UZOKWE'S SEARCHLIGHT

Thursday, March 18, 2021
obiuzokwe@comcast.net
Harrisburg, PA, USA
MY 1983/84 NATIONAL YOUTH SERVICE CORPS EXPERIENCE IN NIGERIA - WAS IT WORTH IT? (PART 2 OF 4)

MORE PHOTOS BELOW

expected that Sergeant Eddy would be disciplined by Captain Olubobokun to include barring him from the parade grounds but the next morning, the amiable sergeant was out on the parade ground, bright and early. There was no sign of bitterness or rancor on his face. I took it that Captain Olubobokun just warned him to desist from encouraging that type of gathering again. The parade routine continued. From that moment on, I only played my guitar in my room.

On one of the morning man o war fitness drills, we were required to go through an obstacle course routine. The set up was a vertical wooden, barricade-like structure, about 7 or 8 feet high. The task was to run towards it, grab on any of the randomly placed notches and climb up. At the top, you would descend on the other side of it. For some reason, it was a disorganized event. Several people were rushing towards the same target at the same time. I stepped forward and began the climb. It was a little challenging but I made it to the top and briefly sat astride the barricade. One of my legs was on the approach side while the other was on the descent side. Some people were struggling to climb up and suddenly, someone grabbed my foot as support to get up. That leg momentarily slid downwards, causing the rear side of my thigh to grind across the edge of the wooden contraption. I braced myself harder, knowing the implications of tumbling down back into the disorganized crowd below me.

The fella released my foot but the damage was already done. The pain was stingingly excruciating! However, at that age, the last thing you want is to show weakness during a mano war exercise, especially when the opposite sex was in the mix. I grimaced in pain but stopped short of letting out a yell. I am not quite sure if the guy knew the bodily havoc he had done on a fellow youth corper because he seemed to “soldier” on as if nothing extraordinary happened. When I finally went down the other side, with a mild limp, I went back to the dorm for a reconnaissance of the impact site. I discovered that the impact between my thigh and the edge of the board was so severe that in spite of my thick khaki pants, I still had some lacerations. I wondered what would have happened if I was not wearing something that thick, my flesh would have been scarified deeply. It was more of a superficial skin wound though. It did not stop me from parade drill the next day.

There was nothing remarkable about the rest of the orientation program. In the end, we had a passing out ceremony. We marched past some military and civilian dignitaries and later received our orientation passing out certificates. We said our good byes and each departed to their primary posting location.

My Primary Assignment Begins

I was originally posted to Lagos State Works ministry (I think that is what the place was called, it is a little fuzzy now) in Ipaja, Lagos. At that time, I had moved back into Ogunfunmi street apartment to stay with Augustine and Chiedu. For starters, getting to Ipaja from Surulere, every morning, was like traveling out of town. Even though I had to leave early, because of traffic and distance, I always got there just before start of work. The travel was always a mixture of use of danfo buses, molue buses and taxi(these are public transportation modes in Lagos Nigeria. The danfo and molue are cheaper than taxis). The monthly stipend for all corpers then was N200. I felt that transportation alone, to the place, was going to take away most of my pay and when you add lunch, I will be left with nothing every month. I did not want to fall back to my mother to subsidize my pay, something she had volunteered to do, if need be, as I left Nnewi for youth service. I did not want to do that because I wanted independence in every respect. I was now done with my studies, with the immense help of my parents, I thought, and should be able to fend for myself and make my own decisions.

After a few days in that place, I resolved to seek help from someone that knew the NYSC program Director then - Chief Kila, in Lagos. It was a circuitous process which I undertook with so much trepidation. Brigadier Adekunle, the black scorpion of the Nigerian army, was involved in the saga but that is a story for another part of my memoir. When we finally went to Chief Kila’s office, he asked me where I wanted to be posted. Unfortunately, I had not done my homework before hand. I thought I was coming there to justify why I wanted to be removed from Ipaja where I was posted. So without knowing exactly what they did there, I said, “Federal Ministry of Works”, so he wrote on my assignment paper, “post to Federal Ministry of Works” and signed – “Chief Kila”. Of course, if I knew what I know now, I would have gone there with the names of three top notch architectural firms in Lagos. Those ones that have the penchant to pay corpers stipends over and above their monthly salaries and even subsidized housing. But that was then.

As I ponder all this now, several decades later and knowing what I know now, I would have stayed where I was posted and made the most of it. Why? Because when I first came to the United States and became a construction engineering inspector, always outside in the rain, shine, cold, you name it, I hated it at first! For starters, and like most young men would think, I felt it was a huge demotion for me. To me, moving from being a practicing design and construction personnel in Nigeria, to just a field construction inspector in the United States, under the elements all the time, was hardly an upgrade. I wrote back to my father and complained. His advice? Use every project assignment you have to enrich your knowledge. Use every opportunity you have to show what you can do because that will give you the ticket to bigger and better things. Finally he wrote, albeit tongue in cheek :“even if you are posted to clean toilets, be the best toilet cleaner there ever is because one day, that experience will be a great asset for you”. Of course he was not asking me to go and clean toilets but was making a larger point about humility and the doctrine of “stooping to conquer”.

Bless my father! He was full of wisdom and dished it out all the time regardless of whose ox was gored. Yes, we periodically disagreed on issues just like any slightly heady young man would with his parents. I say “slightly heady” because I was not super-heady as a young man but periodically, youthful exuberance caused me to reject parental counselling and strike out on my own. Shssss, I will not own this up to my children, though. But, on a more serious note, my father’s many words of wisdom to me will always live with and guide me.

I followed my father’s advice and hunkered down with construction inspection while attending graduate school of engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park. On the whole, I spent 6 years in that job and the experience and confidence I gained from those years, in the broad spectrum of construction and heavy engineering, still remain some of my best today. They still guide me in my current work. I still preach my father’s doctrine to my kids of: “never refuse assignment at work because there is always something to gain, no matter how seeming menial at the time”.

But, at the time in Lagos and at 24 years of age, I was naïve. One of the main reasons I did not want to stay in Ipaja was that their office did not meet my vision of a professional environment. It looked like an old, unkempt family living room with papers everywhere. I developed the impression, the few days I was there, that their projects were mere low-level drafting assignments and did not want to do that. I simply felt that Federal Ministry of Works would have more complex and prestigious projects to work on and that the name was going to look better on my resume.

Armed with Chief Kila’s letter, the next day, I was off to the Federal Ministry of Works, Lagos. It was also a long haul from Surulere, but I did not mind. I was determined to make that one work even if I spent all my pay on transportation. More truthfully, even if it did not work well, I knew I was not about to go back to Chief Kila for another change.

When I reported to the director and gave him my papers, signed by Chief Kila, I noticed a repulsive smirk on his face. He did not seem friendly at all. There was no welcome talk or orientation. He just called in someone else and asked that I be situated. I was moved to a room where some new architects and probably engineering, that had been hired, were staying. I remember one Mbonu, a tall easy-going guy from the East. He was one of the new hirers. I was appalled that we spent more time, each day, sitting there and conversing instead of doing any work. It is possible that there were simply not much work to do, I cannot say that for certain though.

We would gather, talk about soccer and other things and then as the end of the day drew nigh, folks would start melting away from the office, like ice in the presence of heat. One guy had just returned from Mosco where he studied. That was the time of Chernenko in USSR. I must be frank that I kept wondering what would attract someone to the USSR to study, in spite of all the oppression stories we read about. But then when one remembers that Nigeria had only a few universities then to cater for the multitude of students graduating from the many secondary schools across the nation, the situation becomes understandable.

At that time, gaining admission to a university in Nigeria presented very keen competition and grueling challenges! So many students were forced to fan out all over the globe, after school certificate exams, in search of tertiary education opportunities. That included America. Nigeria had just a few universities like universities of Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello(ABU), Lagos, Ife, Ibadan, Port Harcourt, Benin. I think that was it! Just as an example, in 1984, Nigeria had a population of about 81 million! There was no way these few universities would satisfy the needs of people seeking tertiary education. Hence you will see very bright students, graduating from secondary schools across the nation with grade one and still unable to gain admission to a Nigerian university for many years. I imagined the situation as an hourglass. Many people will graduate from secondary school (the larger portion of the hourglass), then they get to the university entry phase and it becomes the constricted part of the hour glass, only a few can enter the few universities. So many folks are held back for years after secondary school graduation.

In the political front, Nigeria was experiencing a metamorphic and tumultuous phase. Buhari and Idiagbon’s ascent to power had brought a new dimension to the Nigerian landscape. All they talked about and did something about was corruption under the program – War Against Indiscipline (WAI). Idiagbon, Buhari’s deputy was leading the charge to seemingly sanitize Nigeria. At first, Nigeria seemed to be making some progress in the human behavioral aspect. If you jumped the queue in traffic, bank, or anywhere that required orderly movement, people would boo you or if the army was present, they would flog you. If you dropped trash on the street, the police/army will whip you. Slowly, Nigerians began to police themselves and doing things right. Folks in the ministries were so afraid that they would be caught asking for or receiving bribe that they started “singing” probity as their watchword. But the highhandedness of the Buhari regime did not improve joblessness. It did not improve economic stagnation. Soon morale began to crumble and wane to vanishing points, something that gave General Ibrahim Babangida the impetus to strike in 1985, in a counter coup.

This essay is an excerpt from my yet-to-be published memoir

Continued fromn Part 1

Continued on Part 3 of 4

Author of the books- 1. Nigeria: Contemporary Commentaries and Essays

2. Surviving in Biafra: The Story of the Nigerian Civil War

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