by Afiola Etomi
Leaving the cool riverside breeze of Chelsea Harbour or the ‘watch your back’ excitement of Dagenham (‘Dagz’) for Nigeria is a tough decision. You have inter-railed with friends around Europe, after-partied with line-sniffing hipsters in Leeds, and trooped to Marbella with your Lagos buddies where the Naija packaging could easily get the locals mistaking your crew for celebs… Oshey to free champers! For the keen beans amidst you, you have charmed your way through interviews at More London, and managed to slip green and white through the most exclusive revolving doors on the Square Mile.
At some point, something, somehow, pulls you back to Nigeria… pushy parents; £2k overdraft; the need to ‘blow’; or just a sense of impending disownment if you ask your parents to sponsor Msc no. 3 in ‘Naija Evasion Studies’. Whichever reason it is, the visa has expired and you’re on that plane to a distant place. Ironically, that distant place is home.
Far from being a spatio-temporal phenomenon, this socio-psychological distance has been incubated by years of being shielded from the realities of life: the parents saying that you can not play with the boys from the BQ so you do not speak pidgin, the warnings that it is not safe to walk down the street (in Ikoyi) even in daytime. These are subliminal reminders that ‘those people are not on your level.’ Let’s not blame parents as they simply want the best, but as adults with plum accents and fancy degrees, we become positioned to live out our alienation even when we decide to come back to the distant motherland.
NYSC: The First Hurdle to Scale
A noble, post-Biafra reconciliation scheme, the National Youth Service Corps(NYSC) has now collapsed into a fairly tortuous institution, legitimising the exploitation of graduands whilst lining the pockets of all in the value chain. Although I have much love for my friends in Surulere (a reference you will get when you move back) I cannot deny that we are wasting each other’s time.
Camp must bring all sorts of militarist ideas to mind, and on seeing the bathrooms, the natural reaction is ‘RUN!’ I guess that survival instinct would keep Banana Island phases II, III and IV pre-selling like inflated condoms. While I agree that no one should be subjected to those very filthy conditions, the benefits marginally outweigh the costs.
Given that some of us are made very aloof by our backgrounds and a 5-10 year hiatus from the country, the most accelerated re-integration you can have is in camp. In the words of Sute, the artist, ‘it is an education’ in that it mirrors the array of idiosyncrasies in Nigeria’s society. Regardless of the brevity of our interactions, camp allows us to meet more grounded Nigerians. If we choose to actually engage with their stories, we are all the richer for it. I recommend Bill Clinton’s Georgetown lectures for the immense value of people’s stories in shaping our perspectives and empathy, qualities that foster better leadership which we so desperately need. Our non-Nigerian friends travel to remote villages half-way around the world to get these stories, whereas, it is available at our doorsteps but we choose to ignore.
The rules of camp, and behaviour of officials and soldiers offer some more interesting Nigeria insights… their complete lack of confidence in young people; the extremely basic lectures; the disrespect and so on. Besides, it helps to have one or two friends in Bonny Camp or Dodan Barracks in case shit ever hits the fan.
One major feature of camp is the poor planning, and that in itself is fascinating. One would think that a scheme with 41 years to develop would be able to come up with challenging and interesting things to do with thousands of graduates. It doesn’t. One only has to attend a one-day skills workshop with a leading company to see the engaging team-building exercises one can complete in a day, let alone three weeks.
Alongside the (fake) deep re-integration and engagement benefits of camp, it is like a music festival. Glastonbury, Creamfields and Wireless have got nothing on the raves of Mami Market. I do not think it is possible to have that much fun for so cheap, especially if your good fortune (or bad luck) means that you live on The Island. The small chops, beer, palm wine and Guinness all guarantee that you hardly feel the hardship of your Danish or Israeli friends who actually do national service.
It is certainly worth challenging yourself to experience Nigeria through camp, and meet people (dull/smart/interesting/outrageous/cool) who inhabit this country you must call home. In the process one may meet an ex-Oxbridge, London hedge fund manager or a surgeon who lived in Cuba for 15 years (true stories). On another hand, it may just be hooking up with the increasingly hyped ‘home grown babes’ and guys.
In the words of one of the soldiers to a weary girl marching in the heat: “I’m not here for your convenience; I’m here to inconvenience you!” Perhaps we need to take up more inconvenient experiences. If Izzy from Hampshire can go to ‘Tanzanah’ (Tanzania) for gap year 4.0, you have no excuse to miss camp. Your bed will still be where you left it, and you would certainly have learnt a lot more about ‘home.’
Ps. shout out to Mamchi