UZOKWE'S SEARCHLIGHT

Wednesday, March 24, 2021
obiuzokwe@comcast.net
Harrisburg, PA, USA
MY 1983/84 NATIONAL YOUTH SERVICE CORPS EXPERIENCE IN NIGERIA - WAS IT WORTH IT? (PART 3 OF 4)

MORE PHOTOS BELOW

was now settled in at the Federal Ministry of Works but as the days went by, it dawned on me that nothing substantial was going to come out of the posting, work and experience-wise. No reasonable project assignments. The issue was not just peculiar to me, but also some of the guys that had been newly hired into the ministry. I was appalled by it all.

Before then, I had learned the principle that knowledge and hard work were just one aspect of qualities required for getting ahead in any job and life in general. In addition to knowing your stuff, one also had to be presentable in appearance by dressing well, speaking and writing well. So on occasions, I would wear a jacket to work. On this bright early morning, I got to work and decided that I was no longer going to be coming to the place for nothing every day. I had on a jacket and a portfolio that housed some of the drawings I did, back in school days. I always carried the drawings in case I had to speak to someone about getting a job after youth service. The issue of joblessness, which was now everywhere in the nation, was like a constant gnawing pain in my stomach. I carried my sample projects so that I could easily whip out my drawing portfolio and show any prospective job contact or employer.

I knocked on the director’s door(I hope that was his designation) and when he answered, I opened the door and went in. As usual, his response to my greeting was tepid at best but at this time, I had become inured to it. I said, in the most respectful way, that I was hoping to get some assignments to work on. I was not prepared for what followed. He sprung up from his chair, as if he had been waiting for that moment to act. “How can I give you an assignment dressed that way?”, he queried. “There is no way I can give you an assignment dressed like that?”. Every time he said - “dressed that way”, I would look down at myself just to be sure I was not half-naked or wearing my clothes inside out. I kept wondering why the jacket would be causing him such heartburn. He never committed to giving me an assignment and basically just berated me for wearing a jacket. Probably my portfolio irked him too. I left the office dejected.

At that time, I had been to the United States several times during the Summer months and even worked there two Summers. One of the things I learned was that you can respect someone without being subservient. My father always used the word- genuflect as something no one should be doing to a fellow human. I used to see how some staffers related to the director, like making a slight bowing motion when they talked to him while unloading the “oga”(master) sobriquet all the times. I had no issue with those doing it because it was their choice but I always used “sir” throughout my conversation with him and felt that was very polite, reverent and respectful. I always wondered if that was part of his problem with me but it is just a conjecture on my part since he only talked about my dressing.

The next and subsequent days, I wore just shirts and trousers, but my situation did not change. When I observed that even the newly hired folks did not get any meaningful assignments too, I concluded that the place was just not sufficiently tasked with projects to distribute to all of us, both permanent staff and youth corpers. At this time, we heard that General Buhari and Idiagbon, as part of their war against indiscipline, were shutting down some federal projects, believing that they were white elephant projects that boosted corruption. I just stopped trying!

On this day, we had just been paid our N200 monthly stipend. I withdrew my mint notes, placed the packet inside the inner pocket of my portfolio and was heading back to Surulere. It was a Friday so of course, with the money in hand, one could unwind and have some fun. I flagged down a taxi to make my journey smooth and straight. As soon as I entered, I placed my portfolio between my legs. The taxi already had three passengers- one in front and two in the back. I became the third person in the back. Just then the taxi lurched forward and began its journey. It was the period in Lagos when the process of even and odd numbers for noncommercial vehicles was in play. If your vehicle had an even number, you could use it on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. If odd number, you use it on Tuesdays and Thursdays(I hope I have this right). This was supposed to solve traffic congestion, but rich Nigerians circumvented it by buying more cars and numbering them even and odd. But that is beside the point. Because of this, the police was always harassing motorists in traffic. The law did not apply to commercial vehicles like taxis and danfo, though.

As we approached one of the traffic pinch points in Lagos, the popular Ojuelegba bus stop area in Surulere, I could see a policeman flagging down vehicles to park. Suddenly, the taxi driver raised what seemed like an alarm. In a loud voice he said something like: “dem don come, a beg make one person go down, when we pass police, him go enter again”. He was saying it with such urgency and loudness that I did not have time to fully process what was going on. I did not know if it meant he had an overloaded vehicle or was just trying to avoid police. The guy seating in the middle started nudging me with his right elbow, to get down because I was sitting on the non-traffic side- the right side. The driver slowed down and the guy rudely reached over me, to the door handle and opened the door and said, “make you just walk past police and enter again”.

I moved my left leg over my portfolio and hurriedly tried to climb down. My right leg was already on the ground but as I balanced myself to bring down my left leg, with lightning speed, with the right passenger door still half ajar, the taxi nudged forward. My portfolio was still inside. In what seemed like a desperate voice, all I heard from the driver was “close the door, close the door”. The guy that was hitherto sitting in the middle, who was nudging me to get out, reached out his hand, closed the door as the driver increased his speed! He drove off with my portfolio! I found myself running after the taxi like a lunatic! I ran for a little while but the futility of my attempt dawned on me so I slowed down but kept my eyes on the taxi. Lagos being what it was, no one even noticed what I was going through. “Kpamgrove(Palmgrove) Onipanu”, you would hear from bus conductors seeking passengers for their molue(bus) transport. Palmgrove and Onipanu were famous bus stops along the way in Lagos and bus conductors would shout the two names to pick up passengers.

I kept my eyes on the taxi and kept walking briskly towards them. I was not sure what I was hoping would happen. But then another twist: the vehicle slowed down to a stop. It was now way past where the police was. I thought they had stopped for me to rejoin them so I started running again. But as I approached, the same door swung open again and right before my eyes, my portfolio was tossed out the door. The door then closed and the taxi now sped away in full speed. I ran towards my portfolio to pick it up before someone else would reach it. By this time, the hot afternoon Lagos sun, along with my unscheduled running exercise, had induced profuse perspiration in me. I picked up my portfolio unable to fathom what just happened. The portfolio was new and out of share laziness, I had not changed the 000 number setting for opening it. In fact, the numbers were still at 000, so it was basically open. When I remembered that, I hurriedly walked to a small “mama put”- eating shack, on the side of the road, opened my portfolio and lo and behold, my N200 was gone. The only thing I thought was that these guys must be some sort of crime syndicates masquerading as taxi driver and passengers. They pick their target and unleash what they unleashed on me. The stupidity of carrying a portfolio and flagging down a taxi, in Lagos, dawned on me. I made myself an easy target and only had myself to blame. I was miffed, but at myself.

This experience is why I like Bongos Ikwue’s song-“Pickpockets”. It talks about a man who got his paycheck and was ready to have a great Saturday with his girlfriend. He got into the bus and the conductor came round. When he tried to pay, his money was gone, presumably stolen by pickpockets. Almost my experience!

At age 24 then, I had reached the age where you felt like you were a full-fledged man that would not cry about anything, certainly not for the mint N200 Youth Service pay. But I was truly distraught by the experience. This was the second time I was dispossessed of my money in Lagos by criminals. The other story I will leave for next time. I was not sure if I was emotional about losing my whole month salary or just sad that a lowly corper like me was treated that way. Because I only had a few notes in my pocket, I decided to walk the rest of the way! I cut through Karimu street, Ibidun street, to Fashoro street and all the way to Ogunfunmi street.

I was beside myself when I got back to the apartment I was staying in with Augustine and Chiedu. I wanted to tell them what happened but felt dumb about the decision I made to even put the money in the portfolio and carry it. So I did not tell anyone what happened. I had a terrible weekend, wondering how I was going to afford the funds for transportation for the rest of the month. I just kept a low profile all through. I think that was when the nightclub- Phase 2, was at its height. No phase 2 for me, no suya, just sitting home playing my guitar. I was singing the blues all through.

Time continued to pass and I later went down to Nnewi and brought back the vehicle I used on campus of University of Nigeria. Life and mobility became much more enjoyable once I had the car. I still remember the registration number - BD 4038 WA. I easily drove to work everyday and returned without more transportation issues.

As youth service continued and without meaningful assignments to work on, I came to the conclusion that an agency that did not even have enough projects for its staff would not have a place for permanent employment for me. Joblessness in Nigeria was increasing as General Buhari and Idiagbon continued to tighten their grip on power in the country. They were now making things very difficult for Nigerians. We even started seeing rationing of essential commodities.

Before then, Youth corpers had been led to believe that many of the places of primary assignment could provide permanent employment as part of the gains of youth service. I lost hope for a permanent assignment, so I began to look for alternatives. In my mind and as someone who was in a technical profession, if I could not get a job in one place, then I had an obligation to look elsewhere. At first, I wanted to explore the option of travelling to the United States for further studies. I still had US multiple visa from my last visit to the USA. But then I remembered that I promised my mother that I would study in and work in Nigeria since most of my siblings were already out in the United States. I quickly decided against going to the United states.

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

Continued on part 4 of 4

Continued fromn Part 2

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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