by Kachi A. Ozumba
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The motorbike rumbled and bumped over the red denuded bush-path of a road. I sat behind the rider, holding tightly onto the seat bars to keep myself from doing an involuntary somersault. We had been on the bush-path for more than half an hour and all that had flitted past were forests, farms, friendly adults and half-naked children who screamed and waved as we rode past. But I was not a popular politician, only a poor corper: a fresh university graduate undergoing his compulsory one-year National Service. My austere khaki uniform proclaimed that fact to all the world.
I had left our orientation camp in the southern part of Nigeria earlier that day singing sweet songs of joy and thanking my stars that I had been posted to one of the few modern cities in that area for my primary assignment. My posting letter read: “Yala Community Secondary School, Ikom.” I only began to suspect that something was amiss when, on getting to Ikom, the first people I asked for directions looked at me with perplexed expressions. They had never heard of any such school in that city. “Perhaps it could be in one of the neighbouring villages,” one of them had suggested. I had refused to believe this; but not for long. It was the motorbike taxi driver who convinced me that my place of posting was indeed a remote village, very far from the city. It had no electricity, he warned, waiting to see if I would still want to undertake the journey.
We rode along a winding path. The only habitations I saw were a few ancient mud houses whose wooden skeletal frames, like those of a decomposing body, had been bared by weathering. I began to wonder if I would spend my service year in such a place—me a born-and-bred city boy.
After about an hour on the road, the bike rider pointed out the school’s staff houses at the outskirts of the village. Surprisingly, these were modern-looking bungalows—five in number. I alighted from the bike, settled my fare and inspected the area. The compound seemed to be located in monastic isolation, surrounded by interminable forests.
When I began walking towards the first bungalow, a boy ran out to meet me, startling a group of fowls that ran off clucking plaintively. He relieved me of my bag, and I followed him into the bungalow which turned out to be the principal’s. The principal was clad in a wrapper tied loosely around his waist. His hanging pot-belly covered the entire top of the wrapper, hiding the knot that must have kept the garment in place. After greeting me he launched into a tale of how past corpers had always enjoyed their stay in the community. “In fact, one corper enjoyed his stay here so much that he was reluctant to leave at the end of his service year,” he said, perhaps noting the disappointment that must have showed on my face.
Eventually I was led off to one of the other bungalows that was opened by a lanky young man in white khaki shorts. “Corper!” he shouted, embracing me like a long-lost brother and happily led me into a barely furnished parlour with electrical fittings that hung decaying from the ceiling like weird decorations. We sat down and began to get acquainted. His name was Chukwudi, a corper from an earlier batch who still had a few more months to complete his service. His eyes twinkled with joy at the prospect of having some company to relieve him from his loneliness. But behind the twinkle were dull passive eyes of someone dutifully resigned to his fate. We discovered we both hailed from the eastern part of the country.
In a short while, three other new corpers arrived, and Chukwudi screamed his welcome at them. The other three corpers had disappointment written all over their faces. Izu was also from the east, Wale was from the west, Hassan was from the north. Strangers all brought together by National Service.
Izu, after quickly summing up the environment, was adamant that nothing would make him stay. Chukwudi’s most impassioned appeals were lost on him. He would be on his way right away, he said, whether or not the principal agreed to release him. He would try to redeploy to another place for his service, and if that failed, would just quit the service. He wished us luck in trying to make the best of the village life, then left to see the principal. We stared silently at his receding back until the loud buzzing of a wasp building its mud nest inside one of the lampshades on the wall diverted our attention back to the room.
We, the three remaining new corpers, were all now wondering whether we should accept our own postings to this bush village. That the place lacked electricity was bad enough; we had also learnt from Chukwudi that there was no pipe-borne water either and not even a single well. One was left with no choice but to fetch water from the river, which was quite far off, especially during the dry season. And Chukwudi’s claim that students usually helped carry water for teachers when the school was in session did little to comfort us. The alternative of redeployment someplace else beckoned enticingly. We decided that a look around the village itself would be the deciding factor for us.
“Please, where’s the toilet?” Hassan asked as we got up to leave.
“Do you want to do the big thing or the small thing?” Chukwudi said.
“The big thing.”
“Here in Yala we deposit our ‘big things’ at the World Bank,” Chukwudi answered, winking.
All three of us exchanged glances. Then Chukwudi explained: Visiting the World Bank to deposit one’s ‘big thing’ was a euphemism for going into the bush to relieve oneself.
“Believe me, you’ll get used to all this in no time and begin to enjoy the natural life here,” he added.
“You mean there are no latrines in the village?” I said.
“Oh, there is one quite nearby which people equally use.”
We set out for what I thought would be a pit latrine. But what I found was a kind of latrine I could never have imagined. Set deep in the bush, it was constructed quite simply: three short stout sticks stuck vertically into the earth, three long sticks nailed horizontally to form a fence. One sat on the fence, ejecting the waste onto the other side. Thanks to the rains, there was a noxious stagnant pool of sewage on the bare level ground nearby. Clearly, visiting the ‘World Bank’ was the better option.
We began the long trek into the village. Chukwudi suggested we head straight for the riverside. We trudged along, complaining about the remoteness of the area: no light, no newspapers, no magazines, no jiving--in fact, no life! The nearest town was about an hour and two hundred naira away. That was a lot of money for a poor corper.
The riverside, though, was very beautiful, stretching into the distance. Wavy white sand and gleaming grey rocks alternated along the gently flowing river. But we had to be careful.
“This side,” said Chukwudi, pointing to a part of the bank partially concealed by vegetation, “is where the women take their bath.”
We gave that area as wide a berth as possible and generally tried to keep our eyes straight ahead. Soon we came to the part of the river where the men bathed. Males of all different ages were milling about on the beach, a few of them splashing in the water. Adults and children mingled freely without a stitch on their bodies, father feeling no compulsion to hide his nakedness from son. When one man caught sight of us he put one hand over his crotch while with his other he waved a greeting. We waved back but quickened our pace; all along the bush paths there was a strong smell of excrement.
We were welcomed into the village by the clattering sounds of a cassava grinding machine. A middle-aged woman was busy feeding peeled tubers into the machine. Not far from her, goats feasted leisurely on a mound of peelings. A randy he-goat tried mounting a young she-goat. She ran off, protesting sexual harassment.
Opposite the grinding machine on the other side of the path, three young women clad in sooty wrappers stood frying the ground cassava on an earthen hearth. “Welcome-ooo,” they greeted, raising their voices above the din.
The village seemed very small. Mud houses along with a few concrete ones were arranged on either side of the sandy road. Chukwudi drew our attention to a small uncompleted block building. Above the entrance, written in chalk, it said: Yala Community Kindergarten--a project initiated by one of the previous corpers to the village.
We moved about, meeting the people. Chukwudi was beginning to turn into a Yala man before our eyes. He spoke to the villagers with remarkable ease, greeting and bantering in pidgin: “Tatabosco, how now? You just siddon there and hungry dey hammer your corper.”
We were introduced as the new corpers to the village. They responded with a childlike spontaneity so foreign to city-dwellers. The possessive manner in which they referred to us as ‘our new corpers’ spoke volumes about how they felt towards us. We were besieged with their hospitality, all but drowned with the local drink they offered.
We finally settled down outside Ekoro’s house, which doubled as a provision store. Ekoro was one of the more well-to-do people in the village. As a special welcome he switched on his small generator and carried out his cassette player to stimulate us with some tunes.
We were all moved by the warmth of the villagers and felt inspired not to disappoint them. By the time we were sipping our second mugs of palm wine, we had begun to discuss among ourselves how we could help improve their living conditions. We talked of building the first well, digging a pit latrine and teaching better hygiene. Our initial feelings of depression soon gave way to those of hopeful excitement.
“What’s the meaning of ‘Yala’?” I asked the villager seated beside me.
“Em…‘Yala’ is actually the shortened name of the village. The full name is ‘Yala-nkum.’ I don’t really know the meaning of ‘Yala,’ but I think the ‘nkum’ means something like, ‘I will live and die here.’”
Well, we decided we were going to live in Yala for the duration of our service year--but probably not to die in it.
(Kachi A. Ozumba’s short stories
and essays have appeared in BBC Focus on Africa Magazine. He is
also the author of the Danish travel memoir: Through The Eyes Of An
African: Impressions of the Danish Society and the Folk High Schools. (www.1stbooks.com/bookview/11005)
He currently lives in the UK, where he is pursuing an MA in Creative Writing
at the University of Leeds. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)