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August Debut

Issue 2; October/November


Wumi Raji


Wumi Raji

Raji is a Reader in Literature at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. He is a much travelled writer, playwright and author of the poetry collection, Rolling Dreams.

 Mission to Labaran

He had mixed feelings when he first arrived in camp. This was consistent with the way he had reacted on first receiving the news that he had been posted to Dappa state for his national service. For a while after collecting the letter, he could not really make up his mind as to what he should do. On the one hand, he had felt that the place was too far, that opportunities were few and far between and that, consequent upon this second point, it might be difficult to secure a good placement after the youth service programme. He had also heard stories about the weather, how severe the climate was, how biting the harmattan could be. He had heard of sandstorms which had been said to share similar characteristics – almost - with hurricanes, the major difference being that while the latter submerged whole cities in water, the former washed them with sands. He had been told of how it sometimes went dark, pitch dark really, and without any kind of warning, in mid afternoons. Borega had then briefly considered the possibility of changing his posting but had eventually decided against it.

Of course, he had always been aware that some of the stories being peddled around were blown out of proportion, but this was not why he made up his mind to accept the posting. It was clear to him that there would be problems, that having led all his life in just one place, adjusting to a new one would never be easy. He had decided all the same that the challenge was worth taking up. He had spent the first twenty – three years of his life in one little corner of the country. He thought it was time to break out. He thought he needed an adventure.

He had set out on the journey a day before the orientation programme was scheduled to commence. The luxury coach that he boarded from Lagos left around eight o’clock in the morning. His seat being by the window, he took in the city afresh as the driver negotiated his way through the traffic: the old dilapidated houses which clung together tightly; the narrow, unkempt streets winding through them; masses of people moving in different directions, some silent, some chatting, some cursing each other, some shouting their wares, and yet with millions more – or so it appeared - engaged in several other things; the dirty, stinking waters of the lagoon glittering in the distance; hundreds or even thousands of rickety cabs, cars, buses, lorries and mummy wagons moving in different directions; and, as well, numerous shops opening out into the streets and in which all kinds of goods were displayed: Borega took them all in. He kept a close watch of the innumerable activities of the inhabitants of the sprawling city by the lagoon until the bus turned off Ikorodu road at Ojota, constructing an arc as it climbed the bridge to face the direction of Ibadan. The driver depressed the accelerator and the engine bleated out in response, surging forward simultaneously. The speed increased steadily and Lagos receded gradually. They were now on the Lagos – Ibadan expressway which was by far, the busiest road in Nigeria. Borega tried to imagine the number of vehicles plying the road on a daily basis. A million? Perhaps less. It could be more, actually, he thought. Then he gave up, concluding that it was impossible to make a good guess. Not long after this, his mind drifted unto other things.

They soon arrived in Ibadan and the driver had to reduce his speed as they drove through the twenty – five kilometre stretch between the toll gate and Ojo where the expressway terminated. Here, the bus turned right and they were now on their way to Oyo. The road was in a terrible shape and Borega thought it irresponsible of any government to have left an extremely busy road such as this unrepaired. But they drove on nonetheless: Oyo, Ogbomoso, Ilorin. The driver skirted one pothole here, and another there while still running into many others. They were too many anyway, the potholes, and there was no way he could avoid all of them. At a time when some of the passengers yelled out, complaining about his driving, he told them to pass their complaints to the government ministry charged with the responsibility of effecting repairs on roads. Clear to them now that they were at the driver’s mercy, several of the hapless men and women simply kept shut; they simply withdrew into themselves, muttering silent prayers to God.

Getting to Jebba, they decided to stop for lunch. Borega selected a restaurant which afforded him a good view of the Niger, that ancient river the discovery of which colonial history attributed to a European explorer. A little feeling of anger began to well up in him as he treated himself to a plate of amala and fresh fish. So the people of the various communities who had for centuries lived by the side of the river, right from its source in Fouta Jallon to the points in the Delta region where it emptied itself into the sea never saw it, never took note of it. They never drank its water. They never swam in the river. They never ate its fishes. It meant that people living on opposite sides never crossed the water to interact with each other. Now, he felt really offended. He felt very angry. They meant it even literally then, he thought, when they said we wallowed in darkness before they came. The white masters from across the seas really meant that we had no eyes.

A long, loud honk came from the bus – it was time to continue the journey. He decided to shrug off his offence, conceding that it was the lot of conquered people to endure insults. Well…

The journey resumed and Borega dozed off. By the time he came to again, the colour of the vegetation was almost completely altered. In place of the dense green zones that he was used to, he now had a sparsely populated expanse of land. He began to notice changes in the structure of the houses in the communities they passed by. He began to see roofs made of thatches. He saw whole shelters even, woven totally from grasses. There were animals on the field, grazing. Large populations of animals. Herds of cows crossed the roads in regular frequency. As he saw these and many more, he told himself that the journey had begun, finally.

They arrived in Labaran at about twelve midnight. Borega had no choice but to spend the rest of the night in the bus. In the morning when he set out for the camp, his gaze had become blurred, his head dry, his skin sticky, and his feet, heavy and swollen. As he trudged to the taxi park, groggy due to lack of proper sleep, he began to notice the heat. He found it unusual, very unusual, more so when it was still so early in the day. The intensity of the heat seemed to increase with every passing minute, and as it did, Borega began to wonder whether he would be able to cope, after all. Again, he thought he was already in Labaran and he was not going to beat a retreat. Getting to the camp, he collected his kits, dumped them by the side of the bed allocated to him and went into a long, deep sleep. He woke up to find his pillow almost completely soaked in sweat. The intensity of the heat was overwhelming but he had made up his mind. He would go on and he would give it all he had. This was Nigeria. It could only be great if people like them gave it everything. This then was how it happened that Borega entered his service year with great zest, with absolute enthusiasm. He immersed himself totally in the scheme. He featured in almost all the programmes on camp. He excelled in the para – military activities, participated in sports, played games and broadcast news on the Orientation Radio. Borega threw his heart and mind into everything he did. He never allowed himself to feel discouraged when, as it happened once in a while, he failed to achieve what he had set for himself. He just kept on trying. When, at the end of the orientation programme, he was posted to the state office of a broadcasting corporation for his primary assignment, he did not complain. He simply accepted the challenge and threw himself into it.


It was through Fati that he later got to hear the kind of stories that were peddled around regarding him, both while in camp and after, as well. Fati was a second year student of English at Labaran University, and a daughter of the head of one of the small, neighbouring communities. Herself and Borega had met in the office of Silas Schafa, an assistant lecturer in the Department of English and the secretary of the writers’ association in the state. It was also to become part of the story, how Borega walked through the gate of the University, how he found his way to the Department of English, how he made friends, literally, with all the lecturers in that Department and how he eventually took over the writers’ association. But to return to the current thread, Borega and Fati took to each other almost as soon as they set eyes on each other. The impression people had of Fati was that she was normally a reticent person. Yet, she did not appear to have put up any real resistance when Borega first expressed interest in her. She seemed to have simply melted before him. They had both fallen in love with each other and became really close; they became totally attached to each other. This too would later become part of the story.

But Fati herself did not have the story in full. She could not have, anyway, since she herself came across it in fragments and from different sources. She did the challenging job of knitting the bits together to make sense of them. But even if what she had at the end could not be described as really rounded, it was enough to give a close, coherent picture.

The narrative read well at first. It was as if Borega had hired an ancient griot to do the job of packaging him for the public. Or how else could it be explained, the way his qualities were exaggerated and the feats he achieved blown out of proportion? Well, as the story went, Borega had been described as an individual who possessed an incredibly warm personality. They said he went everywhere and entered all places, that he chatted freely and laughed heartily and that he accepted all offers made to him and consumed all kinds of food. The picture painted of him was, in short, that of a man about town, one known by all, loved by all, and wanted by all.

It was considered incredible how everyone accepted somebody they did not know much about. He was in the state for National Service. He did not speak the people’s language and neither did they his own. Not many spoke English either, another language in which he could communicate. Not much was known about his background beyond the presupposition that before he could qualify as a member in the National Service, he must have acquired substantial learning. Yet, and as the narration further went, people still fell for him and worshipped him - almost.

The special facilities with which he accessed people’s minds did not pass unremarked upon. They said he had a way of capturing hearts, of getting to know people’s fears and failures, of empathising with them in times of trouble, and of putting across messages of consolations as well as his own thinking on how to tackle a problem. They dwelt at length on how he contributed to successes in kind and in materials, and how he joined in celebrating them. They were amazed by the way he identified with those in sorrows and difficulties and was described as a very sympathetic person, one who was never seen to be sad or angry. Most people could not be bothered about his background, so the story went. They did not seek to know more about him. He was nice and of good disposition and this was enough. It was based on this that they accepted him.

His fellow colleagues in the youth service said he had too many talents, too much energy and too good a nature to be just an ordinary human being. They narrated the story of how he arrived in camp the very day the initiation programme commenced and how by the following morning, he had endeared himself to many. They spoke of how he laughed and exchanged banters, how he brought out cards and people played, how he was never tired of assisting people. They spoke too of the help he gave those who arrived after the course had started, how some people who came in the evening after the officials had left for home and so could not collect their kits until the following morning shared with him his bed which was only two and a half feet wide.

Fati told Borega of the parts of the story focusing on his academic brilliance; how they felt he discussed many subjects intelligently: science, economics, history, language, literature. He was also said to have demonstrated a great awareness of national and international issues; and that he was forever willing to share ideas.

“I must confess that I like this aspect of the story,” Borega said at long last, standing up simultaneously and walking towards Fati on the bed. They were in his room, one of the three in the apartment he shared with two other male corps members. Beside the bed, four and a half feet wide, there was a reading table and two chairs. From where she sat on the bed, Fati looked directly into the open wardrobe which was built into the fourth wall of the room. In it hung Borega’s clothing. His boxes were on the floor of the same wardrobe. For a while, Borega stood in front of her as she remained seated on the bed. They had been on this issue for sometime. And, as he thought, the way things were going again today, they had another long night before them.

“To me, it simply illustrates how gods are made.” He said finally as he took a decision to sit beside her on the bed.

“How gods are made? How do you mean?”

“Oh, simple. A child is born. He happens to possess some talents – I am assuming for the purpose of my illustration that the sex of the child we are talking about is male. So he, the child, puts his talents to some use, achieving feats that are only slightly above average. The rest of the community, due to their own limitations, take these to be extraordinary and blow them out of proportion. Our child grows up, becomes a man and dies at some point. His achievements are further exaggerated. As time passes, his true memory becomes steadily blurred and people begin to credit him with superhuman qualities. Our hero gradually transforms into a legend.”

“Is that how you see yourself?”

“No, certainly not. I am sure I am not the person in that story they’ve been carrying about. I just saw an aspect of it that I thought I could use to illustrate a thesis that I have carried in my head for some time. Take that bit about my performance in the camp. It is true that I set myself a time table. I got up before the bugle sounded at five, proceeded immediately with my toilet activities, took my bath and got dressed in readiness for the day. It is true that I enjoyed the para military drills, and that I participated actively in sports. But look how the whole thing has been twisted round.”

“Right. But you yourself must have been somewhat over – enthusiastic about the whole thing. I don’t think those stories were fabricated just like that.” As she said this, Fati’s mind had returned to the narrative, to what she had heard about him. She had been told of how it happened that he knew the rudiments of almost all games, basketball, volleyball, table tennis, lawn tennis. They said he played football very well, that although he was good in the midfield, he was best in goal. He was a star any day, but they related a particular feat, the one he put up when his team qualified for the inter-squad finals. He had kept the goal, of course, and they talked of how he had posed like a cat and somersaulted like a monkey. Well, they added it that the ball passed him once and that his team lost by the lone goal. In spite of this, as they had insisted nonetheless, he was still the man of the match.

“I have never said that the stories were fabricated. And I have told you before how I arrived at my decision. Of course I committed myself to many things and, to be sure, I kept the goal in that match and did my best. But that was all. It is true that I also reported sports and broadcast news at the mock radio station. By the way, I want to ask: did the people going around with this story remember that I was struck down at least once by malaria?”

“No, I haven’t heard that.”

“I guess it is convenient to leave it out. It was really a bad one and I was down for almost a week. So you see, their special human being couldn’t even repel common malaria. But to go back to what I said about how gods are created. It was you yourself who told me about the kind of theories they propounded to explain my behaviours and personality. If you still remember, you said they described me as a spirit child.”

“Yes, they did, but I actually think that the intention of some of this was to discourage me from going further with you in this relationship. There were quite a number of these theories that, at a point, and because of my not being Yoruba, I actually contemplated taking down notes. There was one that I found particularly interesting. Can’t remember how really it is called – is it emere or something. This one was based on your physical endowments. I think I got it right: emere, yes: they explained it in terms of what they saw as your strikingly handsome features in your tall, athletic frame, your fair skin, the oval, beardless face, the bright, innocent looking eyes and the thin, pointed nose, your extremely kind character and the prodigious talents. All of these, they said, were characteristic of the special being called emere.”

“Sounds like an excerpt from one of Tutuola’s fantasies. Doesn’t it?”

“May - be it does but…”

“Again, I must say I really like that. I just wonder now what they would have said about this beautiful Fulfude girl sitting beside me? I think she should in her case be aro gidigba, the goddess of the sea herself.”

“That will be fine really. Emere and aro gidigba: it will simply mean that we are two of a kind. It will probably be the reason why we feel attracted towards each other.”

“I think I agree with that. So we are two of a kind. Fine. Very fine.” They both laughed, in spite of the situation.

“But let me say this,” Borega continued, “do I, in truth, enjoy some of this? Well, I say I am a human being. And, like all human beings, I respond to flattery. It is just that some of the stories are too bizarre, too weird. It simply means that though we have spent several years in school, many of us remain uneducated.”

“Is that all?” Fati said, almost shouting. It was as if she was alarmed. “Is that all, Borega? Do you think I would be this bothered if that were all there was to it? What about the dimension the whole issue has now assumed? What about the threat to your life?”

“The threat to my life, you’ve been saying it, but I honestly still don’t see how any of this poses a threat to my life.”

Borega’s real troubles started after the conclusion of the orientation programme, having been posted to the state office of a broadcasting corporation for his primary assignment. The account of his activities as relayed here sounded quite credible. This however did not mean that it was totally shorn of embellishments.

As the story went, the resident reporter of the broadcasting corporation in question was to proceed on a six month course. As it was short of staff, the organisation could not afford to send down someone to serve as a relief, and neither could it afford to employ a new hand. But the state being in the corporation’s catchment area, it could also not leave it unreported. They thus had to seek the services of a youth service member. As at the time Borega first reported for duty, the substantive correspondent still had four weeks before proceeding on his leave. The time was spent on the newcomer’s orientation. Borega learned fast. He got introduced to relevant government officials: commissioners, directors, information chiefs of corporations, the press secretary and other staff of Government House, and fellow journalists.

The boy settled down to work as soon as the orientation was over. He was to report mainly from Government House but must spare sometime for other activities within the capital. He was part of the governor’s entourage on all tours and he duly filed in his reports.

Again, Borega really threw himself into the challenge that the posting posed to him. He maintained full alertness on his beat and continued to file reports upon reports. Some were used, others were not. Whatever the case, he just went on. On and on: he would not be discouraged. The governor soon noticed an improvement in the coverage of his state, as the account went. He knew the state correspondent was on a course and wanted to know who his relief was. That it was a sub only served to intensify his curiosity and he asked that Borega be brought before him. The extreme modesty of the soft-spoken novice reporter overwhelmed the military administrator. He asked Borega all sorts of questions, his age, his state of origin, his professional training and so on. And the more they interacted with each other, the more the governor felt attracted by the boy. The military chief executive drew the reporter closer and closer to himself and opened up to him more and more. The relationship soon became personal and Borega could see the governor any time he wanted except when the man was extremely busy. The development made it possible for him to learn more about governance, and also about the government. His coverage of events improved with every passing day.

Borega’s problems started with his colleagues on the field. They did not like his friendship with the governor, but the reasons for this were not uniformly petty. Some, trying to protect the image of the profession, had contended that a reporter too close to the seat of power might not be able to file objective reports on the administration. Apart from this, outsiders who learned of the relationship could tell scandalous stories that would embarrass everybody. Some others were simply jealous of the fact that Borega had more access to information. The majority, however, were interested in the material benefits derivable from such a friendship. To them, Borega must be making a lot from the close interaction and they fantasized on what his bank account must be like. They were shocked therefore when he told them categorically that he never collected anything from the governor, that he was aware that any gift from the seat of power was a Greek gift, that he just thought he should accept the hand of friendship extended to him by the soldier administrator. The press secretary who, on picking up the rumour, had gone to the governor corroborated his story.

But they would not let go, and this was the genesis of the problem. They kept on insisting that something must be wrong with the young man, that he most likely was a secret agent. Something was certainly unusual about him, the press corps had reasoned. The press secretary agreed with them. He could be a secret agent, could he not? He was probably sent by the president to monitor the activities of the state government and detect any subversive activity. But that line of argument could not hold since everybody knew the special relationship existing between the governor and the President. There was therefore no basis for suspicion. What if he was a foreign agent? Neighbouring countries these days were trying to subvert the nation. And the state was strategic as it had three countries bordering it on different sides.

The governor reacted to this story by dismissing it automatically when he first heard it. It was impossible that such a boy, so sincere, so open and so free, could be a spy. But it could all be a front, the governor was told. It could be part of an overall strategy to achieve his aim. A secret agent must naturally conceal his identity, he must mix freely with people, especially those that were of key importance of relation to the information being sought. The governor was set thinking. He became curious. He became suspicious. He was cautious in his relationship with the Borega henceforth.

Borega heard the story that was being peddled around concerning him and he became embarrassed and scared. He explained desperately to all who bothered to hear his own side of the story, including those he knew were only out to mock him. His weakness was that he had an obsession with people, he had said, that the whole world was his constituency, that he could befriend the entire world population if this were possible. He was willing to agree that he probably might have gone too far in his relationship with the state’s chief executive. On his own, he pondered over the matter and took a decision, if being friendly with people would get him into trouble, he might as well call himself to order. He would only now go out to cover his assignments, and for anybody he met, an ordinary hello should be okay.

But people soon found another explanation for this reaction. They said it was natural for him to withdraw having been found out, so they were right in their suspicions after all. The governor’s ears were filled with stories and he began to feel uneasy. Could he have played so cheaply into the hands of a spy in spite of his military training, in spite of all the precautionary measures he thought he had put in place. He set people to monitor the boy’s activities. The reports he received were terrible. They made him feel uncomfortable. So it was a dangerous agent he had befriended. And even if this was not so, as a very remote part of his consciousness still suggested, he continued to feel that he had given too much to the boy in the way of vital information. He thought he needed to be careful. He decided to include Borega’s name on his people – to – watch list.

It was this aspect of the story that really got Fati worried, the report that the governor saw Borega as an agent, that he was uncomfortable about his association with him, and that he had set people to monitor his activities. She felt strongly that Borega did not realise the true implication of the story. She wanted to make him see her point and was desperate in her wish that he took the matter serious.

“Well, I do agree that it is a serious matter. What I don’t get as yet is what you want me to do exactly.” Borega responded to her at last.

“Take concrete steps to protect yourself.”

“Concrete steps like what?”

“Like reporting to the police. Like taking a holiday…”

“Like leaving Labaran for good!” Borega just thought he should help spell out what Fati had been trying to hold back

“Why not? The matter has actually come to that.” She replied, thinking that there was no point denying what she had in mind.

“No, Fati. I’m already nine months into the service year. I need my discharge certificate. I won’t abandon the programme at this stage.”

“What about reporting to the police?”

“Report what to the police? What we have are mere rumours. We will look ridiculous.”

“And you don’t want to take a holiday?”

“Taking a holiday is almost the same thing as abandoning the programme. I must have a concrete reason for running away from Labaran at this stage.”

In spite of himself, Borega found his mind wandering back to the day when he first arrived in camp, and he recollected the mixed feelings he had experienced that day. He went back to his journey from Lagos. He still saw the driver depressing the accelerator, increasing his speed as he struggled to put the great city behind. He saw himself looking into the faces of the rest of the passengers as they drove on. He remembered how, as they tore further and further on through the road, the territories familiar to him gradually began to disappear. He recollected how he began to feel strange, in spite of himself. But this was his country, he had heard himself muttering as he struggled hard to assure himself. He had considered it improper of him to feel strange in any part of Nigeria. Presently, his sense of unease made him begin to experience a little feeling of shame. He mustered all his will as he struggled to gather himself together and he saw his sense of determination beginning to creep back. He would make the best of his new experience, he had told himself. He would make sure that by the end of the programme, he was able to describe himself as a Nigerian, at least with some measure of confidence.

Now going through the stories that were being carried about regarding him, he experienced a somewhat cracked sense of identity. It was only a momentary experience though and almost immediately as he experienced the feeling, he started struggling to bring himself together. When he looked up, he found Fati looking at him. It was as if he had been caught in the act of committing a great crime.

He made considerable concessions to her at the end of the long argument. He would stop going to Government House. Even though unofficially, he would withdraw totally from his place of primary posting. He did not have much time left anyway. He also agreed to report the matter to the state director of the service corps.

Henceforth then, Borega spent most of his time in the University. When he was not with the creative writers’ group, he would be in the library, reading. His relationship with Fati also grew stronger.

Borega got back to his room one evening to find an invitation pinned to the door. He was being asked to participate in a series of symposia that had been put together by the state committee on National Service to assess the achievement and problems of the scheme after twenty years. The participants were in categories, those who had passed through the scheme, those presently involved in it, final year undergraduates, employers of corps members` services, academics and seasoned civil servants. The views were to be collated and sent to the head office in Abuja. He was to participate in the second discussion of the series but was advised to attend others as an observer.

His first reaction on receiving the invitation was, of course, to turn it down. Clearly, there were lots of problems about which he would have wanted to alert the secretariat, but given his recent experience, it might be dangerous to so do. In the end, himself and Fati agreed that he should attend the first in the series of the symposia. Whatever he heard and/or saw should then determine his eventual decision.

The opening ceremony went very well. The state director of the scheme made a moving speech, urging the participants to feel free to express whatever they felt, as the aim was to objectively evaluate the scheme, its successes and its failures. Everybody praised the scheme at the level of intention. However, three of the four speakers argued that the programme had not achieved much due mainly to poor planning and shoddy execution. Corps members whose attendance was unusually impressive cheered them. That the officials liked and enjoyed the debate could not be doubted.

Borega’s fears dissolved. Then he took a philosophical interpretation of his original predicament. Why keep silent, why withdraw from the world because people peddled stories about him? In any case, had they not always peddled stories, these rumour mongers? Had they not always found something to say? Why then must he allow himself to be held down by gossips? He resolved to speak his mind. Let them give it whatever interpretation they liked. He was the third of the four discussants slated for his panel.

“I must admit,” he began his speech by restating his initial fear, “that I was very sceptical when I first received an invitation to speak here. It is so dangerous to speak these days. But whatever fear I nursed vanished yesterday, in view of the assurance of the state director, the confidence with which the participants spoke, and the way the speeches were received. I thank the organisers. But my other fear is that, we do speak a lot in this country, only we don’t act on what we say. I am sceptical that anything fruitful could be the result of this seminar. I am afraid that we may just be wasting our time.”

Borega was not sure that many people heard the last two sentences. But the instant ovation that greeted the fear as soon as it was expressed dispelled the doubt. He continued.

“Virtually all the speakers both yesterday and today argued that the scheme had little, if anything, by way of achievements to its credit. I beg to differ.”

The seminar hall was instantly engulfed in silence after this. A different view after all, or so they thought. They were anxious to hear it. “Were it not for this scheme, would I not be walking the street now, jobless, aimless, even hopeless? I thank the brain that conceived this programme.” He was not sure the audience would get the sarcasm but the applause that greeted the point showed they did.

“And I have not finished. Some of us corps members have all our life lived under the supervision of our parents. All the schools we attended were located where our parents are based. Everything we’ve done till now was therefore under their noses. The service has removed us from their protection-I put protection in quotation marks. So, for the first time in our lives, we’re free: free to do whatever we like, free to go wherever we like, free to befriend whoever we like, free to sleep wherever…” The audience had picked it up. The shout was deafening. It was a point well – made.
He was happy about it.

“Thirdly,” Borega continued as soon as the noise had considerably subsided “many of us, wherever we came from, had established reputations. Reputation as good to smell as rotten eggs and as pleasing to the sight as decayed teeth. The one-year scheme has cut us clean from that past. We can start again now. Establish new relationships. Make a pledge; sin no more. It’s so easy to get rid of the past, isn’t it­?”

“You nko? Don’t think we don’t know you o.” Somebody threw this in as the house went wild yelling, laughing, whistling, clapping, thumping the air in acknowledgement and banging the chairs enthusiastically. Shouts of “more, more” and “more” wrenched the air. Borega thought otherwise. There were more serious points to be made. He would now turn to them. He was going to disappoint the audience.

“On a more serious note,” the tone was firm and final but it took the house sometime to come round and listen again. “On a more serious note,” he repeated. “I want to salute once again, the brain that conceived the National Service Scheme. It was an excellent idea that youths of this nation; of diverse orientation – religious, ethnic, ideological, even educational- should have an opportunity to co-mingle in an essentially neutral environment. We have great men in this country. Men of great vision coming up with great ideas. But the tragedy is that we always bungle these ideas in the process of implementation. The NSS is one sad example.” The walls of the house, the roof, even the furniture, everything stood attentive, eager to hear the great point. Borega sensed this and thought that he had been unnecessarily alarmist.

“I am sorry that I sounded so grave. I didn’t intend it. And I may not have points to match the tone.
But I suspect that if the brains behind the NSS are still alive, and are truly great minds, as I think they are, they must be highly embarrassed and terribly disappointed. Because twenty years after its inauguration, their brain child is way off course. Its objectives of national integration, national mobilisation and national unity are still dreams and may forever remain so…”

“Amen.” This came from a section of the audience. The others laughed. Borega himself paused and smiled.

“I want to start from our officials here because they’re not setting good examples for us to emulate. They are polarised along ethnic lines.” He was again interrupted. The reaction was similar to the one before. Shouts of “more” intermingled with claps, chairs being wildly banged, with catcalls and whistles. Borega went on. “They are always quarrelling even in our presence. They don’t hide it. They don’t camouflage. Which is very bad. Bad because they’re supposed to direct us, to guide us, we young men and women from different backgrounds, in our efforts to cope with one another and with the people of this strange community. Our officials should learn to get over their parochialism as mature men and women.”


“Finish them off.”

“Yes go ahead and expose them.”

Sege, dan bansa.


“You hit the nail right on the head.”


“You no go get your allowance this month.”

Everybody laughed at this. Borega knew his time was running out so he did not wait for the laughter to die down before going ahead. “The planners themselves should be held responsible for building ethnicism into the programme. Perhaps inadvertently. Or how else could one explain the policy of ensuring that state chief executive hailed from the host state? I think if state directors came from places different from their own origins, like members are supposed to do…”

The audience again interrupted here with murmurs, putting across their understanding of the phrase “are supposed to do.” But the speaker had to rush on. “I mean if they suffer the same experience as members, the plight of members would be better appreciated and handled with greater understanding.

“Now, to what I insinuated just now. I think those in charge of posting need some measure of ruthlessness. They need to develop thick skins to be able to resist pressures. We need principles and we need courage. We also need fairness. Only those of us with very short legs - forgive the parlance - get posted anyhow. Over two thousand of us were posted to this state initially. We are less than one thousand now. Where are the rest? He still could not wait as the audience reacted. “It is one of the great tragedies of this country that those who make laws are always the first to break them.” The moderator warned him concerning time. He rushed on.

“I must speak candidly to members. Honestly, I think we’re a collection of disappointment; disappointments both to this nation and to ourselves. I have stated earlier the various ways in which we perceive the programme. We think only of the temporary source of income it affords us, the privilege of special citizenship which I don’t think we deserve, and the excitement. No efforts at making anything of the scheme. We gain nothing and imbibe nothing. We contribute nothing. The service year is a wasted year. And it is a tragedy…”

Borega knew he had carried the audience all along. But because of the hurried note on which he ended, he was not sure whether or not he had eventually lost them. Until they applauded him as he took his seat. His was the greatest ovation of the evening. The greater surprise came when at the close of the discussion, fellow members crowded round to shake hands with him. The information officer also congratulated him on a brilliant contribution and suggested he presented a memo on it. He had no choice. The third day, he submitted a twelve-page handwritten piece which the officer thought was excellent.

It never occurred to Borega that it could take so little to become a hero. From then on, he got invited to all functions organised by fellow members. And on all such occasions, he had to make a speech. He never failed to inspire applause and he enjoyed it. He borrowed a trick from Nkem in Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah; his line of argument was always at radical departure from the general trend.

What never occurred to both Fati and Borega was that the governor’s men never at any time stopped following him and that they continued to file reports on his activities. Well, what they sent in now had slightly altered. The boy was an agent, no doubt, as the reports said. He was a member of a dangerous band of radicals plotting an insurrection in the country.

The governor just could not understand. How could such a boy, so honest, so nice, so open, and, indeed, so harmless looking, be a spy? He looked back at the Borega he knew. He saw the sweet smile. He heard the candid tone of voice. He remembered the suggestions, put forward, always, in very humble manner. No, it could not be true. It was all a plot; people were just being wicked. But… But… This world: was anybody that trustworthy? Was anybody to be so trusted in this age and time? What should he do? What to do for God’s sake? This world was such a wicked place. It was such a complex place…

And so it happened that the dawn broke on the state capital one day to find a body lying lifeless in the middle of Baganda road. His broken skull made it seem likely that he had been the victim of a hit and run attack. Borega never drank. He never had other women beside Fati. What then could he be doing in the middle of Baganda road, at least ten kilometres from where he lived in the dead of night?

The memory of Borega must not be allowed to die, fellow corps members thought. They mounted a feeble, inaudible protest. For some time thoughts of him lingered on. After a while, only one person still carried his memory in Labaran. It was Fati.

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