After the publisher clarified the theme of the piece that was expected of me, it took a long while for me to type the first word. This was not for want of experiences of the sort, but rather out of confusion, and of the difficulty in deciding on which particular episode to write about.
I was born to teacher parents. That, besides the obvious fact that I didn’t have all the privileges growing up, meant also that I had a strict upbringing. I remember dreaded hours of multiplication table rehearsals at my dad’s feet and novel summary renditions before my mum. Nothing less than the first position in class was acceptable to my parents. I remember my dad’s unsmiling face when he asks if the person who came first had two heads on his shoulder whenever I did not come tops in class. In many ways those early years shaped the person I am today; someone who always expects so much from himself and finds it pretty difficult to contain disappointments of any kind.
This background might put the picture of this one experience I wish to share in proper perspective if – like the late Steve Jobs will say – you are able to connect the dots looking backwards. After seven memorable years in Vet School at the University of Nigeria it was a welcomed relief to graduate and be mobilized for the National Youth Service. I say relief not because life in the serene campus of the University famed for its unique site in the belly of soft green hills was not interesting, but because being someone who always felt he was not exactly studying the course of his dreams, I really just wanted to get it over with and move on to other things.
So I was mobilized to the FCT-Abuja. It was 2008 the year the NYSC due to the backlog of graduates waiting to undergo the mandatory service, introduced a double camping schedule for a single batch of Corps members. I found my name in the ‘b’ group. Which meant I was in the second group to undergo the mandatory three week orientation? The obvious disadvantage of being in this second set of campers was the threat of being left to select from the rejected establishments to serve, after those in the ‘a’ group must have filled up the juicy places. There was thus understandable anxiety and frenzied effort to secure a space somewhere among my set even before we hit camp. I felt unconcerned about it all.
My confidence was of two folds. On the one hand, there are not very many Vet doctors and we are often insulated from the agony of hustling around for where to serve. Indeed we had the luxury of choice and like our human medics, enjoyed the privilege of earning much more than other Corps members did. On the other hand, I already had a place in mind, a place not even many of my colleagues knew about that was both serene and well paying. I guarded this location in my heart and did not lose sleep at all about a place to serve.
So I hit camp in high spirit. Camp was at the Girls Secondary School in Dutse. The regular FCT orientation camp was under renovation they said. So we had to make do with a makeshift camp. Camp was interesting, the normal initial stress and later doses of excitement. The details are a story for another day. At the end of the three weeks, I got posted to my place of choice place. Perfect you will say.
But not so fast. Perhaps at this point I need to give more details about this place. The name is Mambilla Barracks, one of the military barracks in the Asokoro District of Abuja, all bothering the almighty Aso Rock Presidential villa. It is a serene environment and they had a stable where all those wonderful looking horses you saw on parade on national ceremonies were kept. The army does not joke with her horses. In fact, the animals have names, ranks and full records like their human counterparts. They also took care of Corps members, providing them accommodation which is like gold in the FCT. They took one Vet Corp member each year and I was reliably informed that the last Vet had passed out hence there was a vacancy. While in camp, I made certain no Vet in the ‘a’ set had taken up the space. My source was quite reliable. I had no reasons to doubt.
With such confidence, it is quite difficult to find an appropriate word to capture how I felt taking the long walk from the Administrative area of the barracks to the gate, pulling my travelling bag along (because taxi’s are not allowed into the barrack) after the Army officer I met, a Major – from the rank that adorned his uniform – told me in a plain north coated English that I could not be accepted because there was no space. I wanted to argue. I wanted to plead. I didn’t quite know which to do. I stood there, petrified hormones taking over my blood stream. As if to make it clear his verdict was final the young looking officer immediately printed off a rejection letter which he handed me before dismissing me with a “Goodluck” wish that jarred my ears.
And that was how I became a rejected Corp member. Being rejected and hustling to be reposted is a situation you don’t want to wish even your enemy. My own rejection overwhelmed me, perhaps because I didn’t see it coming. But it felt even worse when months later, after I had successfully gotten a space somewhere else, I met a colleague who was serving at the same Mambilla Barracks. I tasted bile in my mouth when I found out he actually redeployed from another state. While he wasn’t even an FCT Corp member, the space which was
denied me was being reserved for him.
But that is really not the reason I tell this tale. I tell it because I turned disappointment into glory and I feel it might inspire someone else. I overcame the initial disappointment and depression of not serving where I wished to and still made the best of my service year. I am happy that before the year was over I achieved what I would have never attempted if I was safe away in the Barracks. I undertook a personal Community Development Project; equipping a needy rural school with class room furniture, books and stationeries. Nothing could have been more fulfilling than putting smiles on the faces of those Children and contributing something to their future. The authorities took note and on the Passing Out Parade, I was awarded an FCT Chairman’s Honours Award which had with it an automatic employment with the FCT. Even though the job promise was never redeemed, it remains a proud item on my resume forever.
Written by Sylva Nze Ifedigbo for our Djeli Blogazine Uncertain Courage Series. Sylva’s book “The Funeral Did Not End“, published by Dada Books, will be released on 15th September 2012.