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« Gbenga Obasanjo: I thought… | Main | The Father of all Nigerian Ethnic Groups »

April 20, 2005

Singing the NYSC Blues

by Uche Nworah --- How could he have forgotten so quickly? Mr. Frank Nweke Jnr. I mean. It is not as if it’s been decades since he ‘passed out’ himself. Well if you don’t know who he is, Mr. Nweke is the youthful Honourable Minister for Inter-governmental Affairs, Special Duties and Youth Development (whatever all that means) in the Obasanjo government. I stumbled on his remarks and proposals for NYSC reforms by accident on this government website

I wouldn’t say that I am disappointed with him because the young man is trying very hard to do what he is paid to do, but I don’t see how the corpers (as in youth corps members) are the causes of the problems in Nigeria. It’s not like Mr. Nweke doesn’t know that the NYSC scheme is the last rights of passage to adulthood for these corpers, before they join the beat to march up and down the streets of Lagos, or whatever town where they would have uncles, aunts and friends willing to host them for as long as their job hunt will last, hopefully not forever.

In the reported article, The Honourable Minister likened the NYSC scheme as presently constituted to a Jamboree, yeah right!

Well, if he thinks that the scheme has deviated from its original format, well, is it not because the economy of Nigeria today is no longer the same economy we had when the scheme was introduced in the 70s? When corpers had companies chasing them even at the orientation camps with mouth watering packages while also dangling the keys to brand new Volkswagen Beetle and Peugeot 504 cars before them.

Times have changed my dear minister. So why not let the poor boys and girls indulge themselves one last time in the ‘jamboree’. It may be their last before that pocket money from parents and relatives dry up, and they start receiving those My dear son, or My dear daughter letters requesting for money to pay school fees for obinna, musa or funmi.

Now the Honourable Minister is proposing to use the one-year NYSC scheme to teach youth corpers entrepreneurial skills, please!

As if they (the corpers) don’t already have enough of those, how else does he think that the students have survived in the universities all these years? Definitely not from the pocket money from parents and relatives, which are hardly ever enough, not even sufficient to fund an average student’s monthly GSM phone bill, not to talk of the other living expenses such as buying hostel accommodation, ‘settling and sorting’ lecturers, buying handouts and of course remaining ‘marketable’ in the dating stakes through maintaining a trendy designer wardrobe, how could I have forgotten the electronic gadgets and personal ‘tokunbo’ car needed to complete the cuppie (campus urban professional) personae.

If the Minister cared so much, why couldn’t the proposed entrepreneurial scheme be introduced as part of the academic curriculum in the colleges, universities and polytechnics? By admitting to lack of jobs for the corpers on completion of their service year, hence the need for the proposed reforms, isn’t that also the same as the government admitting to failure and inability to look after, and take care of it’s most valuable assets (the youths)?

Knowing the academic rigors of Nigeria’s ivory towers, the moment students are signed off, after defending their final year projects and thesis, the last thing they would wish for would be to go into the national service year and then be subjected to another round of academic torture, possibly with the threat of failure if they fail to squeeze out money from their meager ‘allowee’ (NYSC allowance) to buy handouts from the entrepreneurial skills lecturers, whom I am sure will still be drafted from nearby colleges and universities.

There is nothing as exciting as a gap year after graduation. So, the Honourable Minister should see the NYSC scheme as a gap year for Nigerian graduates. In the developed countries, students use such periods to travel far and wide with just their ruck sack tied to their backs and a one way flight ticket to what ever destination that catches their fancy, any where but home, away from nagging family members and peers, and away from anybody or anything that remotely looks like a lecturer or university, at least for a while.

Such experiences have been life changing according to the students’ testimonies. Friendships built along the journeys have lasted a lifetime, and many have been known to remain in these far lands and commit their skills to making a difference in their newfound lands and societies.

(The writer at the Katsina-Ala orientation camp in 1993)

On a personal note, my NYSC year was one of the best times of my life, particularly inside the Katsina-Ala orientation camp in Benue State. I remember sitting on top of an Okada motorcycle as the driver sped and wheezed through the November harmatan breeze, from what you would call the town centre on our way to the Katsina-Ala College of Education, the venue of our month long orientation.

This was at the heart of Tiv land, and my excitement was not dampened in any way by the poor surroundings that enveloped us as we sped along. At the college gates, I met other eager and starry-eyed corpers who just like me, would probably not have ventured to these parts, but for the NYSC scheme. We quickly bonded and cheered each other up, promising to make the most of our time at the camp.

Formalities accomplished, uniforms collected and platoon allocated, it was time to hit the famous mammy market inside the orientation camp, which my friend Sunny Ogbu told me so much about.

The mammy market is your number one hang-out and action center in any NYSC orientation camp; here friendships are quickly struck up, alliances made and one's lifetime quantity of alcohol consumed. Infamous stories of campus exploits and escapades are told, and the follies of youth celebrated even as ‘made men’ (cult and fraternity members) rent the air with different coded whistle sounds in search of their fellow ‘brothers’ from other universities and colleges.

In our days, Guinness stout was the beer of choice and I am sure that the reason why I no longer drink stout is because I am still recovering from the ones I consumed back then, I didn’t help myself in any way by being an ally to Anyiam Anyaehie, who by all standards was about the richest corper in camp then, and who wouldn’t be happy unless everybody around him was drunk and on him.

As Mr. Nweke would have people believe, it wasn’t just jamboree all the way, not with the likes of Corporal Asuquo being in the camp, to make sure that he squeezed out the last drop of alcohol from our system during the early morning drills.

It was at the orientation camp that I thought I had met my love match, I really would have loved to go all the way with her but you don’t marry a man’s daughter on an empty stomach. I also struck beautiful friendships with other people who have remained my friends ever since.

I remember our passing out day, sadness suddenly enveloped the camp, people were shedding tears and were expressing real fears that probably they were not going to see each other again, that sadly was the reality and truth. I didn’t get to see Godlight Ebisi again until I received the news of his sad death (bless his soul).

I was deployed to Leke Grammar School in Konshisha local government area of Benue State to begin my primary assignment as a teacher. This was the first time that reality hit home, on my way to the school, sitting at the back of an open pick-up truck with other villagers and their chickens and goats bound for the local weekly market, I almost felt like weeping. Every passing mud house added to my sorrows and I felt like jumping down and running back.

Thank God for civilization, you wouldn’t want to find yourself in these parts if cannibalism was still in vogue. You would be dead by the time you could say breakfast.

I began to miss Makurdi town, from where I had set out for the journey, after a few days chilling out with my girlfriend, I missed her as well and wished that we had been a bit more discreet in our relationship, maybe the camp commandant wouldn’t have gone to such extents in trying to keep us apart from each other, by posting me to a no man’s land, so that he could perfect his moves.

Leke Grammar School is in a town called Tse-Agbaragba; it’s almost like the last tribe after the Koma people to witness civilization. The school compound comprised only of two small buildings surrounded by trees.

I lived in a plastered mud house and drank from well water; my room then was as austere as you could imagine. It contained a 6-spring bed; kerosene lamp and a cooking stove. There was no electricity and any form of transportation. To go into the village square from the school compound required a trek of about 4 kilometers one way, a journey I didn’t often indulge in. I became a hermit but not by choice. I passed the time after school by learning bird quips and songs, and staring at the ceiling counting my days. Mr. Innocent (a local, neighbour and fellow teacher) never had these issues as he had his acres of farmlands to worry about.

The toilet then was in the middle of the bushes, so I devised an eating habit, which wouldn’t make me a frequent visitor to the ‘white house’, on the occasions that I visited, my eyes and heart beat moved in synchrony as I constantly watched out for snakes and other bush and forest residents.

To some people, this may be adventure but I wasn’t an adventurer, I was a youth corper, serving his fatherland but who didn’t want to lose his life in the process.

I was to later contract the life threatening typhoid virus as a result of the bad water; this led to my going back to Makurdi for treatment and for good. Even as I was leaving Tse-Agbaragba to seek for treatment, I never looked back because I knew that I wasn’t going to come back and I never did. My life was far more precious to me.

While I was getting ready to leave, the Ghanaian principal of the school (Mr. Kofi) insisted that I come back after my treatment and so wouldn’t endorse a rejection letter, years of reading James Hardley Chase novels came to my rescue, I had always wondered what he was doing in such a place and if he was a legal immigrant, I threw a wild card and threatened to report him to the Nigerian Immigrations service in Makurdi, that worked the magic.

Before I became ill, I wasn’t so much concerned about my own situation; I began to feel for the students I was teaching English Literature, Economics, Government and English language. I really wondered at what the future held for them.

During the short period that I was there, I lost a lot of them to the farmlands (what else were the empty lands for? queried the village chief when I went to him to protest), some of the girls who were already bethroted just stopped coming to lessons as baby demands from their suitors were of more importance to classroom chants of A noun is the name of a person, place or thing.

I experienced first hand, the classic saying that youth corpers survive mostly on goodwill, for whatever reason, maybe it was the uniform which we used to proudly wear back then, I found that people went out of their way to be nice and helpful to youth corpers, I don’t know about now and if the attitude of Nigerians towards youth corpers have changed.

A kind gentleman (David) whom I didn’t know paid for my treatment at a private hospital in Makurdi, he saved me from the hands of the Makurdi NYSC staffers who had dumped me at the under- resourced makurdi general hospital probably to die.

As a corper, I can’t recount the numerous free meals I ate at local restaurants and also the countless free rides I enjoyed from both commercial transport owners and private car owners.

While not denying the jamboree aspect of the NYSC scheme, I want to also say that it is not just fun and good times all the way; the Honourable Minister would have to think harder for better reforms for the scheme. His proposals as presently submitted to the government is not any different from all the different government back-to-work schemes, the reality is that there are no jobs and government should really be thinking more along the direction of job provisions.

The danger in trying to convert everybody to be entrepreneurs is that, it reduces our intellectual ambitions and rubbishes our God given talents, it also limits our choices. People’s passions and talents differ, for this reasons they have chosen and studied different courses, there is a flaw in the Minister’s wholesale solution of entrepreneurial skills for all corpers.

Corpers and ex-corpers, this is your call, let the Nigerian government know what you think.


Post your comments and share your NYSC experiences (good and bad) here.

The writer is of the 1993 NYSC set, and now teaches business and Marketing at Newvic London

Posted by Administrator at April 20, 2005 06:42 AM


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