The shrill whistling and strong loud voices woke Dara up. For a moment, she wondered where she was, then she checked the time on her mobile phone and sat up on the bed as she remembered.
It was 4am. The room was crowded with about thirty rumpled bunk beds, half-open luggages and brightly coloured buckets of water. Half-dressed girls scampered all around the little available space as the soldiers backed orders outside. Still tired from the 18-hour trip of the day before, Dara reluctantly climbed down from the top bunk and reached for her bucket under the lower bunk.
“Wetin do this one? You no hear say na time for parade? You wan make I pour you water?!”
Dara looked up at the very tall, muscular female soldier standing before her and explained, “Yeah, I want to go and fetch my bathwater.”
The soldier stared back at her disbelievingly, like Dara couldn’t have said what she had, then she shouted, “E be like say you dey mad! Na me go wake you up to do your documentation? You no know say you suppose don ready for parade? If you sabi wetin good for you, make you leave this room now before open my eyes! Otondo!”
Dara grabbed her waist purse under her pillow and quickly joined the other girls excitedly flying out of the room as the soldiers had started spraying water.
The parade ground was a large, open field towards the camp gate (semicolon) bare, but for some sparse, dry grasses. And it was a cold November morning—dawn, rather. Dara had been well-informed about the harsh weather conditions and had gone to camp prepared, but surely the soldier would have slapped the otondo—whatever it meant—out of her had she waited a second longer in the hostel, searching her box for one of the jars of Robb her mum had kindly gifted her with before she left home.
‘Kindly’ because Mrs Adegbite had not been in support of her only daughter going up north alone in the name of National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), a 1-year program in Nigeria designed by the government in 1973 to help tertiary institution graduates appreciate other ethnic groups and learn the culture of the places they were posted to. The North was too full of insecurities, with the recent attacks by the Islamic militants, Boko Haram.
“But mum, Gombe is one of the most peaceful States. I have read all about the place. We should be grateful I wasn’t posted to Borno,” Dara had reassured her the night before she travelled.
“Okay o. Maybe those animals are going to send you a personal letter when they are moving there,” her mum had retorted, still pissed that her own cousin, an NYSC official had failed at ‘working’ Dara’s posting to nearby Ogun State, or at least somewhere no one would have to worry about bombings and killings.
Dara’s dad, the calmer parent, had smiled and told his wife at the dining table that night, “My dear, don’t be so worried. The camp will be sufficiently secured, and Dara only has to be there for just three weeks. She’s redeploying after camp, I’ll see to that.”
Only Gideon and Dan knew about her excitement at the adventure of being far away from home for the first time, and Dara had exchanged knowing glances with them. Their mum would have a fit if she found out. She had a known phobia for letting her kids out of her sight. Dara often wondered if it was because of how late in her marriage it had taken to start having them. Family and friends were welcome in their home for as long as they wanted to stay, as long as she didn’t have to worry about her own children being away. And usually, Gideon would be the rebel, the one strong enough to dare heir mother, being the first child. But even he had served in Oyo, just two hours away from home, like she had wanted.
“Good morning this morning! Gentlemen corps members, I want to once again welcome you to Mallam Sidi camp. This is Gombe State, the jewel in the savannah, and I have no doubt that your stay here will be a good one,” the camp commandant was saying in a calm tone while Dara shivered uncontrollably.
He continued, “However, many of you are horribly dressed for parade this morning. I want to let you know that this is the last time such will be tolerated. Henceforth, on this camp, you shall all be dressed in your white t-shirts and shorts, with appropriate footwear. You were all given your kits upon arrival yesterday, so there shall be no excuses. Is that understood?”
“Yessir!” the corpers chorused groggily, all lined up in 3s.
“Na dis one even bad pass. Otondo.” Another soldier, male this time, said in a loud whisper, roughly nudging Dara forward from where she was trying to hide. It was no longer as dark and people close by could see. As they giggled, Dara developed a sudden hatred for her favourite pair of pink Hello Kitty pyjamas and matching flip flops.
“Oga Jimoh, na my friend be dat o, make you leave am.” The female soldier appeared from nowhere, a hand holding her gun to her side. She told Dara, eyes wide for enphasis, “I just dey pray make God help you make I find you for hostel wey you never ready again. Na then you go know wetin dey. I don mark you!”
The corpers, all numbering close to a thousand, both male and female, were grouped into ten platoons, and an NYSC official a man-o-war officer and a platoon commandant with an assisting soldier assigned to each group. Dara cringed when platoon 8 commandant was called and it was once again, the female soldier walking towards her with a smirk.
“She’s not the only female soldier on camp, but she’s taller than most of the men, and strong too! It’s terrifying. I just pray I don’t get into any more trouble with her,” Dara gisted her brothers over the phone as she walked back to the hostel.
“Just be careful. Those soldiers can be very mean,” Gideon told her from experience.
“I used to sleep in my whites at nights so all I had to do was brush my teeth before parade in the morning and bathe later.”
Dan, who didn’t take anything seriously and the youngest of them, said cheerfully, “If she’s picking on you so much, sis, maybe she likes you. You know how I like to talk to you too when I know you’re not in the mood. It’s all love.”
Dara laughed, and realized she missed home at that moment. It was only the first day and she wondered what a whole year would feel like.
“Changed your mind about redeploying yet?” Gideon asked quietly.
“I can’t say yet,” she answered.
Same redeployment talk was going on in the hostel. Some people had gone to the kitchen to queue for breakfast, others were taking pictures of their first day in the all-white camp uniform outside, but most of those in the room were involved in the discussion, “The North isn’t all bad, at least some of us live here,” a smiley-faced hijabian sister was saying as Dara entered the room.
“It’s easy for you to say because you’re Muslim,” another girl said. “Christians here live in perpetual fear, anything can happen at any time. I even managed to come in the first place, there’s no way I’m staying back after camp.”
“Abi o. let only the Muslims remain in their North before they kill us all,” Dara’s bunkie, an obvious ‘SU’ with virgin, rubber-threaded hair and no earrings added. Dara frowned as she bent down to bring out her whites from the box.
“Their North? I hope you know that not all Northerners are Muslims. I am from Kaduna South, and several other States as well have indigenes that are Christians, like in Biliri Local Government Area of Gombe and many other places. So get your facts right before you say Muslims own the North, ‘cause they don’t. No religion does, the people in it do.” That was from a dark girl who spoke in a distinct Hausa accent at a far corner.
Dara’s bunkie replied, “Alright. My point is still that Muslims are violent. They kill at any little opportunity in the name of religion. You will never see a Christian acting like that and it’s because we know that we serve a living God who fights His own battles.”
The room erupted into angry, offensive words being hurled at one another, and Dara’s first instinct was to leave the room, just in case a fight broke out. Wasn’t it how religious wars started?
She had slipped out of her pyjamas and now had her towel wrapped around her chest, but instead of running off to the bathroom, Dara chose to express her opinion, just in case her silence meant approval of her bunkie’s choice of words. “I don’t think Muslims are bad and Christians are good.” She paused to be sure she had some people’s attention and continued, “However, I do believe there are good people and bad people, regardless of their religion. I have seen terrible behaviour from supposed Christians and I have met really nice Muslims. In fact, I live in Ilorin, a town where both religions co-exist in peace and harmony. And I find it disheartening that this argument is even happening.”
Everyone was quiet now, and the hijabian sister that was smiling before said, looking pained, “Honestly, it’s high time Christians stopped playing the victims. Yes, there are some people hiding under Islam to perpetrate their evil acts, but we aren’t all terrorists and it hurts so much that the religion we hold so dear has become so despicable. It’s sad that we live in a country where everyone looks for who to blame instead of finding solutions to our problems. And if you all must know, I’ve lost two family members to the Boko Haram attacks and they were Muslims like me!”
Dara didn’t bother to get breakfast from the kitchen that morning, the akamu they served was in no way inviting. Thankfully, she had brought two boxes of cornflakes from home, so she launched the first.
Although most of the other girls had taken off their whites to relax in the hostel, Dara dressed up for afternoon parade immediately after having her bath. She’d rather risk spilling milk on her t-shirt than go through another round of humiliation from the soldiers.
She had just finished her cereal when the girl at the lower bunk opposite her said, “Hey, I want to charge my phone.”
There was only one socket between them and Dara’s phone was plugged in, so she asked the girl, “Do you have an adaptor or extension box?”
“No. But you’ve been charging since,” she replied scornfully.
“It’s barely been thirty minutes,” Dara stated.
“I think I brought an extension, Taiwo, check my box,” the girl’s bunkie said from the top.
Taiwo found it, wordlessly motioned to Dara to unplug her charger, then fixed the extension and plugged in her phone before leaving the room.
“Such a drama queen,” the other girl chuckled as Dara bent to fix her charger. “Don’t mind her. I’m Kenny,” she said with a smile.
Dara asked, not quite sure, “You guys are twins?”
Kenny laughed and nodded. “It’s hard to believe at first, I know.”
“Wow,” Dara said, truly amazed. It was indeed hard to believe. Not only did Kenny seem nicer, she looked different…bigger, taller, like she had been at the better receiving end of their mother’s placenta. The strange thought amused Dara and she replied Kenny with a smile, “I’m Dara. It’s nice to meet you.”
Morountodun is a writer and a microbiology graduate of University of Ilorin.
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