated taking a hand luggage or even a regular box, but camping without having to worry about heavy boxes sounded like a better plan.

She had prepared her luggage with everything she had and thought would be suitable for the camp, whatever was left, she would have to buy at the camp market. So in the luggage, she put in her toiletries, which were in a small transparent bag, her underwear, sports bra, regular bras, night wears, a few tops, a dress, a scarf, hairbrush, make-up, two pairs of sandals, a pen, her international passport that had her Call-up letter in it and other necessities. She was sure she was missing something, if not a lot of things, but she didn’t care. She wrote Okechukwu a note and left.

Flagging down a taxi shouldn’t have been a problem, but when Oluomachukwu waved her hand, two taxis were coming from opposite sides of the road and almost had an accident in front of her. The taxi drivers put their heads out of the window to argue and rain insults on each other.

By the time the taxi drivers were done arguing about who Oluomachukwu had called first, who got to her first and who was going to finally drive her to her destination, she had already flagged down another taxi and found her way.

As Oluomachukwu drove off in the taxi, the two other fighters suddenly realised that they had lost their first business of the day to a random taxi man who came out of nowhere, then they diverted their insults towards him even though he couldn’t hear them.

The road to Iyana-Ipaja was lengthy and unfamiliar, Oluomachukwu wouldn’t have known if they were even driving out of Lagos. As she looked out of the window, she started reflecting on her life, especially on the last two weeks she had been in Nigeria. Even though she never wanted to admit it to herself, she had hoped to come back to Nigeria and find a life partner in the process. If she said she wasn’t thinking about marriage, then she would have been lying to herself. She then realised that she was going about it the wrong way. She didn’t have to jump into bed with the first guy that crossed her path. She had to be patient and wait for the right one, if he was ever going to come.

The thought of going to camp to look for a husband or anyone at that, as Okechukwu had pointed out, never crossed her mind, but if the opportunity came up, then she might consider it. She made a mental note to make friends with only serious-minded young men, preferably those who were already working and had ambition. She didn’t want to waste her time making male friends that she wasn’t going to end up with. Her ideal partner was going to be a tall, muscular, handsome and hardworking guy... one that would complement her light-skinned tone and her natural beauty. She smiled at the thought of that, but didn’t relish in the thought for too long, because her phone started to vibrate in her hand. It was Nnanna calling.

Oluomachukwu hesitated before she picked up the call. “Yes, how can I help you?”

“I’m sorry for lying to you,” Nnanna said. He knew Oluomachukwu was still mad with him and wasn’t so sure she wanted to talk to him. So he had to pass his message immediately in case she decided to hang up after hearing what he had to say.

“You never lied to me,” she replied. “You just didn’t tell me you were engaged.”

“And that I was the one at the airport.”

“Before you came back to my hotel to...” She paused when she realised that the taxi driver might be listening. “To deceive me,” she added.

Nnanna expected her to react to the airport confession, but was quite surprised when she didn’t, so he didn’t push it further. “I’m sorry,” he said.

Before Oluomachukwu could respond, the taxi driver suddenly came to a stop. She darted her eyes to the street and the area looked very deserted. She actually hadn’t been paying attention to the road all along.

“Nnanna, wait let me call you back, I don’t know why the taxi guy has stopped or where we are.” She hung up, not waiting for him to say “Okay” or whatever he was in the process of saying. She then leaned forward so that the taxi driver could hear her. “Is there a problem, sir?”

The man turned around. “No oh. No problem at all. I just want to go to the bank machine and collect money for fuel or if you have 500 naira, please, help me with it.”

Oluomachukwu thought it was weird for a taxi driver not to have enough fuel, especially early in the morning. She also didn’t know that taxi men used ATM cards too and didn’t see any banks around. She somehow found it amusing. Instead of allowing the man to park in a remote area, she agreed to give him the money. And while she was fumbling in her handbag for her purse, he decided to make small talk with her.

“Auntie, I like your accent oh. From which country?” he asked.

Oluomachukwu smiled at his curiosity and at his accent as well. “United Kingdom,” she said proudly.

The man nodded, then manoeuvred the car and went into a lane where she could finally see people. And not too long afterwards, he diverted and went into a fuel station that had a rather unique name. Instead of the usual oil and gas companies, this one had a Yoruba name and surname that she couldn’t pronounce. Oluomachukwu sat quietly and waited for the tank to get filled up, then they left.

The man drove for a while, then they got into serious traffic. He glanced back at Oluomachukwu, and then at the window by her side. He then looked at the window at the other side, then the one in front.

“Is everything okay?” Oluomachukwu asked.

“Please, help me wind up the windows behind and pin down the locks.”

Oluomachukwu was confused. “What’s going on?” she asked, as she was doing what he instructed, but left a little breathing space for cross ventilation. It was small enough for only the size of fingers to enter.

“Ah, this is Oshodi oh!” he exclaimed. “Bad boys are in this area a lot. They give too much trouble around here.”

“Even in broad daylight?” Oluomachukwu smiled and raised an eyebrow.

“Ah, Auntie, thieves and bad boys don’t have any time table.”

Oluomachukwu was genuinely concerned. “How long has this been going on?”

“Ah, forever now. This area is not good at all. Almost everyone here is a thief or a bad boy. If your car breaks down here, then there’s big trouble. Many bags and things have been stolen in this area. Too many area boys are here.”

“Hmm.” Oluomachukwu sighed, still concerned. “So what are the police doing?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know who will ask them that. Until they are attacked and robbed once, they won’t do anything. Maybe the thieves even settle them with some money, but I don’t know oh.”   Oluomachukwu didn’t say anything anymore. She got carried away, then relaxed in her seat. The weather was hot and stuffy, and in no time, she slept off.

*
The sound of someone banging on the car window woke Oluomachukwu up. She opened her eyes and saw a rough-looking young man at the window. Believing that he was just one of the annoying hawkers trying to sell off their products, she closed her eyes again, but the young man kept banging on the window. She opened her eyes again immediately and saw the taxi driver winding up his own window very fast. She turned to look at the man by her side, who had started yelling.

“Give me money, jor, before I shoot you.”

Oluomachukwu tried to wind up the window fully, but the tout put eight of his dirty fingers in the space and tried to force the window down, then rob her. She didn’t know what to do. She wanted to wind up again, but the tout kept pressing it down and yelling at her to give him money. At that moment, she wished she had a knife on her to cut or slice off the tout’s fingers, or pepper spray to give him a healthy dose in his eyes or even better a Taser to shock the living daylights out of him. She shook the feeling out of her head when the tout started calling out to someone.

Before she knew what was happening, another tout had gone to the other side of the car and was banging on the window, also trying to force it down. She looked at the taxi driver, confused, but he said nothing and kept his eyes to the road. He had already completely wound up his side. He had told her to do the same, so whatever the outcome of the encounter was, it was solely on her.

The other tout kept yelling too, and she couldn’t stand the yelling. So she yelled at them too, telling them that she didn’t have money.

One of the touts spoke in Yoruba, but Oluomachukwu heard the word ‘Oyibo’ and knew that they were referring to her coming from abroad because of her accent, her nice British accent. She looked around at other cars, wondering why no one had offered her any help, but everyone had already wound up their windows, afraid that they would be attacked too. Some were even sweating in their cars and it was obvious that they had no air conditioning.

The touts kept yelling and banging on the window, asking for money, and Oluomachukwu told them that she was a Youth Corper.

“What kind of Youth Corper is that?” one of them asked in a weird accent and husky voice. “I will shoot you oh. Give us money now.” The tout then looked around and started calling out in Yoruba and Oluomachukwu had a feeling he was calling more touts for back up and to feast on her fear.

“I said I’m a Youth Corper,” Oluomachukwu repeated. This time, her voice was shaky. She was beginning to get really scared.

“Youth Corper no dey earn money?” the other tout, who had been quiet, asked.

“I don’t know.” Oluomachukwu almost started to cry. “I said I’m a Youth Corper. Why don’t you ask the Federal Government if we earn money.”

The touts looked furious, then both of them removed their fingers from the windows concurrently and probably went to look for other motorists to harass and frighten into giving them their money. The traffic had also started to move, so the touts would have had to leave either way.

Neither Oluomachukwu nor the taxi man said anything after the incident. There was an awkward silence in the taxi and the only thing Oluomachukwu could hear was a voice in her head, saying a little prayer of thanks to God.

By the time they approached Iyana-Ipaja area, she had cried out her eyeballs. She was still a bit shaken up by the incident and for a second she thought about calling it quits and going back to Ikoyi, and eventually to the UK.

Along the Iyana-Ipaja road, there was a small fast food restaurant that Oluomachukwu asked the taxi man to enter and stop for a while. She wanted to see if she would be able to calm herself down before entering the camp.

She called Okechukwu and told him what happened, and he panicked seriously, regretting why he didn’t drive her to the camp instead. He didn’t know the direction, but he could have asked around and found it if it would have prevented her from being harassed.

She sat in the restaurant for a few hours until she was relaxed and less traumatised, then had something to eat. Okechukwu had succeeded in making her laugh a little and cheer up. He made sure to point out that her accent had surely added to her plight, and if she was going to survive in Lagos, she had to let go of it. She called her parents and told them what happened. Her mother was the first to ask her to return to the UK so that she would be free from the rampant roadside robberies, which were tearing the city of Lagos down. With every nine out of ten men on the street a potential thief, it was not certain how she was going to cope.

After the roadside-tout incident, Oluomachukwu swore never to use her British accent in public again. There was no point. After all, she was in Nigeria, and she had learnt the best way. Back in the UK, she always used her British accent when speaking with British people, and whenever she met other Nigerians, she transformed to her Nigerian accent. Many British born Nigerians, who had never even stepped a foot in Nigeria did the same thing, so what made her any different? She thought. And the fun of Nigerians selling white people with their Nigerian accents and slangs was amusing, anyway.

So as Oluomachukwu approached the camp gate, she decided to check her British accent at the entrance, then walked in with an understandable Nigerian one.

***

Before Oluomachukwu crossed the gate of the camp, she decided to buy a few things. Since almost everything she could need seemed to be out there, she saw no reason to wait to buy them from the camp market later.

She waved her hand to a girl selling socks and every other seller in range rushed towards her, asking her to buy things she didn’t even think she needed.

She ended up buying two pairs of white socks that had two green lines going round at the top and spaced in the centre. With the way the lines were separated, it formed the pattern of the Nigerian flag, but Oluomachukwu didn’t know if they were going to be accepted in the camp. She also bought a bucket, a bathing bowl and a smaller bucket that had a lid. She looked around, checking if she needed any other thing. Nothing came to mind at that instant, so she turned around and left.

As she entered the camp, she didn’t envy the Corps members she saw trying to drag along their boxes — some with just one box and others with two boxes, together with the other little things they had just bought outside the gate. She even saw some carrying pillows under their arms and wondered why they needed it.

Just a few meters from the main camp gate, there was a checkpoint. Oluomachukwu was asked to open her box, and it was searched thoroughly. She could understand why they needed to search her box, but what she didn’t get was why she was asked to throw out her umbrella, which she carried along with her everywhere she went, thanks to her experience with the unique British weather. She asked the security officer, who had already flung the umbrella to a corner, and the woman simply replied “Under the sun and in the rain.” Oluomachukwu didn’t understand what the officer had said, but she hesitated before asking the officer again. And the officer simply said that umbrellas weren’t allowed in the camp, then kept quiet.

As the security officer continued combing through her box, she looked around and saw other officers searching other boxes, seizing various items and sharp objects like razor blades and scissors. The officers also took extension cables from prospective Corps members, asking them indiscreetly for the cables before seizing them.

One officer had even asked, “Where are your extension cables?”

Those who didn’t know that it was a trick question, produced their extension cables and the cables were seized and put in a corner. Oluomachukwu didn’t know why they were seizing extension cables, but she felt that the officers were probably going to keep them for their own personal use.

However, what she did know and notice was that the officers weren’t searching handbags. So if there was a next time, she would have kept her umbrella and other ‘illegal’ items in her handbag. But luckily, there was never going to be a next time.

When the officer was done searching the box, she did not even arrange it properly or zip it up, she simply pushed it away with her foot, allowing underneath it to scratch against the stony floor, then called for the next person to be searched. Oluomachukwu quickly rearranged her box and zipped it up. She then picked it up, along with the few things she had bought, and headed into the main camp, all the while murmuring insults at the security officer.

As she proceeded further into the camp, a group of photographers, both men and women, young and old, ran towards her, almost knocking themselves over. She didn’t know what was going on. She wondered if they thought she was a star, but it was a ridiculous thought. It was when they approached her and surrounded her, she understood what was going on.

Some chorused in different accents and tones, “Auntie, your passport photograph here.” Others asked, “Corper, do you have your red background passport photograph?” Another one even said, “Only passport photographs with red background are accepted in the camp.”

Oluomachukwu stopped for a second. She had about twelve passport photographs, but not only were they on a different background colour — six were on white and the other six on blue background. She hadn’t had the time to take new passport photographs, so she mixed and matched everything she had brought back to Nigeria with her.

She thought about it and didn’t want to have to go for registration, only to be sent away just because of passport photographs. At the same time, photographers were still asking her if she had hers, urging her to make a decision or they would leave her. One even went ahead to add, “It’s only 2,500 naira for six copies. It’s not expensive, Corper.”

Before she could make a decision, someone yelled from around her. She turned and saw another Prospective Corps member enveloped by a swarm of photographers. The girl, who looked overwhelmed with the things she was carrying, was yelling, “Leave me alone, please. Why would I pay that much for only six copies, when I paid 800 naira for sixteen copies?”

“Is it on a red background?” one of the photographers asked the girl.

“No!” the girl yelled.

“Then you’ve wasted your money. You better get new pictures and save yourself the trouble and embarrassment during registration.”

Oluomachukwu was amused at the conversation and even more amused at the fact that the other photographers around her left and went to look for other potential clients. Since she knew that the photographers were demanding exorbitant prices, she decided to take her chances and use the ones she had brought. Besides she didn’t want to waste any money on things she wasn’t sure she would need.

As she advanced into the main camp, she became a bit sceptical about being there. She had mixed feelings, being around too many people when she was already used to her ‘staying alone’ life. And while she was at the gate, she had heard rumours from two bucket sellers that camp officials kept about thirty girls in a room like refugees. She didn’t want to believe that, but when she looked at the buildings in the camp and crossed them with the amount of people that trooped in, it started to seem possible.

Oluomachukwu asked the first person she saw for direction. The officers at the gate hadn’t told her where to go next, so she didn’t know what she was supposed to do. She was directed to a queue on the parade ground, which was by the left side of the camp. Up ahead led to the dining section and the right side was a large sand field that tripled as mami market, evening hangout area and football field.

The parade ground was empty, but the surrounding areas were filled with large canopies that could take over 3,000 people and had a lot of plastic chairs stacked up together. Some of the chairs had been arranged for people to use while waiting to register and some were already broken. Whether they were broken before camp started or on that same day, Oluomachukwu didn’t know. She went to join the queue and her adventure started full time.

*
Oluomachukwu stood for about two hours straight on the queue before she was told that it was a queue to get accommodation. She had heard people say that normally, accommodation was given only after registration, and not before. Nobody knew why it changed this time, but they didn’t think it mattered at the end of the day, as long as they all got a room to sleep.

During the second hour of the wait in line, it started to drizzle and Oluomachukwu heard people wish they hadn’t come to camp during the raining season. They wished they had waited until the dry season.

Before long, the drizzle began to turn into heavy rain and an officer, who had ‘Nigerian Civil Corps’ written on his shoulder tag, moved everyone to sit under a canopy, which they did. But when the rain subsided and it was time to join the line again, everyone rushed to be in front, even though they had been behind before the rain started. Some girls fell over each other, and some landed in the puddles of dirty and muddy water that the rain had formed.

Oluomachukwu saw more girls trooping into the camp and coming to join the queue, and she wondered if it was an all-girls camp, because she was yet to see any guy. She knew that she would never survive in an all-girls camp, especially when they start with their trouble-making and fighting; she wondered if it was too late to leave.

The queue extended from the parade ground to inside the hostel ground where there was no canopy, just more rain, wet hair, wet clothes, wet bags and wet shoes. The hostel ground was opposite the parade ground, and had a two-way entrance with doors that could lock. By either side of the doors, there were games tables, for Ping-Pong and table soccer.

The walls had been turned into a notice board where information was posted. But then, when Oluomachukwu looked at the other side of the hostel camp, she saw a queue for male Corps members. It was a short queue, with about twenty people, but she was glad that there were guys around.

After another long hour of waiting, Oluomachukwu was finally assigned a room on the fourth floor. There was no elevator obviously, but she couldn’t complain when she saw other girls who had come in with two or more heavy boxes, trying to carry them up all at once. When she got in front of room 45, the female Hostel Officer, who sounded more like a man, instructed them to enter, and one by one they did, until they were twenty-six of them in the room. Just then Oluomachukwu remembered the sellers who had said that there were thirty girls in a room; twenty-six wasn’t so far from thirty.

There were thirteen bunk beds in the room, clamped up together, there was hardly any space to walk between them. The Hostel Officer assigned the girls to their beds in the order they entered. The first girl got the lower bed on the first bunk and the second got the top bed. Oluomachukwu was number ten on the list so she was given the top bed on the fifth bunk and wasn’t too pleased with it. The girl who got the bottom bed was called Ijeoma and she didn’t look too pleased either.

Oluomachukwu had never slept in a bunk before and she knew she definitely couldn’t stay on the top one. It had nothing to do with the fact that she was afraid of heights, she just felt that one day, she might roll off the bunk and fall or when climbing up or down the bunk, she would fall.

Oluomachukwu had chatted and made friends with Ijeoma and two other girls while they waited on the queue for the rooms, so she had no problem asking Ijeoma to swap bed space with her. Ijeoma seemed very happy to oblige, as she had spent all her life sleeping on bunk beds and her very long legs made it easy for her to climb up and down without stepping on the bottom bed.

The two other girls, who were on the right side of her bunk were: Fadeke at the top and Ogo at the bottom. Ogo had a very small stature and looked like she could break if she even lifted herself unto her bed, so it was only natural she stayed on the lower bed. Fadeke, on the other hand, was quite bulky, and one could only hope that the top bed would take her weight and not break. So, all four of them happened to be the first set of friends in the room, as they didn’t know any other person in the room at that moment.

Oluomachukwu was yet to chat with the girls on the bunk by her left side, but from the little she had heard, their names were Eternity, on the top bunk, and Oghene, on the lower bunk.

The girls directly opposite Oluomachukwu’s bed didn’t seem to be talking that much, so knowing who they were or their names was going to be for much later. After Oluomachukwu had put her things on the bed, her luggage by the bed and her buckets under the bed, the Hostel Officer appointed a room leader and an assistant. They were the first two girls on the list, who had the first bunk, and Oluomachukwu was somewhat glad that she hadn’t been the first on the list, because the last thing she wanted was to be a room leader or an assistant.

Oluomachukwu couldn’t see the faces of both the room leader and the assistant from where she stood and she didn’t bother stretching her neck to check. The Hostel Officer mentioned their names — the room leader was called Dunsin Tijani, and the assistant, Foyin Olaolu. They were going to be responsible for locking the door when there was no one in the room early in the morning, and also for opening it whenever everyone got back. It meant that everyone had to participate fully in camp activities and the room leaders had to make sure they did.

As Oluomachukwu was leaving the room to go for registration, she looked towards her right and made an awkward eye contact with Dunsin. She assumed it was Dunsin, since she was on the bottom bunk. In order for it not to seem anymore awkward, Oluomachukwu said “Hi” to Dunsin and she responded. She then made a bold move to ask Oluomachukwu if she wanted to assume the role of room leader.   Oluomachukwu shook her head indicating “No,” then made for the door. As she walked down the corridor, she heard Dunsin poaching other girls, asking them to take her place. Oluomachukwu assumed that she had asked all the girls and that they had all said “No,” as no one would have wanted that sort of responsibility.

Something worried Oluomachukwu as she went down the stairs, handbag hanging loosely over her shoulder. She had seen Dunsin somewhere before, but she didn’t know where, yet what she knew was that she wasn’t supposed to like Dunsin — maybe it was in Abuja at the NYSC Head Office, where people insulted her, as she walked in with Kayode or at the Secretariat in Surulere when she went to pick up her Call-up letter, she didn’t know where.

Oluomachukwu came out of the hostel and looked at the open space where the number of people had doubled since she arrived. With what was lying ahead of her, she had to keep the thought of remembering who Dunsin was and why she didn’t like her for another time. It was now time to face registration proper.

*****
Copyright © 2015 C. M. Okonkwo