Youth: The NYSC, Zamfara State and I

(By Anyiam Nnaemeka)

Living here is affordable, food is abundant, the sharia is not harmful, there’s fun in Zamfara. They even have a well-equipped amusement park when Imo State has none. I’ve seen their religious practices and I can now compare with mine. I’ve seen their flaws and I now know how I can help. I’ve understood that you don’t stand far off and make up convoluted stories about people. Come closer, live among them and friends, you’ll be amazed at how much you did not know. But more importantly, I’ve seen that we are all the same Nigerians and can exist as one; you as a Christian, I as a Muslim and life will still go on. Our cultural and religious differences are simply variety which we all know is the spice of life.” 

‘‘If Nigeria is to make rapid progress on all fronts internally, and if she’s to make her mark on the continent of Africa, and indeed, in the comity of nations, her youths must be fully mobilised and be prepared to offer willingly and without asking for rewards in return, their best in the service of their nation at all times.” – Gen. Yakubu Gowon, during the formal inauguration of the NYSC June 4, 1973.

BEFORE being a corps member, I used to blame these words for whatever ‘horrific’ experiences I would go through during my service year. As a fresh graduate you’re made to live with people of different cultural backgrounds, paltry stipend, often no accommodation, little plan for security and medication, language and religious barriers, etc. I got the impression the scheme was some post-civil war panacea to reunite the country. Well, they caused the civil war, why interrupt my life by asking me to repair the rift they had created, I thought. So I really hoped that the changing fortunes of time and government in Nigeria would abolish this trend before it got to my turn.

Today, however, I write as a corper, an Otondo, and a willing participant in a scheme I once wished would not see the light of another democratic government. And it’s amazing how beautiful the scheme really is, just from my first few months of serving my fatherland.

When I heard I was posted to Zamfara, it took a while to sink in. I sat on a pavement for hours with my call-up letter in hand. People laughed, some pitied and some were petrified with fear and prayed for my safety, while others gave long lectures on the process of redeployment and the medical lies I had to tell to get out of Zamfara ASAP.

From my findings, I had neither heard of violence in Zamfara nor any extra-judicial killings in the state as a result of the Sharia legal system adopted under Governor Yerima. Yet down South, we hear exaggerated stories of ‘hand-and-leg-cutting’ on the slightest contact with a lady. So I chose to be patient with the NYSC, be open-minded and at least see Zamfara. This decision changed the stereotypical labeling of northerners I was used to.

On that long six-seven-eight hour drive to Zamfara from Abuja, I saw massive but non-mechanised agriculture in such a large scale that I appreciated for once the natives of these states and their contribution to our agricultural produce. Millet, sorghum, corn, wheat, water melon, okra, sweet potatoes and the likes of it, all judiciously planted, sometimes manually irrigated, watched, harvested and stored by people who may have been given little or no government support as it were. The East practised subsistent agriculture, but these ones had much bigger plans.

In the orientation camp, we were grouped into platoons. Our dance and drama competitions brought together elements from the various ethnic groups of the country to foster national unity. I heard languages I never thought existed, names I could never pronounce and I met great people. We talked of national issues as security and corruption; and it was surprising to see like-minded youths call evil by its name regardless of whose ox was gored. Activities start with a Muslim and Christian prayer and it became pretty obvious that we all could exist as one.

We were privileged to have senior government officials, including the Emir of Anka, Alhaji Attahiru Muhammad Ahmad and NYSC State Coordinator for Zamfara,  Mrs. Ruth Bakka, educate us on the state and its people. The emir stated clearly that Sharia was to guide Muslims on their religious path and thus was NOT binding on NON-Muslims. Christians were free to go about their normal business without fear of molestation whatsoever but should dress decently.

Down South, we see the North, especially Zamfara, as a place with little or no education, especially for the girl child. But I was stunned to see over 3000 girls in GGDSS Samaru having good, standard education. In camp I met Muslim (northern) ladies with better grades than myself still neatly tucked in their white hijab. Once I sat beside a Muslim lady during a health seminar and asked her a medical question, her answer was seasoned. She quoted texts, researches, online surveys and shared practical experiences. Despite the Western Education, her religious values were intact. These ladies understand decent dressing. I was thrilled to know that someone with such an education could still keep to sometimes arduous demands of religion.

I also found that the average Hausa Muslim man is truthful, empathic and down-to-earth. When he tells you it is N10 gaskiya, so it is. Tell their bike men you’re stranded and you will more often than not get a free ride. In my PPA, my bosses will make tea in the morning and even the gateman will partake, using a mug from the boss’s office, but bosses in the South are to be worshipped from afar. Ordinary change is difficult to get in the East. Here a bike man in motion will stop to make change for a stranded colleague. Eastern traders are in constant customer tussle with themselves, but it’s not so here. Your effort at learning their language is instantly rewarded by slashed prices. These ones are really of a different ilk.

When posted to my PPA in Kaura Namoda and I lost my way, I was directed to the Muslim Corpers lodge. That’s where I was fed and attended to regardless of my religious affiliation. This selfless service to fresh corpers has been constantly rendered by the Nigerian Christian Corpers Fellowship (NCCF), Muslim Corpers Association of Nigeria (MCAN), Catholic Corpers Association and the likes. These organisations are made up of Nigerians helping Nigerians regardless of tribe or tongue. Yet another dividend of the NYSC scheme.

Nigerians in The Diaspora have also developed a reasonable degree of empathy towards fellow Nigerians (Youth Corps). On several occasions, my fares have been either reduced or paid by a total stranger because I’m a corper. Organisations reduce professional exam fees for Youth Corps. Even some airlines have reduced fees for us. There’s that warmth in the heart when you see someone on the NYSC khaki. He’s a brother, a sister, a part of you. I’m now so confident that the scheme is slowly but insidiously achieving its objective: “To inculcate in Nigerian youths the spirit of selfless service to the community and to emphasise the spirit of oneness and brotherhood of all Nigerians, irrespective of cultural or social background.”

Serving in Zamfara has afforded me a lot of opportunities I would not have had if I remained down South in the East. At least I have experienced Zamfara for myself and can now separate fact from fiction. Zamfara is peaceful and friendly. You’re appreciated as a corper. Living here is affordable, food is abundant, the sharia is not harmful, there’s fun in Zamfara. They even have a well-equipped amusement park when Imo State has none. I’ve seen their religious practices and I can now compare with mine. I’ve seen their flaws and I now know how I can help. I’ve understood that you don’t stand far off and make up convoluted stories about people. Come closer, live among them and friends, you’ll be amazed at how much you did not know. But more importantly, I’ve seen that we are all the same Nigerians and can exist as one; you as a Christian, I as a Muslim and life will still go on. Our cultural and religious differences are simply variety which we all know is the spice of life. There’s really no need for the hate.

A few of these things, however, plague the NYSC scheme: The postings are always influenced these days. People now redeploy for the slightest of reasons. People just go where they want. This defeats the NYSC’s long-term goal of national integration. Again, the stipend is small. Organisations and states need to support the scheme by paying the corper a little extra token and ensuring that the stipulated accommodation is provided for this sojourning youth. There should be no preferential treatment for foreign trained graduates as what is good for the goose is also good for the gander. All camps should be made as lively as the camps in Lagos and Abuja, like in my camp; we didn’t even have the beauty pageant, while the Lagosians had celebrities singing for them. The kids of the rich should be sent to Zamfara too, because sometimes I feel it’s the children of the poor and the old that get sent here, with a handful of normal people.

• Nnaemeka, a Youth Corps member, wrote from Zamfara.

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