On the 15th of November 2011, one hundred thousand young men and women were summoned from the solace of their homes to one of almost three dozen centers across this country. I was one of them and like each of my colleagues, I had no choice in the matter. We were all going to ‘serve our nation’ with our hearts, bodies and souls whether or not we wanted to. Notice the irony?
I arrived at the camp gates about 8 o’clock that morning, shortly after listening to two small children as they sang on their way to school,
” Omi garri (trans: the liquid of garri) is water;
Eja didin (trans: fried fish) is fish ”
The town itself was an ancient one with lots of thatched roofs and small red mud houses but there were quite a number of modern, stately buildings too.
The first thing I noticed in front of the green-white-green camp gate was a prominently displayed, black-painted, life size sculpture of a male otondo(corper) and he was not smiling. He looked very unhappy, in fact. I took one step past the armed policemen at the entrance, and impressively there was a checkpoint. Once it was confirmed that I was not carrying any dangerous ‘equipment’, I got the 4-digit tag that assigned me to platoon 6.
A couple minutes after settling into a hostel, I went out to get my kit. It was rather fast, my platoon commander was helpful and kind but the kit itself was a mixed story. The jungle boots and cap were well-made. The belt looked and felt as if it had been made from fresh banana leaves, and it became clear that the voluminous,’agbada-style’ ‘white’ tshirts, were actually cream once I compared them to the white t-shirts I’d brought from home. Other than the fact that I probably lost a button each time I wore the khaki, the rest of the kit was passable.
I changed into my whites and calmly headed out to inspect the camp. My first stop was at the fairly large parade ground where a lot of corps (pronounced ‘core’) members had already gathered; a few played football and many more from the stands. I’m certain that a lot more was happening then yet I quickly found myself drawn to a thin, deserted strip of the field, just next to the fence.
There were less than a dozen people there but coincidentally, all belonged to my platoon, and three were just about to race. I was on time. On a sudden whim, I decided I would be the fourth contestant and they agreed. We slowly spread out over the foot-high bush, picked suitable spots and drooped to our knees, waiting for the signal. I was tense.
“On your mark!” Blood pounded through my veins, overwhelming me.
“Set?” My heartbeats echoed, and I heard each distinctly.
“Go!” I shot off with every ounce of force I could muster. The world became very silent and still as I instantly forgot that it was merely a friendly race. My brain issued a furious, short and urgent command. “RUN!”, it roared. Even if the earth had opened her mouth to swallow the ground from under me, I could not have possibly moved any faster. My muscles were drawn tight, subjected to great tension. My head and shoulders were bent, to assume a diagonal posture as I swiftly closed in on my target.
And then? Broken twigs. Not one or two in my path, a whole bunch and my right foot became immediately entangled. I leaped into the air that instant, reflexively hoping to evade the branches and continue my run but my leg was stuck. I fell back to the ground, fortunately in the fetal position and rolled off the track for a few seconds, into the brown grass ,rough sand and sharp sticks
Perhaps it defies reason, but my first reaction was to get back on my feet and huddle into a nearby secluded spot behind a stack of grass and wood to privately examine my wounds. Remarkably, I was generally unscathed but more importantly, and to my great relief, ‘it’ was intact, and un-punctured. I vowed then, that I would not run again!,at least not in camp. I had come so close to…I turned because someone was asking how I was.
“Are you okay? ”
“Yes, yes…” I gasped, ” I am fine”.
“You should go to the clinic”
“Oh, there’s no need, I’m uninjured. What happened to me?” I asked.
“You were second until you fell into that small pit”
“A pit?!” My eyes widened and I moved closer to confirm. In truth, there was a small depression where I had fallen.
By now, the pain of the impact was dwindling and finally my eyes opened. She was a girl. Quite the girl. She told me she was helping the platoon’s athletic team and while I was still thinking, I heard my voice volunteering to help her oversee the remaining races. She agreed.
“Should I put your name down for the platoon’s athletics practice? ” She asked
“No, don’t bother, I’m never running again”
In an insistent tone, “But you were quite good and…”
I cut in, “I was?…” mused a bit, looked around then decided. “Tolu, Code no: “xxx6”.
As she wrote my name on the paper she was holding, she said, “Tanya”.
When the real races ended, we slowly walked back to the finish line .What I convinced her to do over the next five or ten minutes, I am not at all proud of, and immensely grateful that there were no watchers. I ‘won’, convincingly.
However, it boosted my dampened spirits and strengthened my commitment to run for my platoon.
We split.I headed to Mammy Market for a much deserved lunch thinking that NYSC camp might not be so bad or hard after all, and I could probably, easily enjoy it.
I was foolish…and naive.
P.S : This is the first installment, of a weekly series summarizing notable events and experiences from camp. I will cover more ground in the next one, go deeper.