It’s a common enough sight to see corpers; their khaki and white uniform a dead giveaway! As the years have gone by we’ve seen more fashionable spins of this garb and it amazes an old corper like me. I served eons ago and stand amazed at how trendy the uniforms have become. Although, I’m certain it’s not the same government issued versions these young men and women wear. Maybe it’s only the Lagos corps members that have the audacity to modify their uniforms, although I might be wrong. The body-moulding outfits cannot be compared to the set handed over in various camps nationwide in the mid-1990s.
The options for tailoring the regulation uniforms back then were limited to the tailors in camp and were altered in such a way that still ensured recognition as the standard NYSC uniform. God help you if you happened to have ‘over-altered’ it and your ZI (zonal inspector) was the strict type! The penalty could only be imagined and further compounded if both sets were in that condition. With this Damocles sword hanging over their heads, the trendier lads and girls had to find a stylish version not too abhorrent to them but still easily recognised by the powers that be! A moderate compromise was achieved and everyone was happy.
Another alternative was the handy lookalike jeans some people possessed it readily filled a gap whilst in camp and became more useful once the POP (passing out parade) had been carried out. As drummed into our ears back then…corps members MUST travel wearing their gear and nothing else. Those BROWN BOOTS were something else! This was good advice since the majority of Nigerians were wont to be more sympathetic whenever they saw the uniform. The usual salutation of ‘Corper!’ was sure to follow, with goodwill the predominant sentiment accompanying it.
For some of those that served outside Lagos, people of the local communities were usually hospitable and took care of corps members. Accommodation, food and some other things were either provided free or at highly subsidised rates for the ‘government pikins’. Sadly, not everyone enjoyed this dispensation as some individuals in some places were hostile and in some cases harmed them. Back then the second scenario was not rampant like it has become. Apart from homesickness (first time away from home at such great distance) my youth service was spent learning about new cultures, experiences and survival.
The first challenge was the weather. The humidity was unbelievable and harmattan was a different kettle of fish altogether! The other quirks of camp, made the month drag (or fly) depending on activities and other things. During bouts of intense homesickness I recall sitting beside the total petrol station and looking out for cars with Lagos license plates…in far away Benue state this was a momentous task. If I saw two during the wait, it was enough to alleviate my longing and make me smile once again.
The transportation system was nothing like that of the city of excellence. Firstly, no hanging by conductors (first place I actually saw them sitting!), knocking on the roof of the bus indicated your intent to come down. There were no bus-stops per se i.e. people dropped along the route as they pleased. Passengers could get down at five minutes (or shorter) intervals and the driver nor conductor complained about it but simply obliged. This left me speechless because I knew that no sane person in Lagos could attempt this and get away with it either!
One incident that remains vivid in my memory is the instance a bus I was in broke down. From the sound of the engine I knew it was in distress and like any good Lagosian, I’d already noted this and was ready to get down (in fact I was already trying to inch my way past a fellow passenger) when I noticed that nobody had moved. I decided to act like a ‘Roman’ and find out what happened next. The bus stopped completely (not a single soul stirred I tell ya!), the driver got out, tinkered with the engine and got it to start again. The entire incident may have been about ten minutes but no one complained, got down, or asked the conductor for a refund. Fellow Lagosians…imagine this happening in Gidi town and you’ll understand my awe then and why this still stands out after all this time!
Because of this slower pace yours truly calmed down as well. Imagine my dismay the time I came to town only to discover fuel scarcity…transportation fares tripled, reduced number of buses and ten times the number of people struggling for them! I stood at Oshodi bus-stop (enough luggage on hand) and finally succeeded in getting on a bus, a soldier helped with my things and handed them over when I had boarded. I had triumphed and knew I still had what it took to survive in Lagos despite my long absence.