I’m scared. I should be leaving in a few weeks’ time to serve in the NYSC camp. I don’t like camping; or the Nigerian idea of ‘camp’. In some other parts of the world, camping would cause a lot of excitement and people look forward to it. They’d have awesome experiences like star-gazing, sleeping in the open air, mountain climbing, fishing and game hunting, learning to make fire with stones and roasting food over open fire. It’s something like going back to the roots, you know, being like our ancestors – the cavemen. It should be an out-of-this-world experience.
On the other hand, ‘camping’ in Nigeria is totally an “in-this-world” experience! I’ve tried camping twice. I’d prefer to liken the camps here to prisons ***blows dirt off fingernails*** Bite me. These are my candid thoughts and I’d try to justify them; I won’t really bother myself about convincing you.
The first time I camped was in secondary school. It was at French Village, Badagry. I craved freedom from my routine at home. Don’t get me wrong; I love my family a lot. But one of the main things I learnt as a growing child was responsibility. I grew into responsibilities. I had to take charge of loads of stuff at a young age. I’ve never had a sister. Maybe that’s why I grew up fast. I’d wake in the morning to prepare breakfast and pack it for school. Yes, I did this on weekdays and I wasn’t doing this for just myself. I used to dread the weekends. Saturday meant just one thing to me – WORK. I’d clean up the whole house with specific help from my brothers, then head to the market to buy things needed for the house. The only consolation was the little money I managed to save from slashing certain prices. We all did it and I’m bold enough to admit mine. I had ‘customers’ in the market, I knew the correct market prices of goods, I knew where to get all the things at a cheaper rate. I already had a routine. In a new week, I knew exactly how my week would go.
My life was a bore. So, there was French Village as my excuse. I pushed and agitated for a chance to go, even though my reasons were entirely different from my mom’s. She thought it was because I was topping in my French classes and I had an interest in the language. I’d let you on to something: till the very moment I had to fill out my JAMB form, I had no idea what I wanted to study. It’s somehow a miracle that I had a French name, a flair for languages and ended up studying Foreign Languages.
Anyway, I won the battle and had to go to French Village, Badagry for a week. I didn’t go alone. I was with my French teacher and some other students whom I’d never have spoken to on a normal day. Maybe, that was my first sign from the onset. My ‘camping’ companions were drab. I’d been looked at as the ‘bad girl’ in school because most of my friends were from the barracks. Many people even thought I lived in the barracks. I liked the sort of protection it gave me, so I never denied it. Oh! The heart attack my mother would have had if she knew I’d been posing as a kid from the barracks.
Well, I had a reputation because of my friends. I was naturally avoided as we journeyed to Lagos from the east together. The other girls huddled together and gossiped about things that didn’t concern me. It’s one of the best things about my barrack-kid posing; people never involved me in small talk, I was hardly ever bothered and it suited me just fine. In reality, on that bus, I was apprehensive. I had never lived away from home. The few times I had ever holidayed with family friends, I’d come back in tears; most times, after cutting the vacation short. I was too used to the comfort zone which my home had become. It would have helped if I could just chatter away like the other girls with no care in the world. But my barrack-kid reputation was a barrier. I was tearing up inside; imagining the worse. I had never been to a boarding school. But I’d heard all the stories; from the dirty bathrooms and toilets to creepy creatures at night. I began to think the camping idea wasn’t a good one afterall. I longed for my routine lifestyle, but it was already too late to turn back.
We got to French Village after getting lost a few times. We had chartered a bus and no one on it knew the road. I just knew it was close to the Seme border. We drove so far that I began to wonder if we were still in Lagos state. My first fears about camping were being confirmed. We were getting lost. I thought –“Maybe, we’d have to sleep in the bus by the roadside tonight, eat food out of tins and drink bottled water”. That’s usually how all these foreign scary movies about camping started; then whenever they drifted off to sleep, one strange creature would jump on them out of nowhere and the screaming competition would begin. There’d be plenty blood. The teacher usually died first, leaving the young lads to fend for themselves. They’d have to prove their worth and use all their survival instincts. But, none of that happened. We finally found the place. It’s in the middle of nowhere.
The picture I had in my head didn’t quite match what I saw. French Village is an arranged place with its awesome auditorium, halls, field and hostel areas. It was overflowing with pupils and students, many were in queues and they had tags on. We were made to join a queue and 2-minutes identity cards were hastily prepared. So there I was, with my tag and a small leaflet which was to be my meal ticket throughout my one-week stay. It felt a bit like being in prison. We were warned against leaving the premises. Once again, my fears were confirmed. Why would I pay for camping to be ordered not to leave the place? It’s like paying to stay in jail. I cherish my freedom. What I do with it doesn’t matter.
The hostels weren’t bad; maybe it was that way to me because we weren’t crowded in our own room. The organizers of the camp felt it was better to make the boarding/ sleeping arrangements according to the different schools. We were just four girls from mine, so we really benefitted from the arrangement. The next room was the same size as ours and it had eleven girls. They envied us.
Then, I confronted my biggest fears: the bathroom/ toilet areas. It was flooded! Yes! I knew it. There was water everywhere. After taking a bath, one would have to leave a bit of water in the bucket, so as to rinse out the feet. The place reminded me of the bathrooms in the Harry Potter series. Imagine Moaning Myrtle coming out of the overflowing sinks…as much as I am a Potterhead, I still don’t see ghosts and dripping bathrooms as exciting. Another thing that scares me is slipping on wet tiles. It never ends well. So, the bathrooms at French Village were a living nightmare. I couldn’t go there at night. I always went when I heard the cackling of many girls. I didn’t mind the fact that we were total strangers. Their presence was reassuring to me. I often took a quick bath; with the overflowing water, I felt like micro-organisms were all around me, watching me. The place haunted me. Every time I had to shower, I’d lay down contemplating if I should just do ‘rub-and-shine’, that is washing just the essential parts instead of a full body bath; or give up the idea of taking a bath totally. The fact that I was solo made it worse for me. I couldn’t even talk to the other girls. If they had the same challenges, I had no idea. I had to be strong for myself.
The food was a different experience all together. I often wondered why they issued meal tickets because most of us turned down our meals, especially lunch. The first two days seemed OK. Breakfast was usually chocolate drinks with bread and either butter or eggs. Lunch was to be garri and soup, but soon, it looked like garri and palm oil with bony fishes. Dinner used to vary, most times rice and beans. I soon got bored with the food. I switched to eating junk; fruits and confectionaries. I had turned to Tarzan-mode. At a point, I even stopped going to their cafeteria. I remember going home with some of my meal tickets.
The whole experience wasn’t as bad as I had expected it, but it wasn’t awesome either. We ended up learning zero French though we went on road trips to Cotonou and the former slave market in Badagry. I guess they wanted us to feel the value of our money. I really enjoyed those road trips as they were the only times we left the French Village premises. I found the slave market hilarious; not because of the incidents that happened there but because of people’s reactions. A lot of girls broke down in tears when they saw pictures of people being eaten by dogs and being cast overboard shipping vessels during a raging storm. I was indifferent because I knew of these occurrences and I was truly glad that the slave era was over. That place had an overwhelming air about it and the artists depicted the exact emotions. The whole idea of slavery was well conveyed. There was a larger-than-life sculpture of a man being eaten by savage-looking dogs. There were evil-looking chains on the raised platform where the sculpture stood. As we left, one girl was sobbing uncontrollably. I’m pretty sure I snickered as I passed her. To me, those things just reminded one of the harsh realities.
I never knew one week could drag for so long. I had gotten another routine which I didn’t like. I wanted to go home. I had spent all my money on food. I was restless. I didn’t like the silence of the other girls; though they tried to involve me in their gist. I found out they all had something bad to say about people, including my own friends. So I withdrew from them again. I felt like I was being forced to do everything. I missed my family. When the time was finally up, I gladly packed my bags and bid French Village a hearty goodbye. I was excited to go home and I ruled out paid-camping experiences.
My next ‘camping’ experience was four years after the first. This time around, I was obliged to go. It was a church thingy. Laugh if you like, but Yours Truly was an active church goer. Not for church services though, I used to frequent the church premises for rehearsals and meetings. Church na church; whether inside or outside. I was the assistant dance coordinator for the church’s dance/ drama troupe. It was my own way of blowing the steam. I’ve reiterated often: I hate my school. It had no social activities except the ones we created for ourselves. It killed one’s morale. So, I used dancing as my own escape.
We had to camp at a seminary as we were hosting an annual convention. I sincerely wanted to teach the dance routine and not go to the seminary camp. I think I had already developed this phobia for ‘camping’. I tried hard to maneuver the other executives and slip away, but they still caught me. So, I grudgingly found myself heading to the seminary which wasn’t far from the campus. That lifted my spirits. At least, I’d get to leave whenever I wanted.
As the organizers, we were not to get comfortable until every other person had settled in. We had the responsibility of making the visiting schools comfortable. So they got the best of everything and we had to make do with the last set of it all: mattress, bucket and even rooms. It wasn’t a real camp or anything of that sort. It was a vacated seminary with no comfort! I felt exhausted at the end of the first day.
As it was a church affair, everyone was trying to act holy. I was cautioned several times about my use of headphones. In my defense, I told them that I was a dance coordinator and I need to steadily memorize my dance routine with music. The atmosphere was always tense and rigid. They were putting up an appearance for the visitors. I didn’t care. I didn’t pretend like I cared. I soon broke out in allergies. There was nothing favorable about being there. They didn’t even cater for the feeding. It was an all-man-for-himself situation. Soon, there were snide remarks from the other students. They were loudmouthed and wouldn’t just appreciate anything.
The fact that broke my heart was that we had to use pit latrines! In this 21st century! I couldn’t stand it, coupled with the fact that we took our baths outside every morning. By 4am daily, there was a ruckus and we’d head out to fetch ice water with which we showered in the chilly morning air. We all did this before the first lights of daybreak as the boys could pass and we’d lead our brethren into temptation. So in total darkness, a multitude of naked girls simultaneously shivered as the morning wind blew on their wet bodies. I know that sounded sexual but trust me, it was downright horrible. Apart from being allergic to the environment, I’m fit. But every morning had me biting my teeth hard due to the cold and rubbing my body vigorously to dispel the goose bumps. I often felt like I had a head cold.
Some girls prided themselves in the fact that “the water wasn’t that cold”. They recounted harsher experiences and boasted about hard life. Not for me, I’ve never been used to and will never get used to hard life. I caught a cold before long and had to carry my bottle of codeine around. I was being strong because I had responsibilities. Even if I wasn’t going to dance, I had to watch the dance being performed. I felt like I was dying. I wasn’t eating well. I wasn’t sleeping well. I wasn’t even bathing well.
They forced us to do most things: mandatory naps, prayer sessions and even seminars. It was annoying. At a point, leaving the seminary ‘camp’ was prohibited. That affected me badly. This was different from French Village. There was no distraction here, just zombie-like routines. I really tried to adapt but I couldn’t. I left the place, crying. Yeah, I repeated how I used to return home from vacations when I was younger. I was still in tears when I got back to the campus. I just couldn’t explain what was wrong. I didn’t know how to explain to people that I cherish my freedom and comfort so much. Luckily, no one ever spoke of the crying incident after then. It seemed they all understood; though I was the only one who released the pent-up frustration.
Now you see why the whole idea of this NYSC camp freaks me out. I could fall ill; or the food would be horrible, mosquitoes, dirty bathrooms, compulsory routine and all the parade wahala. I don’t look forward to it. I’m not excited. I wish I could escape it. Who even invented it? What’s the aim? Is the person happy with the way it has turned out now? Can’t it be scraped at all? I’m sure it’s eating deep into the nation’s budget. Why make the youth suffer for a whole year? Why not let them find their feet right after graduation? These are pertinent questions I need answers to. Hopefully, I won’t come out with gory stories. Amen!