“Fatherland”

“Fatherland”

And as long as men are swayed by their hearts and stomachs and not their heads the Chief Nangas of this world will continue to get away with anything…

Chinua Achebe, A Man of the People

The NYSC orientation camp was brimming with the excitement of the young corp members streaming in like locusts summoned from the wilderness. The blend of exhilaration and nervous curiosity that is characteristic of new experiences manifested itself in different forms among the new graduates who were gathered to receive the mandatory three-week training designed to guide them during the one-year service to their fatherland.

For some, it showed in the robustness of their smile. For others, a smile wasn’t enough; bubbly, high-pitched laughter escaped their mouths. And still, in others, it exerted a notable influence in their walking gait, in the nonchalance with which they threw their legs or in the self-consciousness and guardedness of their steps.

The socializing impulse was in high gear, and new relationships of all sorts, from simple friendships to romantic affiliations, were being established effortlessly. The air was charged with the optimism of youth and in the spirit of oneness brought upon by shared circumstances of dreams and unknowns, it was easy to do away with the barriers and awkwardness that usually followed a first meeting. Here, in this camp, everyone belonged and there was no disparity, no discrimination and this formed the soil on which new relationships could be sown with ease.

These were the quiet observations of Bayo, standing under a mango tree with his friend, taking in the buzzing activities all around them with amusement.

“King Solomon,” his friend, Tunde, teased. “What are you observing this time? I know that philosophical smile on your face.”

Bayo recoiled. “What did you say?”

“Ah, he didn’t hear me. So tell me, what inspirations were you able to receive from your meditation?”

Bayo merely observed his friend, treating his question as rhetorical. Tunde, tall and lanky, with a permanent smile gracing his face, was not only handsome but also possessed an irresistible charisma. This energy was so potent that it was hard for anyone, regardless of their gender, not to be drawn to him. Aware of his Adonis-like appearance and magnetic charm, Tunde became somewhat of a politician – a manipulative schemer who fully exploited his allure. He reveled in the effortless attention he received, basking in the glamour, the attention, and the glory. He loved it all.

Despite these, Tunde was endearing. He never appeared conceited, selfish, or self-conscious, even though he embodied all these traits. This was because he skillfully masked these aspects of his personality with layers of affectation. A consummate people-pleaser, his manner was obsequious yet expertly balanced with grace. He made you feel important; he would endlessly flatter you, but only because he understood the human desire to be wanted. He knew that once this desire was fulfilled, one would pay any price to maintain it. Consequently, people willingly paid the price of loyalty and admiration to bask in Tunde’s ability to make them feel good about themselves.

In contrast, Bayo was the antithesis of his friend. He didn’t possess the striking looks of Tunde. He wasn’t unattractive per se, but his appearance paled in comparison to the radiant allure of Tunde. Moreover, Bayo was shy, almost painfully so. However, he was a keen thinker, with an astute and analytical mind. Despite the stark differences between them, they had remained steadfast friends since their first year at university when they became roommates. Amidst their sea of differences, they discovered common ground and mutual understanding.

“Wait, is that not Obinna?” Tunde asked, peering closely. “It’s him o. Obinna! Obinna!”

A skinny fellow who had the conspicuous idiosyncrasy of having bleached his skin in a resilient fight turned in response. As did the two girls who were with him, flanking him on either side.

“Ahn ahn, Tunde. Is this your face?”

Soon they were shaking hands, and as though not finding the gesture satisfactory, they snuggled each other in a bear hug. When they finally disengaged, still murmuring about what a long time it’d been since they last saw each other and how small the world was, Tunde introduced Obinna to Bayo.

“We used to be neighbours, his house just opposite mine. Men, he was my best friend that year. The things we did!” Tunde’s voice was becoming reminiscent, his tone easing into the note of a storyteller’s voice.

Obinna must have sensed this and quickly made a move to forestall the long history recounting by introducing the ladies with him. He achieved that in a few sentences. “Kehinde and Ivie. My new friends. We met on our arrival yesterday.”

Tunde gave a knowing grin; Bayo’s face remained impassive. As always when he was among strangers, he was feeling awkward and uncomfortable. But three hours later, he wasn’t feeling so again, because that much time had eaten up the social barrier that always stood between him and strangers. Five of them, all corp members, were now engrossed in a heavy gabfest.

It seemed to Bayo that the two ladies were competing with each other for Tunde’s attention. It wasn’t a surprise; girls were to Tunde like termites to light. It amused Bayo how, as usual, Tunde was enjoying the coquetry, how, in fact, he was leading them on, openly flirting even though his “best friend that year” had implied some interest in at least one of the girls when he introduced them as “my new friends.”

It even amused Bayo more that Obinna wasn’t showing any negative reaction to this. There was something magical about Tunde’s charm, Bayo decided. He was having these idle thoughts because he wasn’t really enjoying the conversation. It was too frivolous, all lacking in substance and depth. He preferred logical dialogues, the ones that bordered on arguments and the exchange of theories and ideologies. Initially, he was enjoying the aimless talk, jest and gossip, but now he was bored stiff. He decided he was going to excuse himself until Obinna asked him a question.

“How is it you and Tunde ended up in the same camp? It’s rare for roommates to serve together in the same state?”

“Well,” Bayo replied with a shrug, “Tunde has his ways around these things.” And it was true. Tunde was the make-it-happen kind of guy. He was ever so super efficient, and could fix things up. He understood many complex things regarding politics, social norms and practical human relationships. He knew how to oil the engines of the law, where the law was weak and what loopholes to capitalize on. He would speak of such things as greasing the right palms, and setting the right connection, and often explained that what one needed was to know the right person. Tunde knew many right people and had established the right connections too.

Kehinde, the shorter of the two ladies, giggled. “I like that.” Her voice dripped suggestion, and it wasn’t clear to Bayo what exactly she liked: the fact that Tunde had his way around things, or Tunde himself.

“But I don’t personally approve of some of the methods with which he gets things done, as I’ve told him many times.”

Tunde laughed, cackled actually. “You know, guys, Bayo has got some funny ideas. He has these fanciful ideas about how the world should be. A kind of perfect paradise, a sinless, misery-less world, like the type the Jehovah’s Witnesses guys are promising. Shortly before you guys joined us, he was having one of his deep reflections. Bayo, can you tell us what you were pondering? Maybe you can convince our friends to buy your ideas, seeing you’ve recorded little success with me.”

Bayo would have passed on what he knew to be Tunde’s plan to trap him into becoming a little circus entertainer, but there was something about the interest– or was it mere curiosity?– that jumped into Ivie’s eyes that made him want to salvage his reputation. “I’ve got some ideas, true, but not fanciful as he wants you to believe. As for what as I was ‘pondering upon’ (I only use the phrase for convenience) I was amused by how excited everyone here is. You can see it in their faces, in their restless gaits, in the endless photoshoots. They’re proud to be serving; they’re proud to have proved their village people wrong. But I tell you, after their service year is over, many of them will become bitter people. They’ll curse this country because Nigeria will happen to them.”

Bayo didn’t say more. He didn’t need to; he knew he’d caught their attention and maybe earned their respect, too, or at least Ivie’s– he saw the way her attention now lingered on him more. Or was he assuming things?

“There you go guys,” Tunde said, his voice full of a childish exuberance that irked Bayo. “You hear all that big voice and big passion? Bayo can be shy and quiet, as you must have noticed in our earlier conversation. But when he starts his analysis, his voice is matchless.”

Tunde was obviously expecting laughter, but it pleased Bayo that he didn’t get it.

“I see what you mean, man”, Obinna remarked, his tone reflective. “The country’s in a mess. I don’t think I need to wait till the end of service to understand your point, because in a way, to borrow your phrase, Nigeria has happened to me, too.”

It must have been the way the phrase eased out of Obinna’s mouth, but it got everyone laughing, excluding Tunde who didn’t like the sombre mood gradually seeping into their small talk. When he brought the subject up, he’d intended to cheer up the gab a little, not doubt that everyone would find Bayo funny as he’d always done.

“How did Nigeria happen to you?” This came from Ivie, her head turned to Obinna, her face mirroring everyone’s curiosity.

“So I had my first girlfriend in 100 level. We were head over heels, and I’d no doubt I was going to marry her. She was everything to me, and even now, just thinking about her fills me with nostalgia, the mourning for what would have been.”

“She died?” Ivie again.

“No, this is where Nigeria happened. ASUU strikes kept sending us back home. Some people began to grow impatient. Actually, all of us were impatient, but some were so desperate that they began to search for other means. My girlfriend was among them, and she got a scholarship abroad. That was the end of our love story. When she returned to the country last year as a graduate, she said she’d outclassed me, that she needed someone exotic. By God, that was the exact word she used.” Obinna tried to laugh over it, but it came out harsh and uneasy because it was obvious it’d meant much to him.

“That’s hardly Nigeria’s fault,” Tunde threw in. “Your girlfriend might have left you even if she hadn’t travelled out of the country. It’s obvious her love for you was that shallow.”

Obinna’s voice hardened. “I only cite this as an example. How about the people whose dreams and lofty aspirations were murdered because of the bad governance we suffer? Crime is on the rise because people have no other options. Cost of living high and standard of living low.”

“You’re sounding like Bayo now. Do you know Bayo once said that if he had the opportunity to japa, he’d rather remain in Nigeria and build it up than leave? He complains about the government, quotes Karl Marx and talks about social destratification. Like making everyone equal and he believes this is what would make the society experience complete peace and development.”

“And you don’t agree with him?” Kehinde asked, as though emerging from a trance, her manner still coquettish.

“For the japa part, if I see a small opportunity, I’ll leave this mumu country sharp-sharp. As for Bayo’s sociological theories, I believe it’s impractical and far-fetched. What Karl Marx and his followers are asking for is too much. Humans, like other animals in the jungle, live by the survival of the fittest law. The struggle is real. I think instead of whining and spitting curses of damnation against our government for the bad state of the country, people should be taught how to fend for themselves, how to be self-reliant, and how to be able to make ends meet for themselves. I think it’s one of the programs we’ll be having here in this orientation– how to go into entrepreneurship. Capitalism, the spirit of hustling, is what I believe in.”

“And you think everyone has what it takes to survive in the business world?” Bayo asked incredulously. “Besides the skills and inner virtues needed, what about capital? Or do you think simply because you know how to take calculated risks, the decisions and policies of government cannot affect you in one way or another? Maybe you’re so excellent and you manage to be unscathed, but what about those who don’t have the wherewithal in your possession and will turn to crime to put food in their belly? At the end of the day, those who turn to crime will harm both the innocent and guilty.”

When Ivie began speaking, a profound silence followed like a regal entourage. “You both make fine points for your cases, and I don’t claim to have the solution to this old problem. But since we’re trading how Nigeria happened to us, let me share this with you. My elder brother died two years ago as a corper while serving his fatherland. It was the election period, and he was one of the corners selected by INEC to serve as an election official. One of the candidates, a wealthy chief vying for the seat of the local government chairman, tried to bribe my brother and his colleagues who were collating the results. You see, my brother was like you Bayo. He also held on to these ideas of noble ideals. So, he wouldn’t receive the bribe. Every other person had gratefully received and pocketed the money, glad that they’d also benefitted financially from the election. Besides, it was not news in Nigeria that the powers that be would somehow install their own regarding who the people voted for. This much, my brother’s friends tried to explain to him, begging him to seize the good opportunity. When Chief saw that my brother was proving different, he arranged for him to be killed.” Ivie stopped suddenly, fighting back tears.

“My brother’s tragedy wasn’t that he was killed while serving his fatherland, and that his death went unavenged. That no justice was gotten for him. No, his tragedy was that when my father heard the news, he asked why God had given him a foolish son who couldn’t accept a gift like the rest of his friends. Sometimes, I wonder if my brother had heard those utterances in his grave and how he’d felt about them. No doubt, he’d be disappointed because if his father couldn’t accept the rationality of dying for a corruption-ridden nation, then who would ever regard him in the light of a hero? My brother’s tragedy is that the average Nigerian that hears this story, will think of him as a fool and not as a hero. So I say, Nigeria will continue to happen to us until we Nigerians decide to make a change.” She sniffed. Then, before she stood up and left, she added, “But like in the old tale, who will bell this cat?”

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