That NYSC Year…

My short Saturday morning sleep (I’d stayed awake till 4.30 am) was shattered by the insistent buzz of my cellphone at a little over 9.00am, and with it came summons to meet up with a bloke I met at NYSC camp and his wife. After braving howling winds and nearly passing out on my feet with the sheer amount of shops we went through, we got to share my peri-peri chicken addiction, and chat. True to form our conversation segued into the murky waters that are Nigeria and its various issues. Thankfully, reminiscing over the highlights of our service year provided a spot of cheer.

My memories of the NYSC year were largely good – bar three weeks spent in the hell hole that was Yikpata with its over-crowded rooms, near non existent toilet facilities and mosquitoes. Thanks to those mosquitoes from hell, I – famed for my obstinate resistance to all things malaria – ended up with a bout so massive that the camp days blurred into each other, a continuum of delirium from which all that survived were hazy memories of flitting in and out of the camp infirmary and nightmares so intense they often felt like someone had a pillow over my face and was suffocating me.

Ending up in Kwara had been the product of my famed quiet stubbornness. In a huff over something or the other my mother had said, I had insisted to the death that I needed no help in securing a favourable posting. In public I sounded very self assured – confident in my ability to take care of myself irrespective of where I ended up. In my less vocal moments, I was very concerned that getting Zamfara would be the end of me, especially given the fact that the sum total of my life lived northward of the Osse River was two weeks, bar my six month sojourn in Ajaokuta.

Postings came with further trepidation on my part. I’d hardly had a stellar three weeks – no success with either the sports or the arts meant I had hardly set myself up for one of the much sought after postings. It turned out I scored a fairly cushy number – 11 months teaching math and physics in a secondary school on the outskirts of Ilorin. Lodgings would be provided in the mission house right next to Maraba with all its accoutrements – loud Yoruba music from the shops across the road, waking up to the mellifluous, if insistent call of the muezzin, and community development meetings at the state secretariat on Ahmadu Bello way. A few of the lads were not so lucky – Dayo* copped a spot in Kosubosu, the Baruten nightmare we all feared, complete with a seven hour trip into the unknown, insular West which was more Benin Republic than Nigeria if the been-tos were to be believed.

Within the first few hours of reporting at school, I quickly learnt that we were being thrust into the deep end. The school – with the requisite mame as long as an arm – was on its last legs, tottering on the edge of the precipice of insolvency. It was massively under-funded, with a new mission head seemingly intent on making it fail and had students who seemed more interested in flirting with the latest batch of Corp members than getting good grades on their SSCEs. I also had an interesting set of Corp members. There was Bukky* – whose Lagos-chic affectations provided good sport for the rest of us (and brought back a few ice cream tubs from the only Mr Biggs place in town) and Musa* who took nominal Muslim to a whole new level complete with nights at the local beer parlour and more than one suspected tryst at the brothel next door.

Thursdays were a special highlight; we would gather at the state secretariat and swap our often very vocal views on the latest Premiership scores whilst pretending to be involved in some community development group or the other. The women by the road side ensured we spent our hard earned allowee on extra spicy akara and fried plantains topped up with a dollop of pepper stew so fiery our eyes would water. It also turned out that my wish to be far from home backfired spectacularly – my mother somehow found a friend of a friend to keep tabs on me and the trip up the road to Tanke every other weekend became a fixture. It helped that they had a son who like me thought DC Talk and Audio Adrenaline were the business, and that Football Manager was a valid reason to offer a full night’s sleep at the altar of a computer monitor.

Eventually, as the service year drew to a close and we began to chase jobs, the physics, math and chemistry refreshers I got from teaching served me in good stead, as did my spiel about mentoring which was made up entirely on the spot.

Reminiscing with my friend and his wife over chicken and coke zero, it all came back to me. I suspect if I had the chance to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Memories of Christmas

My earliest memories of Christmas – and ultimately of growing up – are inextricably connected to the sounds of roosting chickens, the anticipation of a hearty Christmas afternoon meal and the Chapel’s annual Christmas carol night. We were by no means very well off. Those were the dark days bookended by SAP and its attendant devaluation of the Naira and the Abacha dictatorship in which people in the Academia essentially lived hand to mouth. What was an already thinly stretched wage was steadily eroded until my proud, well read father resorted to farming yams and cassava in the space behind his house to augment his wage. The main garnishing to the routine fare we got served as soups and stews was beef bought in abundance from the local butchery, and fish.

Chicken was reserved for special occasions – the odd milestone birthday and Christmas. Over time, a family tradition would evolve around Christmas. Two to three weeks before Christmas, the University farm would hold a sell off of their old ‘layers’ – mother hens which had been pumped full of feed and chemicals would be auctioned off. Mother had excellent links with the farm management – the farm manager had been a classmate from her under grad days – and would give her a heads up which allowed her to scout out excellent bargains. Typically, she would buy two chickens – in one particularly good year, I reckon she bought three. The chickens would be kept alive till two days before Christmas; fed ground corn to keep them fattened and to induce them to lay whatever eggs they still had in them. Two crates of coke would be bought and kept under lock and key in the store, only to be served during the Christmas celebrations.

In tandem with her preparations, an assortment of students from the main church would get us prepared for our special guest appearance at the Chapel’s carol night. Us children from Sunday School would gather twice a week in one of the houses in the Quarters to memorise bible verses from the Nativity narrative, as well as learn our parts in its re-enactment. These usually started off in bedlam – children ages all the way from five to eleven are hardly poster children for law and order – but due to the persistence of the teachers a semblance of order would finally emerge. One year, in one of my less proud moments, I earned the dubious honour of memorising an eleven verse portion of scripture – a punishment for pushing my friend Ejemen so hard she fell and scrapped her knee. The year after though – older and wiser – I would redeem myself by giving a stirring performance as the King of Myrhh from ‘We Three Kings’. Interestingly that would be the only time of note that I would sing a solo.

Two days before Christmas Father would sharpen his knives, command that the chickens be brought before him, and then he would slit their throats – each with one smooth, fluid motion. We would gather around to watch their final gory, macabre dance of death as their surprised hearts pumped out their final life blood. The sisters and I would be tasked with de-feathering the chickens – copious amounts of boiling water would be poured over the now dead chicken to soften the quills and then we would proceed to remove them until the chicken was picked clean. Father would then proceed to quarter the chickens into reasonably sized portions for storing in the fridge for cooking on Christmas morning. Mother allowed us a sneak preview of the chicken meat – the feet, wings and head would be boiled by her in her biggest pot after stewing in all sorts of spices. We would have this as a communal meal – a preview of the Christmas feast.

Early on Christmas morning, Mother would wake up – I don’t remember waking up before her on any of those days – to commence her marathon of dicing, slicing, boiling and frying. All told by the time the rest of us woke up at seven there would be several pots going at the same time as she made up her special Christmas rice recipe, infused with the smell of wood smoke. Church would follow – there would be a short homily (perhaps the anticipation of chicken meat and rice made time seem to pass that bit quicker on Christmas day) and soon enough we would pile into Father’s old beat up Peugeout 505 to head back to the certainty of a hearty meal.

Mother had a thing for refusing to let us drink too many cokes, the thing we quickly learned was that on Christmas day she pretended to turn a blind eye.

A Question of Happiness

Between bites of peri-peri chicken and sips of Coke Zero, my friend Des asked me if I was happy. She – amongst all my long term friends – complains the least about my propensity to wall them off from the reality that is in my head, but from time to time she insists we meet to ‘catch up’. These meetings haven’t happened a lot recently – thanks to her juggling a return to full time employment with an energetic three year old, and travelling. Skipping merrily through town,  as she is wont to these days, she asked if I was up for a bite and a drink, which I accepted. We ordered the usual – a platter to share, bottomless drinks and sides of rice and settled in to talk about the minutiae of life, and all the quotidian pleasures we have enjoyed in the year so far. Then – out of the blue – she asked if I was happy. I suspect I managed to side track her question by rolling out my usual spiel about life being what it was – normal and mundane without anything out of the ordinary.

Mulling over that conversation again, I realised that on this one occasion, I had probably been as truthful as I possibly could. Most of the time life has either dealt me hands that have made me deliriously happy, or left me bogged down in the deep, dark depths of despair.

For the first time in a long time, though I know I am not deliriously happy there is a measure of contentment at how much progress has been made. Given the way the year’s panned out, I reckon that is enough to be thankful for…

On Reality

Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems..

…so said Salman Rushdie. The corollary is that memory is deceptive, and nostalgia can skew our recollection of things so much that it becomes an alternate reality far removed from the cold, hard facts as they occurred.

Sometimes clarity hits you suddenly like a blow to the solar plexus, at other times the bleeding obvious slowly becomes apparent. All told, some day a bloke has to decide – what’s important, what’s not, and what to leave to fight another day…. 

The illusion of ‘new’

In theory, fresh starts are great: you get a clean slate, a new life, the chance to reinvent yourself and lay the past to rest.

In reality, the break is never clean – past actions have consequences, past events leave signatures that are etched like indelible tattoos on the mind,  and on memory,  and there will always be connections to people we can’t escape.

On tribal stereotypes

Being born on the campus of a Federal University in the ’80s, I grew up in what was a cultural multi-verse. On my street alone, one was as likely to run into a Pakistani anthropologist as a Cameroonian linguist, or a Scottish librarian for that matter. Over the course of growing up, these seemingly distinct cultures all bled into each other, till there was almost a multi-cultural sweet spot at the centre of it all.

At the top of my street lived a family of Bini people – if children from multiple wives each keen to advance the cause of their own mother could be termed a family. The middle son – a stocky bow-legged bloke we called Osas (short for a much longer name, seemingly cobbled together from an assortment of successive vowels) – was a classmate, and in time we grew close enough to pit our burgeoning table soccer skills against each other from time to time. Our table soccer sessions were often punctuated with half time entertainment – dodo fried from plantains pilfered from his mother’s pantry. On the day I failed to wipe oil from my mouth in a bid to beat RustGeek Snr home, I learned a most important lesson – delivered to the rhythm of Mother’s pankere on my backside – about relating with Bini people – they can ‘jazz’ you. Clearly, that we both ate the dodo paled in significance next to the fact that his father’s academic speciality was ‘African traditional religion’ and that from time to time white chalk and ogbono soup turned up at the junction of fifth and eighth streets!

A few houses away lived an unmarried Yoruba woman who I imagine was in her late thirties at the time. Legend had it, that she kept food for months in her freezer, and that she ate only out of saucers so small none of her little relatives lasted longer than a couple of months with her. She also happened to serve on the same chapel committee as did my parents, so this was one neighbour’s house Mother was willing to allow us play in. Each time, before we vanished out of her door headed to the Yoruba woman’s house, Mother would reiterate that by no means were we to eat in her house. On the odd occasion when a relative showed up to spend an extended holiday, we soon would get an earful of insults of all sorts delivered in rapid fire with her whiny, nasal voice. Whenever the tirade would start, Mother would smile knowingly and shake her head. Our neighbour was only behaving true to character; Mother believed that the Yoruba person’s gift of the garb expressed itself primarily in colourful, inventive cursing.

The Idoma woman who lived on 3rd street quickly garnered a reputation for being a sharp shooter. She held a PhD in biochemistry (I think) and was married to some Professor whose speciality was ceramic engineering. She had kept her maiden name, drank beer at the staff club and smoked like a chimney, becoming in the process a byword for the damage an overly liberal worldview wrought on young women. All three of her degrees were earned in Russia; it was claimed that she publicly averred that there was no God, something which was definitely not de-rigeur at that time. When the upturned lips and smiles of condescension were shared, word was that Idoma women took too much to beer.

Mother truly believed that no Ibo person could be trusted, and that they were cold hearted, cruel and were masters of deception on a scale beyond her comprehension. Her strong distaste was acquired after a particularly nasty smear campaign run by one of the Professors to unseat one of her allies as PTA chairman. The way the operation was run – almost like a CIA black op in its secrecy and ultimate success left my mother scarred for life. It also didn’t help that my Uncle Fred’s Ibo wife purportedly locked out her mother in-law over a minor dispute. Said mother in-law was reported to have said reconciliation with her would be over her dead body.

Laila lived on Sixth Street, all the way across the quarters and she was only in town for three years. Her last act was to headline the school’s end of year presentation with a dance so sensual and pliant in its execution that the consensus was that she was either mammy water in the flesh or possessed of some serpentine deity. My friend K whose father owned the Kurt Koch book ‘Demons and demonology’ swore by his dead grandmother that a whole chapter in the book was devoted to that very dance routine.

In retrospect, these stereotypes were merely an instinctive coping mechanism my mother evolved as a means of keeping her brood of overly inquisitive children, and quite a few cousins together.  I suspect there were quite a few stereotypes around my mother too; after all she had a reputation for being hard as nails.

Questions…

I have been wondering if people still ‘fall’ in love? Can a guy and a girl meet, develop sparks from the get go and experience a connection like none other? Me the cynic is convinced it is all about  doing the sums, weighing the pros and the cons, and deciding what ‘makes sense’ – not some visceral, emotional reaction. I wish I knew though, I really want to be swept off my feet by someone, be blown away by an emotional connection…. Somehow I know that will never be me, I will remain Me, the cynical pragmatist…

Loosing our Awe

Children are little adorable things; when they are not cry-y, squirmy little things and are not pooping and peeing all over the place, that is. This weekend, yet another ‘lost’ friend stopped over in town with his wife and daughter in tow.  The daughter in question has just turned five, and is in that phase of life where her unfettered inquisitiveness is allied to a a precociously quick brain. Whilst her parents and I are engrossed in deep conversation, reminiscing over the lost years since we last hung out, she manages to find my trove of retired gadgets and begins to play around with them. She settles on my Galaxy Tab and pokes around, trying to figure out a way to get it powered up. After several failed attempts she disappears from sight, reappearing at my side away from her father’s glare.

Uncleeeee, she croons, handing me the tab. I switch it on,  hand it back to her and then resume my conversation with her parents.

It is a full ten minutes later when we realise that she has gone incredibly quiet. A quick look around the room reveals that she has found a spot on the rug out of our sight where she is sitting, poking at the touch screen on the device. When I peer at the screen, she has somehow found her way into Google maps and is gleefully pinching and zooming away. The look on her face is one of deep concentration, almost as though she is relishing the power to zoom and pinch that is suddenly all hers. I remark to her parents that they have got a Web 2.0 kid on their hands; inwardly I am left musing on how out of awe I have fallen with the world.

On shi**ing (Or, the criticality of the angle of perch)

Gross post alert

The one thing being suddenly pushed out of my sheltered teenage years into shared hostel accommodation (in a very rugged Nigerian University) taught me, was that squeaky clean loos were a luxury. Growing up,  we didn’t live a posh life,  but thanks to theOOhj Snr‘s day job  in the academia, we had decent living quarters – complete with a loo I shared with the kid brother. On pain of a severe caning, Mrs RustGeek (Snr), ensured we kept our little loo clean. Unbeknownst to me, that luxury would be rudely snatched away from me in short order.

My first year at University was a culture shock of sorts. If coping with the new surroundings  – and being far away from everyone I’d known up till that time  – wasn’t hard, a slew of issues made it harder still. First us fresh-faced Jambites were given rooms on the ground floor;  from which we were dispossessed by hardened serial students and confra-men. These same self appointed Lords of the domain  colonised two of the four toilets on the floor, complete with padlocks for their own use, leaving the rest of us scrambling to use the remaining two. True  to form, these were absolute cesspits of  bodily fluids and smells, especially when baked to boiling by the withering sun.  On the first occasion where I popped in, the cornucopia of smells and liquids made every desire to download vanish – a shell shocked state I stayed in for a full week.

With time,over that first semester, I learned a couple of  crucial things that would keep me out of harm’s way through the following years:

1. Timing was of essence: The loos were cleaned at around about 10am – if dousing them in bucket fulls of izal and hosing them down with water could be called cleaning. Given that the rest of us normal chaps had to share a couple of loos, they did get soiled pretty quickly. Give or take, there was a two hour window within which the smell of izal was strong enough to subdue these smells of bodily excretions. I learned to synchronise my download meter to that crucial window to avoid being laid prostrate by the stench.

2. The angle of perch was critical: I learned pretty quickly that the easiest route to various skin infections was to allow fluids from the bowl splash willy nilly. Minimising the particle impact momentum was essential to achieve this goal. Two tactics evolved into very useful tools over that period. The first was create as much of a bed of toilet paper in the bowl [source] to soften the impact, thus minimising splashes. The second – and most important tactic – was to modify the angle of perch. At the right angle, the entire momentum of the solids are  absorbed by the walls of the toilet, leaving gravity as the only driving force moving the delivered pellets. Where delta h (the vertical distance between the impact point and the liquid level in the bowl) is small, the resultant liquid impact velocity is negligible,  thus transferring minimal momentum to the liquids (and avoiding splashing).

I am glad to say that by utilizing these two tricks,  I grew to achieve well nigh 96% success in avoid the splash…Thankfully, after spending a couple of years in those conditions Mrs RustGeek Snr sold off a couple of choice wrappers (those were the Abacha days when money was scare) and got me out of there fast, a feat of quick thinking that probably saved me.

Postscript: Reliving the garish details has made me queasy if that is any consolation. I apologise for any lunch plans I may have (indadvertedly) mucked up… 

Crunch Time

Big, potentially career defining, decisions to make..

  • The safer option – stick with my current job for the next three years and decide what the next steps after that will be:  The pros – stay in a truly professional work place where my skills are appreciated, working for a boss whose ar*se I don’t  have to kiss, remain in an environment that allows me complete my progression to Chartered Engineer status. The cons – sky high taxes, an increasingly hostile host population, remaining in a section of my field I’ve spent the last six years –  and some –  working in and a government that seems intent on playing to the gallery on the immigration debate.
  • The other option – damn the consequences and return to the job I left in Nigeria: The pros – a company with a world class reputation, a niche of my field I’m actually keener to go into, lower taxes, the organised bedlam that is Lagos and loads of gorgeous Nigerian women around. The cons – going into work everyday on the other side of the fence from people I once worked with (and the attendant putdowns I am bound to get), the Nigerian factor (kissing bosses asses, and all), potentially one year’s assured work and then a decision to make, proximity to the Mum and her ‘harassment’,

Between the devil and the blue sea.. or….. Sigh.