Monday, April 22, 2024

For God and Country


By Ekemini Pius 

  • Title: From the Crevices of Corps Hearts
  • Author: Chinyere Chukwudi-Okeh
  • Publisher: Parrésia Publishers Ltd
  • Number of pages: 148
  • Year of publication: 2017
  • Category: Fiction

There is nothing quite as refreshing as when a writer creates a new path for fiction to travel, nothing as scintillating as when a writer overcomes the temptation to follow conventional paths and instead has the courage to give fiction a new, sublime stretch of asphalt to ride on. In this exciting collection, Chinyere Chukwudi-Okeh weaves ten short stories around the National Youth Service, a mandatory one-year scheme for Nigerian graduates of tertiary institutions in Nigeria and abroad. What makes it a beautiful debut is her ability to lay bare the problems of Nigeria, yet hide them in the stories and experiences of corps members.

The first story, ‘Burdens and Bundles of Dreams’, reveals the indifference of Nigerians who graduated from foreign tertiary institutions towards the scheme because of the bad economic and political conditions in the country. Many of them view it as a waste of time that could have been spent searching for good jobs or learning skills that can give them an edge in the labour market. The story recounts the death of many prospective corps members in ghastly accidents, their only rewards a state burial and a huge amount of money to compensate their families. It also shows the extent to which citizens have lost faith in the country’s failing democratic systems, and how this loss of faith began with corps members. Chukwudi-Okeh also portrays the sorry state of facilities in the orientation camps, poor ventilation in hostels, dirty toilets and bathrooms, and poor meals.

The second story, ‘Forest of Faeces and Chemistry’, talks about the adventures of a young girl who leaves for the camp and cuts off communication with her boyfriend, Paulinus, a businessman who paid her school fees throughout university. He also takes care of her family, who in turn offered her to him as his property. This is the reason he treats her like a servant in front of his friends. He insists that she wear an engagement ring in camp and bans her from wearing sleeveless tops and short skirts in order not to attract the attention of boys. As it turns out, she falls in love with an Akwa Ibom boy in camp with whom she has sex in the bushes and the open field. The story shows why it is important for families to inculcate a sense of self-worth in their children and not offer them as thanksgiving gifts to those who have shown them kindness.

‘A Feminine Dream’ is set in a strip club. It is the poignant story of a girl, Imaobong, who becomes a stripper after all her efforts to secure sustainable employment prove abortive. This is the only way she can provide drugs for her sick mother and school fees for her numerous siblings. Her stay in the university itself was marked by sleeping with men for money to pay her fees and to buy textbooks. Upon graduation, she is posted to Kebbi State for the NYSC camp. On her way to the camp, she meets Alhaji, who showers her with gifts, influences her posting so that she is sent to work in his company and even rents a comfortable apartment for her. After a while, trouble strikes. Alhaji’s fourth wife comes to Imaobong’s house to threaten her, after being tipped off by Alhaji’s driver. Imaobong runs to Lagos to stay with her former roommate, Aduke, who introduces her to the business of striptease performances. In the course of this story, Chukwudi-Okeh brilliantly proves two things: the inability of the government to provide jobs for the teeming masses, thereby forcing them into unsavoury acts; and, this state of affairs is exploited by those responsible for it, that is, the very people who frequent the club to exploit the strippers.

‘Pumpkin Love’ and ‘Robbers and Rubbers on the Field’ are both stories about unrequited love. In ‘Pumpkin Love’, a young man goes for national service in Ugum, a village in Benue State. He falls in love with a beautiful village girl who seemingly responds by constantly bringing him food wrapped in tie-and-die material. Her stunning features aside, he loves her for her selflessness in sacrificing her own future for her siblings to go to school. By and by, they make love in the bush which leaves him aching for more. With the help of a friend, he traces her to her house and finds her having sex with a man old enough to be her grandfather. Infuriated, he wants to beat her up but is held back by his friend, who informs him that the man is actually her husband.

‘Robbers and Rubbers on the Field’ is about a young woman, Kike, who has to endure successive heartbreaks. Her first boyfriend returns from his studies in Paris with a European wife and a child. He attempts to absolve himself by saying that it was not easy to live alone in Paris; the cold weather drove him into the arms of the woman. Kike moves on with her life and eventually falls for Abimbola, her classmate in medical school. They share passionate times together before he goes for his national service. However, as soon he departs he stops answering her calls or responding to her texts. But, one day during thanksgiving mass, he sends her a text message telling her that their relationship was illegal and that he is now a child of God who doubles as a missionary in the local village. He urges her to move on with her life.

‘Mami Courage’ is about Ukalinwana and his friend, Ejiro. Uka wants to own a transport company while Ejiro wants to be a professional comedian. They fend for themselves in the university by selling tickets to Ejiro’s comedy shows on campus and by buying three second-hand cars, which they use to run a car rental service. When they arrive in Kano for the national service, they begin to spend extravagantly until they run out of money and resort to selling their property, including the three cars. They eventually pick themselves up and revamp their car rental business. In this story, Chukwudi-Okeh reiterates that young people tend to lose track of their life goals when they go for national service.

‘International Sisi Eko’ is the story of Oluyemisi who graduates from an American university and decides to do her national service in Lagos in order to get in touch with her roots. However, she is overwhelmed by the bustling nature of the city, the rush for everything, including buses and borehole water. She tries to cope at first but eventually returns to Houston, returning to Nigeria only for the Passing Out Parade.

Chukwudi-Okeh’s most important message is about the indiscipline in the military, depicted in ‘Love Like a Soldier’s’. Opuriche becomes a victim of the irresponsibility of the soldiers assigned to her NYSC camp when a soldier impregnates and dumps her for another corps member, leaving her to bear, alone, the consequences of their actions. Neither Chukwudi-Okeh’s style nor her narrative technique is in any way remarkable, at least not yet, but any writer who charts a new course in fiction deserves praise. Chukwudi-Okeh cannot be mentioned in the same breath as Chimamanda Adichie or Akwaeke Emezi, at least not yet, but when the time comes, when we sit at literary workshops or our reading tables to count the brave new writers of this decade, Chukwudi-Okeh will be at the top of the list.

Photograph: ‘nysc’ by Bankole Oluwafemi 

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Ekemini Pius
Ekemini Pius
Ekemini Pius is a student of English and Literature at the University of Calabar, Nigeria. He loves fiction and has published short stories on Afroztar. He is also a recipient of the Calabar Carnival Creative Writing Award and has been shortlisted for the Linda Ayade Creative Writing Prize. He was a Wawa Book Review Young Literary Critics Fellow.

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