Part 1: It has been a very Long Thing
Posted by The Adventures of a Nigerian-American
Sometimes in April 2012, I made up my mind to return to my birth country – Nigeria. In September 2012, I packed up my belongings into 5 suitcases and boarded the flight to Lagos, Nigeria. I had a flexible plan that would enable me transition smoothly to life in Nigeria but I wasn’t fully mentally prepared to manage this huge life transition.
From mid-Sept to Oct, I hung out with family and close friends. I also started networking and re-learning directions, vocabularies & culture (call it reverse culture shock). For instance, when I went to open a bank account, I asked about their checking & saving accounts. The teller gave me a blank stare, like I was speaking in French. Apparently, in Nigeria checking account is called ‘current’ account. I didn’t know this! In Oct, I took a short trip to Abuja (the capital of Nigeria) to register for the Nigerian Youth Service Corps (NYSC) program. Abuja seem like a nice place, it is more expensive than Lagos but not as lively and vibrant.
Apparently I do not look Nigerian and my hair simply fascinates people here. I get lots of stares and the where are you from question. Most times, I have to prove to folks that I’m really from here by speaking in my native language. I actually think I adjusted to life in Lagos well. A lot of things did not bother me, for example, electricity is erratic in Nigeria so frequent power outage is normal.
Well the most interesting experience from Sept-Dec last year was in Nov. Remember I had to go to Abuja to register for the Nigerian Youth Service Corps (NYSC) program. The NYSC is a mandatory one year service program that Nigerian citizens who have graduated from a 4yr University/college have to do before they can be employed in Nigeria. This program starts with a 3 weeks Para-military camp, followed by 11 months of community service work. My 3 weeks in camp was horrible for the most part. It was then I doubted if I made the right decision of turning down my prestige job offer from Teach for America for moving back home. Now, sit back as I recount my camp experience…….
5 days to camp
I picked up my ‘Call up Letter’ from the NYSC head office in Lagos. Call up letter shows the state you are deployed to for camp and the rest of the service year. You cannot choose your state of preference. The government decide this. I was disappointed with mine – I was deployed to Oyo State. I wanted Lagos or Abuja. I began buying things I needed for camp. For a complete list of things needed for camp, click on ‘The Foreign Trained Student Guide: Surviving NYSC’.
Camp: Day 1
We left Lagos at 7am and arrived at my camp location in Iseyin, Oyo State at 11am. The roads were in very poor condition. We were not allowed to drive into the camp premises, so we packed the car outside. The soldiers ordered us to put our luggage on our head and join the line. So for the next 1hr, along with others, I had my 20 pounds hand-luggage on my head. Their only explanation for this was that it was step 1 in ‘swiping out the civilian thought process’. Finally we passed this stage and went through bag checking then proceeded to sit on the floor while another soldier gave us a welcome speech. After this, we were assigned a mattress and dunk bed and told to begin the never ending registration process.
I made new friends while on the line for some paperwork. Together, we continued with registration until 6pm. I took a shower outside in the open space with my new friends because there were no bathrooms. I couldn’t sleep that night. My bunk bed was in the hallway because the dormitories were overcrowded. The whole dormitory had a bad odor.
Day 2 – 6
Since day 2 was still allocated to registration, the soldiers were lenient with us. I collected my ‘kit’ (approved camp uniform). In camp, we are only allowed to wear what they give. You can only wear your own clothes on Sunday for 4hrs. Day 3 hence wards, we had to be on the parade ground at 5.20am. Every morning, we began by saying prayers, national anthem, pledge and NYSC anthem. See the attached photos for the daily routine timetable.
We had no toilet. They expected us to use an uncompleted building with nothing in it for shower, number 1 and 2. Remember the stranded cruise ship where passengers were asked to use a plastic bag for number 2 for 3 days. Well, here in camp, you had to use the plastic bag from 3 weeks. I began using Imodium to slow down my digestive system so I wouldn’t have to use a plastic bag. I had to learn to take a bath under 2 mins with my towel wrapped on my head. The soldiers usually come to harass us for taking our shower in the open space in front or behind the dorm. So you had to be fast about it except you want the crazy soldiers to see your naked body or you feel like being punished in only your towel wrapped around your body.
I also had to contract petite work to women from the town. We had to get water in a bucket for shower and to wash your clothes by hand. Getting water was frustrating enough, so I always paid one of the women to get water for me daily. I also paid to have one of them wash my clothes.
By day 3, the dorm was filthy. My dorm has 3 floors, I was on the ground floor and there were about 128 females crammed into this tight space on the ground floor. Some of these females were DIRTY. For example, it was common to see used sanitary pads on the floor, feces behind the dorm, food crumbs on the floor.
From day 3, we were made to understand that nothing is optional in camp, everything is mandatory. If caught, you will be punished severely. Punishment included locking up in a guardroom (a small dark windowless room); kneeling down or sitting down on the dirty ground for several hours or expelled from camp. You cannot talk back to a soldier or NYSC official, it doesn’t matter if you are right because to them you are ALWAYS WRONG and they are ALWAYS RIGHT!
We were asked to pick a skill (out of 6 available) that we were interested in. For 3 hours every day in week 2 and part of week 3, we would be trained on the skill of our choice. I choose IT; I wanted to learn web development. Also we were given an option to train as a peer educator on adolescent reproductive health and HIV prevention and care. I signed up for this and I’m glad I did. It helped me maintain my sanity. Throughout week 2, we were busy training from 7am to 6pm every day. I loved it because it meant I didn’t have to participate in the stupid marching or attend the senseless lectures.
From week 2 onwards, the camp commandant (the highest ranked solider in camp) came to the courtyard that housed all female dorms every night to harass and insult us. Our theory was that he came to look at naked girls taking their bath; from there he picked out females who will pass the night with him. The camp commandant favorite insults were ‘all of you are ugly’, ‘your breasts are ugly’, ‘I swear I can never date any of you’, ‘dirty girls’, ‘all of you are witches’. These rants went on for about 20 minutes every night.
Also this week, they killed three snakes. One on the parade ground, one at the back of female dorm and the last beside the kitchen. This snake incidence put a fear in me.
Unfortunately the HIV prevention care training was over on the third day in week 3 so I had to return to camp daily routine. Since week 2, I had learned ways to outsmart the soldiers. For example, when they come to chase us out from the dormitory at 4.30am, I remained in bed. Fortunately, my dorm did not have electricity, it smelled badly and it was difficult to walk through because of the bunk beds in the hallway. For these reasons, the soldiers rarely came into the dorm. I guess I was lucky because I was never caught; punishment for violating any camp rule went from mild to severe. I made friends with most of the soldiers, sometimes I bought them food or drinks. That way, when I wasn’t obeying rules, they let off the hook. During week 3, we went for ‘Endurance Trek’. I absolutely loved this. We took a walk (about 2,000 of us) alongside camp officials and soldiers around the town where the camp was located. It felt good seeing people and the outside world. The walk took about 7 hours.
Last day in Camp
I pretty much did not sleep the night before. We were told we had to be out of the dorm by 6am. At 8am, the closing parade ceremony started. After this, we had to line up to collect our ‘posting letter’. This letter has the ability to make you sad or happy. The posting letter shows the city/village/town and the institution that you are posted to work for the remaining 11 months. Keep in mind that some of the villages are in the middle of nowhere with very basic amenities. Again I was extremely disappointed with my posting letter. I was posted to some village called ‘Fiditi’. We had to report to wherever you were posted that same day. I went to mine, what I saw frightened me. If you know me, you will know I’m a city girl, I can’t do villages or small town. Those simply aren’t cut for me. But here I am, posted to a small village with mud houses. I decided then that if I was not reposted to the capital of Oyo State, I wasn’t going to do the service program anymore.
I went to the head office in Ibadan (the capital of Oyo State) to beg/request/petition them to kindly repost me to Ibadan. This process was frustrating and further introduced me to the ways things are done in Nigeria.
……..to be continued…………watch out for part 2 (I should post it in 2 weeks)
Long thing = a Nigerian slang that means ‘it is not easy, it has been challenging or impossible to achieve’.