“And who do you think you are?”
I stared at her in shock because I thought I would get an entirely different reaction. Perhaps, some understanding and consensus, even though sympathy was absent.
“You think you’re anything as a woman? Or you think you amount to anything in our culture? Let me tell you! A woman is nothing! Even me as I’m made, I must respect culture. Or you think we’re like you Yoruba people that have no culture…….”
I zoned out as tears gathered in my eyes. I really still could not believe the embarrassment as she called the attention of other corps members to listen to what she had to say, then she barked at me.
I started my service year at Awka-Etiti, Anambra State five years ago. Fast forward to my first CDS (Community Development Service) meeting, I was dressed in my uniform with my ID card hanging on my neck as a loyal servant. I hated the service year and moved a motion against it two years before I joined the scheme, but the service year is constitutional and compulsory. Some people opt out and forget any plans to work under any organization or take up any leadership position in government. However, many employers of labor have it as a mandatory prerequisite for employment.
There was I standing by the road with a bold face. A face that masked my worries and anxieties. I was alone in a village where I have been warned to not stay outside beyond 6pm. A community whose culture and language I understood not. I began to pick some words of Igbo language just to buy things like potable water. The Igbos are quite advanced. My assumption was that everyone understood English and at least spoke pidgin. I was wrong. I love to buy my daily needs from a kiosk opposite the church, however, neither the lovely boy nor the mother understood English. The expressions on both our faces was something to note as we struggled to share a mutual understanding that could not be communicated. I’d often wait by the road side till school kids came around, then I’d communicate in English and ask them to help with translation. I was able to pick some basic things fast. I also learnt an enduring name for the boy which made him brighten up every time I visited the kiosk. So yeah, my very first day of naivety had me by the road side waiting for buses coming from Ekwulobia to convey me to Ojuoto. Suddenly, my arm was yanked in a startling moment as a familiar face asked me to get back into the church. I was totally oblivious of the masquerades gathering around, having a morbid fear of masquerades, I fled instinctively. Eventually, the church got me into a bus conveying community members to the local government headquarters for an electoral process. I was sternly advised to avoid the masquerades. I needed no advice to know masquerades are to be avoided by me anyway.
Activities at the Local government headquarters went on as usual, even though it was our first experience since we reported at our respective places of primary assignment. The only faces I was familiar with were the few ones I knew from the 3-weeks of camp. I could not find anyone else posted to my village. I discussed my masquerade experience with my friends and whilst nobody wanted to be out till 6pm, we agreed it was not so smart to leave before 5pm. Funny how we thought the festivals would have subsided a bit by 5pm, at least, away from busy areas. Activities ended before 2pm and we decided to go get some things not so needed in Nnewi, but we just needed an excuse to air time till 5pm. My friend joined another Corp member to her village, while they put me on a bike back to Awka-Etiti, having communicated with the rider in Igbo, the need to avoid masquerade prone areas and ensure I arrive at my destination before 6pm. Off we sped, soaking in unpolluted fresh air of the evening in the country side. The ride was smooth, the road was good, but I repeatedly and calmly reminded the rider to avoid masquerade prone zones. He did. He said he would. Then we took a turn and met a host of masquerades up hill. They numbered over 30 at a glance.
My heart raced so fast, I made to jump off the bike, while commanding the rider to halt and retreat. He slowed down, said we have no alternate route, and the masquerades will not hurt me because I was dressed as an ambassador of the Federal Government. My heart was in my mouth as he slowly navigated.
My heart stopped.
Time sped to 9pm.. I saw my parents watching the network news at night as Cyril Stober, the erudite newscaster reported the death of a Corp member flogged to death and abandoned in a bush in Anambra by masquerades. It felt as though the whip penetrated my khaki trousers, my socks, tore my skin, and charred my heart. The sensation was raw. All my nerves were frayed. “Don’t show fear.” The rider’s voice in a whisper brought me to real time. It wasn’t 9pm. I wasn’t dead. He kept apologizing and asking me to not show fear. It registered to me that showing fear was death. I will be flogged to death. I gritted my teeth and steeled my face, though my heart was racing with anxiety, I advised myself to obey the rider.
We rode home alive with him apologizing profusely. It was not his fault. I hurriedly paid him and fled to my room in tears. I spoke with my friends and parents from the West, we all agreed it was a good idea to report the incident to the Coordinator at the Local Government. It is no news that some Corps members get killed and maimed during the course of their national service, since the scheme could not suspend the culture of the people nor exempt corps members from the consequences of transgression, the Coordinator might want to excuse absenteeism from corps members who are unable to make it to compulsory activities because of the festival season.
Wrong, we were.
The local government Coordinator held up the formal report handed to her in her office and shouted obscenities.
“You are a woman! You are nothing! You have no honor And who do you think you are?”
She’s a woman as well…
….to be continued.