UZOKWE'S SEARCHLIGHT

Monday, April 5, 2021
obiuzokwe@comcast.net
Harrisburg, PA, USA
MY 1983/84 NATIONAL YOUTH SERVICE CORPS EXPERIENCE IN NIGERIA - WAS IT WORTH IT? (PART 4 OF 4)

MORE PHOTOS BELOW

began to make business contacts. The problem was that architecture is a visual profession like arts. If you want someone to give you a job, you have to show them the one you did before. The projects I had in my portfolio were the projects I designed in school that earned me a Bachelor of Architecture degree. They included – a car assembly plant building; a medical Center; a 6-story block of Flats; a 5- bed room residential building and other perspective drawings and construction details. I also had drawings of my parent’s family house which a fifth-year architecture student and I worked on when I was in my second year in school. I had hoped that the Federal Ministry of Works would provide me more opportunities to work on more design projects so as to further enrich my design experience. That hope was fast becoming a mirage!

Just then, a childhood friend of mine - Ubaka Ojukwu, visited Lagos to see me. We had been friends since the Biafra war. We both went to St Mary’s elementary school, were childhood choristers that danced to the French music- L’amor, which the St Mary’s choral group sang for entertainment during the war. We went to different secondary schools but he opted for business after graduation so he was now a business man in Nnewi. He wanted me to design a bungalow for him to build in our home town. He asked how much I would charge him but did not realize that I was so glad to do the job that money was not really my concern at the time. I asked him to give me just one hundred naira for my drawing materials – tracing paper. Yes, N100 in 1984 value! As fate would have it, it became the very first project I did after graduation, on my own.

I was still working on his design when another client was introduced to me by Chiedu Ngwube. The design project spigot opened! By the time I completed my youth service program, I had a series of design projects I was working on. The Mbonu guy I met at the federal ministry of works had introduced me to a young structural engineer. He was now handling the structural analysis and structural design of the buildings I designed. On a visit to Nnewi, I was elated that Ubaka Ojukwu had already started the construction of his bungalow which I designed. I named the building -Ubaka lodge.

At this time, I started getting offers to oversee the construction of the projects I designed, including those I was working on. Youth service was winding down and my best bet was to start making hay while the sun was still shinning. Aware that 24 years was somewhat young to strike out just on my own, I teamed up with Engineer Sylvester Okonkwo. He was a German-trained building engineer with many years of construction experience. He had been involved in several building projects in the northern part of Nigeria. He was also 20 years older than me so what I may have lacked in age and experience, he provided comfortably.

At that time, there was an exodus of Ghanaians from their country to Nigeria. Many were very well-educated technical professionals who were willing to work in any part of Nigeria. Engineer Okonkwo knew many of them because he had worked with them. Okonkwo was able to hire some of the Ghanaian professionals he worked with, to commence the construction of my second design project post-graduation. As soon as Youth service wrapped up, I was in the construction field with Engineer Okonkwo and the many professionals he brought on board and work began.

One of the Ghanaians, a structural engineer, but who was willing to work in the field, read and interpreted structural drawings with so much ease that I felt exceedingly lucky to have him. He was also very humble. He never missed anything in the drawings - the bar sizes(iron rods), the spacings, the splicing of bars, development lengths, etc. There was another consummate professional we named “iron bender”. He literally bent the iron bars used for the projects with a mechanical contraption he built.

On December 26, 1984, along with Engineer Okonkwo, I stood in front of an audience of about 150 people, in Nnewi, and presented the many projects I had started working on. Many were in different stages of design and one was in active construction. The audience included the Obi of Uruagu (my village), Chief Z.C Obi(Eze Onunekwuluigbo of Igboland), Retired Bishop on the Niger- Bishop L.M. Uzodike, Chief C.C Obienu, Archdeacon Iwuno, Former Foreign Service Professional, Mr Moghalu- the father of Dr Kingsley Moghalu(Nigerian Presidential candidate), as well as Kingsley Moghalu himself(he was still a student at University of Nigeria then) and many more. My career as a design and construction professional had started in earnest.

So was youth service worth it for me?

Before I answer the question, it will be prudent to say that the experience of various youth corpers will vary depending on where someone was posted, whether they had good primary assignments, if they were retained after the primary assignment, etc. I have even heard people argue that because they found love during the youth service, it was well worth it. My conclusion is based strictly on my personal experience.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give my youth service experience a 6! The simple fact that I did not get any meaningful project assignments, at the Ministry of Works, was a big disappointment! However, because I was able to make contacts and get jobs that provided the foundation of my professional journey in life, I give it some positive marks. I still draw on the experience I gained post youth service, even today. The fact that I worked and gained first-hand experience in Nigeria and in the Unites States, provides a certain professional roundedness and confidence that I could not have gained otherwise. Today, I can easily work in the design and construction industry on both sides of the Atlantic!

I must say, however, that the NYSC program had many issues that needed to be fixed. They may have fixed them now, I do not know. For example, the one-month orientation training period, which brought together graduates from different states of the federation and with different skills, was frittered away with just daily parades. They could have provided different forum for corpers of like minds to meet once a week, or even more often, to rub minds together. For example, medical doctors can have a forum to meet, introduce themselves, talk about their areas of specialties. Those that returned from abroad will have the chance to also chat with others that schooled in Nigeria, exchange ideas. This type of meeting and camaraderie could lead to development of powerful medical consortia. Consortia have more staying power than one-man businesses.

In my case, if we had a forum where architects and engineers met and exchanged ideas, discussed each other’s trainings and capabilities, instead of forming a two-man design and construction company, I could have been able to bring more diverse professionals together to form a more powerful design and construction consortium that would have taken on bigger and diverse projects. It could have been a consortium of architects, structural engineers, quantity surveyors, electrical, mechanical, even business people both professionally registered and starting out. With varied training and discipline, we could have gone for bigger and more varied jobs including highway engineering. There were never opportunities for this. All we did was practice parade, day in day out, as if we were about to become soldiers. At the end of the day, folks would be so tired that they just wanted to go to sleep.

Socialization between opposite sexes was also limited. We could have had a situation where every Friday evening, after parade and meal, we could gather in a hall, male and female for simple parties to create the enabling environment for both sexes to interact, enhancing the chances of the intermarriage clause that the program was promoting then. It would also have provided the opportunity to talk about jobs, disciplines and developments. The parade was just too much and you just don’t walk over to a female corper, with sweat pouring down your body and hers, and invite her out for a drink in the nearby “mama put”! If it happened for some, it must have a been a freak occurrence that borders on aberration not the norm.

There was no exit interview after the program. In other words, no one from the Youth Service office called to ask how my program went to see what they would do to make the program better. It would have made sense that at the end of the program, each corper would receive a paper to rate their experience, what they learned and how the company or agency treated them. NYSC should then use it to decide where to post folks next time or discuss with the company about next batch.

Finally, I must say that the experience I had at the federal ministry of works, shaped my outlook in life forever. Later on, in my professional sojourn in the United States, I became part of a panel of interviewers hiring new engineers. While the program lasted over the years, we must have interviewed over 60 or more young engineers and hired many. At some point, I was also responsible for helping to design 12 and 18-month orientation programs for new engineers in that agency. I always made sure that the program was designed to provide meaningful work assignments to the new engineers, not just show them a desk and ask them to read manuals. I never wanted what I suffered at the Federal Ministry of works, Lagos, to befall others. That’s all folks!

Dedication

This three-part essay is dedicated to Augustine Mbajiuto. He was the guy, along with Chiedu Ngwube, who housed me at No 7 Ogunfunmi street, In Lagos Nigeria, for a period, during my youth service, before my sister and I found a place and I moved away. Augustine was unassuming and had the heart of gold. Even though I did not know him before, he treated me like a family member. He welcomed me into the apartment like he would his own brother. His Honda accord was placed at our disposal to use if we wanted. Unfortunately, only a few years ago, I learned that he passed away. I can never write the history of my life without a mention of his name. May his soul rest in peace.

The three-part essay is excerpted from my yet to be published memoir

Continued fromn Part 3

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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