By Tony Felix Nwaka
I am always nostalgic when I read the various comments on the ongoing efforts to discard the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). And this is because my own experience with the scheme is exceptionally fascinating.
I am a 1987 History graduate of the University of Lagos. Ordinarily, I should be in the first batch of corp members from the school for that year, but I wasn’t. I deliberately skipped the process because, as a 22-year-old hotheaded Akokite from Baluba Hall, I had high expectations of travelling out of the country immediately after graduation. Many of my fellow graduates had left for Europe and the US, and I couldn’t wait to join them in the race for self-actualization; the calculation was that we could always do the service when we returned to Nigeria.
But as the popular parlance goes, “Man proposes, God disposes.” Alas, my dream of travelling collapsed on the crucible of exuberance, and I drifted in a pool of despair. I was for a while in this disconsolate state until reality dawned: I must now eat humble pie and go register with the second batch of graduates to participate in the NYSC.
I remember the NYSC office then was somewhere on Babs Animashaun Road, Surulere, Lagos. I wouldn’t know if the office is still located there today. But suffice it to say that it was when I arrived at the office that the drama of my NYSC experience started.
Yes, I had walked dejectedly into the NYSC premises on that day and traced my way through the cluster of beaten bungalows to the office of the schedule officer. I stepped in and froze at the sight of commotion that enveloped the office. A multitude of prospective corpers swarm around the officer, all pleading at the top of their voices to be posted to choice locations across the country; Lagos, Port Harcourt, Ibadan, Benin City, Enugu, Jos, etc.
I made my way gingerly to a corner of the room, separated from the madding crowd, and gaped in sympathy at the schedule officer as she struggled to ward off the mounting pressure. But her pleas for calm and an orderly queue were virtually drowned out by the surging horde. She was a dark-skinned woman of bulky frame, her face dripping with blobs of sweat in the fairly illuminated and stuffy room.
Suddenly, she raised her view beyond the throng around her and caught a glimpse of a lanky, dark-skinned boy, standing disinterestedly with folded arms at the corner of the room. For a while she fixed a gaze on me, probably wondering why I was so detached from the scramble for placement. Then, her voice rang out, “Hey, young man, have you not come for your posting?”
“I have, ma!” I replied in a weak voice that had been hollowed out by the frustration of my failed dream of a foreign sojourn.
Many heads turned in my direction.
“Good! Come over here. Everyone make way for him,” she commanded.
I managed to weave through the crowd, whose clamour had only increased in intensity. I reached the desk of the woman and she asked, “Where do you want to be posted?”
Silence fell upon the room. Now, all focus was on me. What a Godsend opportunity! Lagos, Port-Harcourt, Ibadan, Benin, and Enugu were the popular choices.
“Madam, just post me to anywhere in the country,” I said.
The room exploded in disbelief.
“Who is this?”
“Is he okay!”
“Where is this boy from?”
It took a while for the woman to call the house to order. She looked at me again. This time, more intently. “Do you mean I should send you to any part of the country?” She asked, as her eyes roamed the room in utter disorientation.
“Yes, ma. Preferably anywhere in the north. I have never been to the northern part of Nigeria,” I said in a note of assertiveness.
The room erupted again in bewilderment and exclamations of revulsion. The woman dropped her pen on the table and stared at me in heightened stupefaction. When she eventually found her voice, she said I was the type of Nigerians the NYSC was looking for. She admonished the astonished gathering and said she wished they could all behave like me.
In the final analysis, the lady said the finest place in northern Nigeria was Kaduna and, to reward my exemplary attitude, she formally posted me to Kaduna State.
So, how did I, instead of Kaduna, end up in one of the remotest communities in Katsina State and what were the highlights of the experience?
Indeed, I got some money from my elder sister, Fidel, and set out the following day to Kaduna by night bus. Interestingly, she was the one who had originally advised that I did my NYSC service, instead of wasting away on a futile expectation of an overseas trip. In any case, I must confess that I had never travelled at such inauspicious hours and for such a distance. But I found the experience pleasantly adventuresome, whizzing past the various sleeping cities and villages, and eventually bursting into the dazzling nightlife at the terminus we disembarked for refreshments (I can’t quite remember the name of the town now).
Lit up by multiple shades of light, hawkers hollered and crammed around our bus with their wares, varied tunes of music rent the air, attendants beckoned from the entrances of their restaurants, appetizing aroma drifting in the air from suya stands, whilst women of easy virtues smiled and wiggled seductively for the patronage of their peculiar merchandise.
I remember that after we had all eaten and returned to the bus, it took the repeated blare of the horn by our driver before the conductor hurried out from the dark corners of the vicinity clutching on to his drooping trousers. To this day, I still wonder if he had emerged from the exigency of the call of nature or he had indeed gone to answer the other call of nature.
At any rate, we arrived Zaria at about 7.00 am. Yes, the orientation camp was a teacher’s training school, along the Zaria-Kaduna road. I had alighted from the bus with my little travel bag before it struck me that I should have come better prepared. I was assaulted by such biting cold and hazy harmattan wind that I wished I had a sweater. But I had no option. I had to trudge on. After all, that was one of the regimental intentions of the orientation exercise.
Now, the orientation camp itself held out two unforgettable experiences. One was the night I almost lost all my allowances to a fellow corper. I got engaged in a game of cards with a guy I never knew was a grandmaster at trickery. When I eventually noticed the fraud, it was too late. He had fleeced me of my entire savings. But he was of such rippling biceps and cold emotions that it would have been suicidal for me to physically take him on; he was the typical definition of a rugged street boy. I wondered how he acquired university education yet his rough edges were never chiselled by the moderations of scholarship.
The second experience was a careless miscalculation that finally sent me to the rural extremes of Katsina State; Burdugau Kwakware Nabadau, one of the smallest communities in northern Nigeria. I had been a footballer from my primary school days and, although I preferred the role of an outfield player, I was also tutored in the rudiments of goalkeeping by the No. 1 goalkeeper in my secondary school, Friday Omozusi a.k.a Dila Daku, who would want me to become a goalkeeper. He is from Benin City.
So, in the course of casual plays and semi-formal matches, I would feature as a goalkeeper. And, on one of those occasions in UNILAG, I was spotted and convinced by officials of a hostel to man the post for the hall. But the result of the first and only formal match I ever played for the hall was an apology, to say the least. We were hammered 5-0 or a result of such scandalous magnitude (I can’t quite recall the details now). After that day, I never again took seriously to goalkeeping.
But at the orientation camp in Zaria, as part of the leisures of the exercise, I played severally as a goalkeeper or attacking midfielder. Again, my potentials as a goalkeeper were noticed and I was advised to rather focus on goalkeeping and hone my skills therein. But I preferred the attacking role. When the time came for postings to our places of primary assignment, I was prevailed upon to register as a goalkeeper so I could be posted to any of the many football clubs in the city of Kaduna. I refused. The postings were eventually released, and I was sent to Government Day Secondary School, Burdugau Kwakware Nabadau in Malumfashi Local Government Area, a distance of not less than 300 kilometres from Kaduna.
But my spirit was not broken. I proceeded on the long journey, part of which was on earth road. I got to Malumfashi, which was the local government headquarters, and boarded another vehicle to Mararaba Kankara enroute Burdugau Kwakware Nabadau. The village Burdugau was said to have been founded by a man called Nabadau, who dug a well (kwakware) that attracted waves of settlers to the place. Hence the name Burdugau Kwakware Nabadau (Burdugau of Nabadau’s well).
Burdugau was a community of fewer than five hundred inhabitants, located along the road leading from Malumfashi to Yargoje, Kankara, Dutsinma and Daura. These were very peaceful communities. You could imagine how devastated I was when I recently read about the banditry now ravaging those parts. So sad.
In any case, there was no light or water in Burdugau, neither was there any marketplace in the community. To buy things for cooking and other house basics, we had to travel to Yargoje, the next community, to access the semblance of a market that only held there every four days. Indeed it was a challenging experience for a 22-year-old who had become accultured to the urbanity of Lagos. Beyond the pipe-borne water that ran past the village once in a long while, we fetched drinking water sometimes from faraway pools that were visited by cows and donkeys for the same purpose. We would use alum to sediment the impurities, and whatever crude methods we could devise to sterilize the water.
But, somehow, the seeming ordeal gradually morphed into an exciting transformative experience; a fascination that attested more to the fervour of a departure from the norm than the prospects of a spectacular eventuality. For a peep and taste of the wider world, I would occasionally travel the long distance back to Kaduna where my uncles, Onuwa Uwandulu from Issele-Azagba, late Mr Nwanade from Ubulu-Okiti, and now ArchBishop Nuel Ikeakanam from Issele-Uku, were always available to give the necessary support and encouragement. They were all working at different offices in Kaduna.
I must mention however that the people in Burdugau were the nicest any person would wish to meet. From my friend Gajere, a peasant farmer and one of the shortest men in the village, to AbdulFattahu, my favourite among the students. And, of course, the principal of the school, Alhaji Magaji Bakori; a man of free spirits and ebullient social graces.
Then there was the body of teachers, amongst whom I can remember Mallam Sirajo, Mallam Musa, and Mr Ayuba Labaran. Labaran was a Christian. I never knew they had Christians in such far-flung parts of the north. Although the people were predominantly Muslims, I never noticed any tension that arose from differences in faith and creed. These were persons of unimpeachable character and exemplary accommodation. They truly created an ambience of family that erased whatever preconceptions I may have had about living in a strange land.
Virtually all the teachers hailed from other towns and communities. But Mallam Musa was an indigene of Burdugau. He was almost seven feet tall and, to my amazement, his father was taller than he was. Mallam Musa’s wife was delivered of a baby boy at the time and, seeing the child’s extraordinarily long legs and hands I won’t be surprised if he eventually grew up taller than both his father and grandfather. That was 1988. The newborn of then must be in his thirties now, and probably a parent himself. How time flies!
Should I say also that I played football for the village and, in one of our inter-village matches, I scored a goal for Burdugau Kwakware Nabadu and helped to defeat a neighboring adversarial community. But I got an ankle injury in the course of play which made me to limp for some weeks. And for a while at the time, when I walked around the village I was greeted with such flourish of camaraderie and gratitude as Jay Jay Okocha or Kanu Nwankwo would receive today on the streets of Lagos. The communities of northern Nigeria I knew as a young university graduate were abodes of incredible hospitality.
But I didn’t get on quite well with the principal who succeeded Alhaji Magaji Bakori. He was Alhaji Bature Bakori. Yes, from the same Bakori town as Alhaji Magaji, a community located along the road from Malumfashi to Funtua. Bature did not possess the debonair dispositions of Alhaji Magaji. The infectious finesse and cosmopolitan elegance of Alhaji Magaji were more attuned to the interpersonal ease of my Lagos breeding than the rural range of Bature’s perspectives. So, my relationship with Alhaji Bature was the dark spot in an ordinarily eventful chronicle. Nevertheless, I will ever cherish the fond memories of my Burdugau experience, and the delightful larger canvass of my Kaduna/Katsina NYSC story.
Yes, Katsina. I guess that by now you would be wondering what Katsina has to do with all these. Indeed it so happened that with the stroke of state creation by the military regime of Gen Ibrahim Babangida, all the communities I have mentioned, apart from Kaduna and Zaria, fell into the new Katsina State. Therefore, even though my NYSC certificate reads Kaduna State, I actually served in the parts now known as Katsina State.
So, all said and done, should I support the scrapping of the NYSC? I must confess that this is a question that puts me in a quandary. As much as I may wish to eulogize my NYSC experience, it is obvious that the security situation today is no longer what it was in our day, when the safety of corpers was not shadowed by the various ills that are now pulling ominously at the fabrics of the Nigerian state.
My case is even further amplified by the fact that my wife is Yoruba, whom I met in 1999 when she came to Asaba on NYSC service. Today we are blessed with five healthy, beautiful and handsome children, three of whom are in the university. So, how could I speak against the NYSC? Yet, can I, in the true dictates of my conscience, allow any of my children to go serve in any part of the country today, just as I did freely in 1988? Such is the dilemma I find myself on the debate over the continuing relevance of the NYSC. May I suggest that rather than a sweeping evisceration of the scheme and its noble ideals, we should find a middle ground whereby the scheme remains operational, but corpers will not be posted to identified flashpoints of banditry or communities that have shown to be inhospitable to the principles and philosophy of the NYSC.
Much as it is understandable to contend that the scheme has outlived its usefulness, the integrative ideals of the NYSC could not be more relevant than now that a growing discontent with our nationhood tends to pull everyone to his primordial roots. Let us have a more dispassionate dialogue on the matter so we do not throw away the baby with the bathwater
Dr Tony Felix Nwaka is the Former Commissioner for Education, Delta State and the Author of ‘Mountain of Yesterday’.
Vanguard News Nigeria