The first time I heard those two words, I really wanted to know what they meant. I was nine, and hungry; hungry to know things my peers didn’t know. Of course, it was for showmanship. What else? Not being one to ask questions and wait for answers, I set out on a quest to find out the meaning of what I had just heard. My first port of call was the dictionary.
We had that big Advance Oxford Learner’s Dictionary at home, so I went the whole nine yards, brought it down from the shelf and began my search. First, I searched for Corper Shun. When I didn’t find that, I wondered if I was getting ahead of myself, so I started again, this time, I searched for just Corper. Nothing. I told myself, start from behind, Shun should be there. No? What of shun Corper? Nothing. I wasn’t happy. How was I going to impress my classmates if I didn’t know the meaning of the word? Getting to school the next day, I went straight to the school library and searched through the dictionary there. You can guess how the search ended. That was when I began to feel that there was something fishy about this Corper business. Years later, I still feel the same way.
The feeling I have now has nothing to do with the fact that the word “Corper” in all its variations, including “Kopa”, does not exist. It also goes beyond the fact that the voice of camp soldiers still ring in my head as they shout “Kofa!” and bark orders at us.
Corperhood is actually a thing to aspire to. After all, only graduates can become one. And don’t forget the “perks” that come with it: You get to be seen as government Pikin wherever you go. For one year, the manna of N19,800 falls from the sky whether you work or not (as long as you can find a way around the Primary Place of Assignment thingy), and you can go further by getting a real job.
You get to travel and meet new people, even if your feet remains numb for days after spending 12-18 hours in an uncomfortable position, travelling from one end of the country to the other. If you’re lucky, the bus driver, seeing you in your NYSC uniform, takes you as an asset, charges you less, and sits you at the front seat. You unwittingly return the favour whenever your bus gets to a police or army checkpoint. The officer peers into the bus sees an Ajuwaya and does not ask for the customary roger; all the while making the driver understand he did it for you. You, in turn, hail him for his magnanimity. ‘Quid pro quo’ all the way.
I shouldn’t be feeling one kain because I’m a ‘Corper’. I’m a Nigerian. In Nigeria, when we’re pushed to the wall, we break down the wall. The pushing must continue. Maybe I just hate what the appellation, Corper, reminds me of. You see, when you become a Corps Member, except you have ‘long legs’, your fate has been sealed for one year. You can be posted to the ends of the earth. You simply don’t have a choice in the matter. The laws have been set in place long before you were born. The elders of the land decided that you must have a degree and an NYSC discharge certificate to get a top job, but our president needs…
Sometimes, the big things don’t require many qualifications. That is the way the world works. Besides, what elders can see reclining on their rocking chairs; you and I can’t see while standing on Mount Kilimanjaro. What do we know?
Each time someone calls me “Corper”, I’m reminded that my life is not my own, at least for this one year. For me, the word means dependence on the benevolence of the government, ably represented by the NYSC management. Meaning, I accept whatever treatment is meted to me by NYSC officials. According to one high-ranking official in my state, it means leaving my brain and book sense behind as soon as I step foot on camp till the end of my service year. Of course, he meant it as an advice!
I have had many experiences as a Corps member; with the scheme, my PPA, colleagues and the people of the community where I’m serving. Life here is hard and intriguing. Most times, I wonder if it was worth dropping everything for; freedom, comfort, civilisation, career prospects, and a real means of livelihood.
Questions resound in my head every day. Have I been foolish? Maybe I’m insane like a friend of mine told me after hearing that I gave up the chance of serving in my state of residence. Well, being a seeker is insanity on its own, anyway. But what is my gain when people like me are ghosting, collecting allawee without appearing at their PPA? Is it even smart for me to spend my allawee developing a community while humongous amounts are being stashed by politicians who are sons of the soil?
Most of my questions may never get answers, considering that agitations against the scheme are deafening: “The NYSC has outlived its purpose”, “Government should restructure the programme”, “No. Just scrap the thing already!”
No one knows when the hammer will fall, or if it ever will, but I’m sure about three things: firstly, a lot of people are eager to wear the uniform. Secondly, a lot will rather see the scheme die before their time, and thirdly, what I feel about the appellation doesn’t matter, I am a Corper through and through, and there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s not because I get to be called “Corpoo!” or “Corpaay!”, when I walk the narrow paths of this village. It’s also not just because I look super smart whenever I wear my uniform. It’s because I have a story; stories only Corpers, who “obeyed the clarion call”, can tell. Period.