The honk of the heavy load trailer horn made me jump to the car boot. The other people in the car laughed as well as the Soldiers at the gate of the black gold camp. The dust that instantly filled the air made me cough a little. What just happened was hilarious and I also couldn’t help but laugh.
“Corper, you dey fear?” Papa Salamatu asked amidst his funny laugh.
I laughed some more when I saw him laughing uncontrollably. He was such a lively man and full of humour. He made my journey from Abuja to Kaduna a memorable one. He and Salamatu the daughter are amazing, they changed my mind set about Northerners.
We met at the park and from the moment I told them I was a prospective corps member, they insisted I join their car and bought enough Kilishi to last me all throughout my stay in camp, plus Papa Salamatu bought I and Salamatu breakfast before we left the park. Salamatu came down from the car to hug me, She was still laughing. Her prominent nose and dimples on both cheeks as though made with the thumb pressed into a round soft clay on that ebony black skin of hers made her look like a goddess of the sun. I don’t even know if such goddess exist anyways. Her purple Jalabiah flowed down, covering her feet while the scarf covered her head down to her chest, yet it couldn’t hide her full breast. She was 20 but looked somewhat bigger than her age, not facially though. She removed her shoes and wore a gladiator lilac sandal to match the colour of her dress. Her straight long legs and slim toes which couldn’t help but trumpet her perfect height just fit into the sandals perfectly. I hadn’t seen a such a beautiful sandal.
“She made it herself,” Papa Salamatu said when he saw that my gaze was fixed on the sandals, “and she makes good bags too, may be you should patronize her,” he added and giggled. I was left perplexed as to why he giggled.
I was trying to get her number, while the driver off loaded my luggage from the boot, when the funny drama unfolded. Even the driver made a brisk shift from the spot he stood. He carried himself as easy as a wind could carry a chaff. He looked like he was malnourished but I knew that was the said typical stature of a Northerner only that Papa Salamatu seemed to be an exemption. He almost fell down but thank God he didn’t. I could only imagine what explanations he would give his wife as to why his pure white shirt had turned brown or why his long and full black beard became dusty and dirty. I wondered what the reason behind long beard in the North was. In the South, we loved clean shaved men, at least that was one thing that attracted me to Osahon.
I looked down at my feet and discovered they have chosen to distinct themselves from the rest of my body as they’ve camouflaged to suit the ground. The dust was terrible.
I hugged her warmly and squeezed her nose softly. She smiled and said, “Yar’ uwar, zan rasa Ku”
I smiled because I didn’t know what it meant.
“Amenze, she called you sister and said she will miss you.” Papa Salamatu said in his funny Hausa accent as he chewed Kilishi.
His jaw danced up and down, then side to side. He removed his ox blood Agbada which obviously was making him look bigger than he actually is and left with the cream kaftan while he talked to me. He looked at his gold wrist watch that fit his big hand perfectly. He was chubby and appeared well fed unlike the driver who ate two plates of food before we left Abuja and kept chewing kulikuli until we got to Kaduna but yet was skinny.
“Oh!” I smiled again and hugged her even more.
Her eyes, amber and almond just like mine glowed like a golden egg placed ninety degrees under the sun as a smile curved her full lips. I smiled even to the point of chuckling as I realized she reminded me so much of the lady I see every morning and everytime I stand in front of the mirror, only she was dark in complexion. The driver had earlier asked Papa Salamatu if I am his lost child. Funny isn’t it? That was the only statement I heard him make all through the journey. While the middle aged woman who seemed like she wore a dark green Buba on purpose because she was going to a meeting in Abuja with her elder brother in his brand new dark green car laughed ridiculously even when the least funny things were been said but her yellow neck piece and make up gave a different impression about her person. She had a good dress sense to me, or maybe, laughing runs in the family gene.
I don’t think I have ever been open to a person so easily and quickly the way I did with Salamatu. We talked about a lot of things, our lives even down to some private issues. While we talked and chuckled most times, her father would just look at us and smile.
Next we took a selfie photo and the Aunty on dark green hurried down to join in the picture.
Papa Salamatu came down from the car and said he wanted to see someone inside the camp. Salamatu helped to carry my small box while I hung my school bag on my shoulders. When we got to the checking point, the army men began another round of laughter. My attention was fixed on the mango trees that were arranged perfectly on a row, providing shield for the Soldiers and Police men there. Next I looked at the wooden chairs, which were fixed on the ground reminding me of my grandfather’s compound in the village. The gate or rather entrance to the camp, because there was no physical gate there was just a long fat heavy log of wood placed on two other logs pinned to the ground, giving it the look of the gate of an Igwe’s palace in One of these Nigeria epic movies.
One of the soilders, a tall and well built man stood up, saluted Papa Salamatu and spoke Hausa to him, without even searching my bags they let me in. The gravel at the pathway and flowers at the sides gave it a serene look. At the left side stood a white painted mosque and opposite it, close to the gate was a clinic also painted white with flowers surrounding it. I sighted some prospective corps members and camp officers who were busy with registration by the side of a tree. We went straight to the staff quarters. Trees lined up the left side of the way leading to the officers quarters and immediately after the clinic at the right side were female hostels arrayed with names inscribed on them. The first one was ‘Liberty’, followed by ‘Honesty’. I told Papa Salamatu that I needed to join the queue to register. He agreed but still he wanted me to meet someone who could be of assistance in case I needed anything. Despite the hotness of the sun, I could feel a mild piercing cold, the atmosphere was dry and my lips were already cracking. I saw a cow tied to a tree, not too far from the queue where other prospective corps members like me stood, beside the camp multipurpose hall that was uncompleted. Again others stood near the gigantic camp store, the biggest building in the camp just beside the hall and camp kitchen.
“Amenze!” I heard a male voice call me. It was Mayowa, a friend from school. I waved at him but didn’t stop to greet him because I was walking with an elderly man. He ran to catch up with us. He was panting and his hands and face looked pale. He was lucky enough to have worn Jean trousers and black canvas as they served as a protective shield against the dust.
“Assalaam Alaikum Baba,” he said and bowed his head to Papa Salamatu.
“Amualaikumsalam,” Papa Salamatu replied and patted his back.
He quickly took my pink school bag from me, seeing that I was tired. I had travelled from Edo State the previous day to Abuja and I hadn’t had a proper rest.
Salamatu’s countenance changed on seeing Mayowa so I placed my hand on her shoulders and shook her jokingly. I didn’t know her reason but I felt she wanted the whole of my attention until she left the camp. We got to the staff quarters where three soldiers were seated. The three quickly stood up to greet Papa Salamatu. A black Tundra caught my attention as we got there. Flowers seem to be of utmost priority in the North as I caught a glimpse of a butterfly which flew off from one when I rested on it. Every house in the quarters had flowers lined up at the entrance.
I mumbled subconsciously when I caught sight of one of the Soldiers. He particularly stood out because of his height, his well built muscular body and his neat appearance. His cute face was not unnoticed too with his down set eyes as though he was sleepy. His beard was shaved and lined neatly like a rail leading to his pink round lips like the petals of a rose flower. Their camouflage uniform helped to bring out the beauty of the place they sat. The dark green in the uniform reflected the colour of the guava tree under which they sat and the milkish colour which is almost unnoticed was made bolder by the cream colour paint of the house.
I had never seen a guy so fine! Salamatu chuckled and pinched me, meaning she heard what I mumbled, she had a keen sense of hearing. She went to hug him too and I thought he was the person she said she was courting. After they exchanged pleasantries, they introduced him to me as a son and a brother. I won’t lie to you, the hair on my body stood. His handsomeness coupled with the cold made me snort.
“Are you ok?” He asked as he stretched forth his hands to shake me.
“Yeah, I am very okay.” I said quickly still resting on a flower.
Goose pimples appeared on my skin. I was shy, I tried hard to shake off the feeling but it won’t go away at least not at that moment.
I and Mayowa went to join the queue after saying good bye to Salamatu and the father while he and the other two Soldiers walked them to the gate. I was among the last set of people to be registered that day.
As I laid down to rest, I remembered him again. I wondered what was happening to me. First of all, I met and instantly fell in love with a father and a daughter from North and now not only am I liking a Northern man but a Soldier. I hated Soldiers, they killed my father. He was innocent but they beat him to his death and the two soilders involved were Northerners who were deployed to Edo State. You see that’s how my hatred for them started. My mother had cried out her eyes when she heard I was deployed to Kaduna State to serve. I shook off the feeling that told me that there was a possibility of me ever marrying a Northerner. Just then, I remembered Pastor Osahon’s prophecy that I may never return permanently from the North. Fear gripped me as I hurriedly gulp the hot cup of tea I was holding. I wrapped myself in my lilac fluffy blanket and forced myself to sleep because tomorrow would be a new day with no inordinate feelings for a stranger; a Soldier!
Parade started the next day with those of us that were already kitted. I had left my phone in my bag until evening because the camp had poor network and I didn’t see any need of carrying it about. When I returned by 7pm from all the tedious activity of day one, of which they told us was just a tip of the iceberg compared to what we were going to do, I saw seven missed calls from a strange number on different time intervals. I was afraid because it must have been an emergency for the caller to have repeatedly called me. I quickly dialed the number but soon discovered I had no call credit, so I dashed out to the Mami market to buy some. I was at the man’o war drill area when I heard my name. There he was, standing under the bridge build with very thick green ropes.
“Amenze, how are you? I have been looking all over for you,” he said smiling like a Prince who just found his missing Princess. I returned the smile as I put forth my hand to shake his; it was Sani the Soldier. I took a deep breath and looked at him in the face. He smiled at me again revealing his white teeth. Now I can see the resemblance between him and Salamatu and me even though it seemed I was the only person noticing my resemblance to this family.
“I am fine Sir, ” I said trying to hide my shyness.
“Salamatu has been worried.”He said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I haven’t seen you today. Come let me buy you dinner” he said and I followed him.
I later hesitated and told him I was going to get call credit to return a call. He laughed slightly and said he was the caller. He laughed just like his father, I thought and laughed a little too. I wondered if he was as lively as the father and suddenly became curious to know his person. More so, I was wondered why a young handsome guy decided to be a Soldier so I followed him to Mami.
Prospective corps members were lurking around. The Mami was very colourful at night like a Christmas trade fair. The restaurant and shops were all filled with people eating and buying. The smell of freshly roasted Suya and different food filled the atmosphere from every corner. I took a look at a jewelry stand. I would visit it to get something for Mum and Itohan later, I resolved in my heart. The phone charging points were jam-packed with people and so was the indomie cooking stands. The POS stand which was very close to a fruit vendor was the only place scarcely populated. I guess it was because most of us still had cash on us, we had only arrived camp a day ago.
We got to a restaurant that appeared to be patronized only by Soldiers. It’s roof and sides was covered with Coca-Cola flex banners. The tables and chairs were also painted with Coca-Cola symbol. It looked more sophisticated than the other restaurants as the foods were displayed in buffet dishes under a glass case like the manner of exquisite restaurants like Kilimanjaro and Genesis.
We talked for a long time. He told me how his mother and younger sister my age died. She was older than Salamatu. I then knew why Salamatu clung to me but perhaps that was not the only reason. I am sure she must have seen a lot of girls my age. I was swept off my feet by the fact that they were so happy despite the tragedy that had befallen them. And then we also talked about him, about why he became a Soldier. All he said was that it was a passion. He attended the NDA, needless to say why he was so young yet he was the Assistant Camp Commandant.
A chubby and tall male Soldier walked in and saluted him along side a lady who was quite short to me to be a Soldier.
“Oga, Jesus is not coming soon,” he said in a joking manner and got himself and the other Soldiers laughing. I didn’t understand what that meant and I never bothered to ask.
Soon after the statement, most of them began to communicate in Hausa while laughing. I became more shy and insisted I want to leave.
He obliged and saw me off to the very point we met that night.
As I strolled to the hostel, I tried unsuccessfully to not think about him and all we talked about. Mother always said, “don’t keep anything you are not ready to nurture in your mind, otherwise it will grow and become like an unwanted pregnancy to you.”
I showered, ate and decided to listen to Travis Green. Immediately I put on the head set, someone touched my legs. Gosh! The hands were soft. I immediately sat up to see who it was, and saw another version of beauty again.
“Haba manna,” I mumbled, mimicking a friend of mine, “why are they so beautiful”, I mumbled again to myself but thank God she didn’t hear me. I recognized her, she was in the restaurant too with a female Soldier and I remember he waved at her when we got there.
“So you are the hidden treasure?” She asked rhetorically even before I could say good evening.
“Me, hidden treasure ke?” I asked within me and sat up.
“God be praised,” she continued, “You see, he was very shy when he was in secondary school. I equally had a crush on him for years. We were neighbours and I and the late sister, Sarah, were very good friends.”
Why am I feeling like I am being match made with this guy? I wondered.
She played with her wedding ring for a while and said, “well God gave me a banker instead of a Soldier.”
“I am sorry Ma, I am not who you think I am. I am not his hidden treasure or whatever that means,” I said sharply.
“Then you will soon be, he hardly shows interest in a girl and I can tell that he likes you but I hope you are a Christian?”
I nodded like a fool and asked for her name which she told me and before I knew it, I went down another road of discussion with the topic ‘Sani the Soldier’ till 2am.
I flogged myself severally before I slept. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. I saw a lot of handsome guys at the University of Benin but I had never been so engrossed with anyone or was it what my crazy ‘runs girl’ course mate, Sandy, used to tell me that was coming to pass?
“If you escape school because you dey read book, you no go fit escape NYSC, Bo-Bo must chop you”
I was always dumbfounded whenever she said this because it was the dumbest thing I ever heard but even if it is what was happening, from what I have seen and heard about Sani, he wasn’t that kind of a guy who just wanted to taste the waters, eat the cake and run away. He said something striking when we were talking,” I am not just a Christian by name, I live the Christian life!” stressing emphatically the Christian life.
Now that was a quality, rare to be seen in a Soldier, not just a Soldier but a young, handsome and intelligent one but again I was not so surprised because mother often said that no matter how viral a wrong thing becomes amidst a people, there are always a GRP-God reserved population, who had neither bowed to Baal nor defiled themselves with the king’s meat.
Funny isn’t it? My mother’s sayings are bridges I used to escape from danger most times.
The thoughts of him feels good but like mother would always say, “don’t always dance to the tune and don’t always flow with the tides because you may be heading for a cliff.” So I resolved in my heart to avoid him.
Three weeks past and it was a ‘hi, hi’ kind of greeting. I think he noticed I wanted space so he gave me enough. As a matter of fact, he was Assistant Camp Commandant and shouldn’t be seen everywhere with a particular female corps member. That won’t speak good of him. I was able to concentrate and participate in parade, sports and cultural dance. One of the days a lady fainted due to fatigue. The camp activities were stressful. Although it was fun as I met different people from different tribes I had not heard of before. I even came to know there were many tribes other than Hausa in the North, I never knew that. I made friends and some few enemies too. Don’t be in a hurry to castigate me, I don’t mean that literally. My platoon 7, just as the name stands for perfection was the best when counting from the last but I was still proud of it. Winning wasn’t a do or die affair, although, that would be my first time of been at peace with losing. I guess I was getting more mature, realising that things won’t always turn out the way I wanted.
Then, two days to our passing out from camp, he called for me. He was sitting at the very spot I first met him, listening to news from a radio he was holding.
“How are you and how is the camp experience?” He asked, smiling in his usual manner when he saw me approaching. I plucked a leaf from the guava tree while he turned off the radio. The tree was short and one could actually pluck a fruit from it, I mean someone my height, 5.85″.
“I am fine and the camp experience is great,” I said as I sat down on a chair beside him.
“Are you avoiding me?” He asked sharply, looking straight in to my eyes.
I didn’t expect the question so I got thrown off balance. “No, no,” I said as fast a typewriter. “I talk to Salamatu and Baba almost all the time,” I added.
Then he laughed, reminding me of his father’s funny laughter.
He knew I was nervous and I couldn’t believe I just said that. He didn’t ask if I communicate with Salamatu or not. I gave myself a pinch as he continued laughing. Anyways, it was a good thing he laughed because it made the atmosphere free from tension.
I opened up and told him about my mindset concerning Northerners and Soldiers prior to this time and again we talked for hours. He told me his reason for joining the force and his plans, goals, and dream for the armed forces in Nigeria. We equally talked about life generally and believe me when I say he is just one of my mother’s GRP theory. He believed in the future Nigeria and I loved people who do that. I saw my dream man in him, only I didn’t see the tribe or the profession.
When it was time for me to leave, he gave me a hand shake and said, “Amenze, you are very beautiful and intelligent too. Although you are fair in complexion, you still have a keen resemblance to Sarah Aisha, my late younger sister. Since you graduated with a first class, I am hoping you will be posted to KASU or any other institute in town so that
Salamatu and Baba can get to see you all the time.”
Was it only Salamatu and Baba or even you, I thought. Then as if he read my mind, “And I will like to see you more often too,” he said.
I nodded and slowly withdrew my hand from his.
I wore a frozen smile on my face as I slowly walked to the hostel.To be honest, I couldn’t notice any thing happening around me or see the people and trees on my way. I was lost in thought of all we talked about and those words, “Amenze, you are beautiful,” kept ringing in my head as If I have not heard that before.
I quickly told myself it could actually turn out to be a mirage to avoid getting my hopes high but then I asked myself some few questions. “What if I marry a Soldier?”, “What is wrong in marrying a Northerner?”, “We are all humans, ain’t we?”
Not every Soldier were like the ones who caused my father’s death. There must always be GRP in a society no matter the level of moral decadence. I met a people with one of the most beautiful heart in the world. They are gentle and calm, each one minding their business. They are warm towards people. The truth is there are bad people everywhere just the way there are good people everywhere. If only we can stop being tribalistic and prejudiced. If only a particular religion can stop terrorizing people who don’t believe in it. If only we the youths can embrace ourselves as one. If only we can have a transparent political system devoid of corruption, if only. I pondered on these thoughts.
Friends, if only we can see ourselves as one, Nigeria will never die! It will only get better and best even. I’m particularly thankful to God for the former head of state General Yakubu Gowon who established the NYSC scheme. Truly from my angle it unites Nigeria, I don’t know from which angle you see it.
As I got to the door of my hostel, peace overwhelmed me like a river. I resolved and felt at rest with the fact that I could live in the Northern part of Nigeria and I could marry a Northerner because we are one, I don’t necessarily mean ‘Mr fine boy Soldier’ but I hope so. Mum would just have to trust my choices. She is a wise woman so that is settled.
Written by: DEKPEN TAMARAPREYE
“IT CAN ONLY GET BETTER”