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NYSC in Fiction: Salient message from Gimba’s A Trail of Sacrifice – Part 1

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As a viable human enterprise, literature has, from time immemorial, derived its engaging and revealing contents from the inexhaustible vortex of human chequered happenings and happenstances. In other words, if we humour the cerebrally feisty Kenyan novelist of consequential renown, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, we may not hum and haw in accepting his well-thought-out view that literature is not a product of vacuum …

The variegated events in human communities and societies have thus far formed the very materials with which writers, be they poets, novelists, or playwrights, convene the banquets at which their own imaginative outputs blend beautifully and seamlessly with the remarkable occurrences in human societies.

Thus, for any educable mind desirous of knowing what the ancient Greek society’s culture and traditional religion were, they have the imperishable works of Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, amongst a hosts of others, to pore over. Shall we forget the ever green plays and poems of the prodigiously fertile William Shakespeare? His oeuvre encapsulates the vast pool of human deeds and the imponderables of human nature in their notorious and sublime forms across different societies. Literary tomes of encyclopaedic magnitude exist on some other periods of the English society. Charles Dickens, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Robert Browning, to mention but a few of the lots, have imaginatively documented the very characters and defining traits of the overly prudish denizens of the most famous Victorian era.

Similarly, the virulent and ravaging act of colonialism that decapitated and decimated the motley inhabitants of Asia, the Caribbean Island, Latin America, and Africa did not escape the lucid artistic lenses of the percipient writers that emerged therefrom. From Chinua Achebe’s ground-breaking and richly celebrated Things Fall Apart, and the seminal Arrow of God, to Peter Abraham’s Mine Boy unravelling the monstrous and ruinous human machine called apartheid, we are amply treated to the most disturbing acts of human barbarity, crudity, and severe inhumanity on the wonky altars of totally unjustifiable reasons.
More, the disturbing horrors of the French Revolution constitute the moving plots of some creative works. The tragedy of that horrific war, like other historic occurrences, became useful materials for the creative minds of French and non-French writers alike. French literature, therefore, can be regarded as a major medium through which some of the notable realities of that land can be viewed. The same can be said of the Russian society. Its literature is rich with the important events of its various generations.

All in all, what is now labelled as world literature were, severally, eventuated by oodles of tragic, moving, comic, boring, challenging, perturbing, and even ennobling actions and inactions of varied human creatures at different points in time and in distinct geographic spheres. Ngugi’s relevant postulation in this regard comes to mind: “[L]iterature has often given more and sharper insights into the moving spirit of an era than all the historical and political documents treating the same moments.” (1997:67)

To come closer home, Nigerian writers have overtime proved their mettle and showed the very quality stuff they are made of in their judicious and laudable efforts towards the fictionalisation of the various events – the mundane and the serious – that have combined together to shape the postcolonial outpost that Lord Lugard’s mademoiselle, Flora Shaw, possibly christened Nigeria in the very heat of one of their numerous evenings of emotional tete-a-tetes. Put differently, Nigerian authors, faithful to the distinguishing features of their generations, have arduously and remarkably produced absorbing works informed by skilful conflations of factual and imaginary events. This is evidently attested to by the mounting and fabulous tomes of plays, novels, and poems that define what is known as Nigerian literature. What this presupposes is that any mind hankering sincerely for striking events in the recorded history of Nigeria can confidently do so by accessing its talking literature, especially its prose genre – great happenings are therein immortalised.

Among the various modes of literary expressions, it is the novel that occupies a special place in the firmament of Nigerian literature. It is one form of literature that has been actively engaged in the recreations of the diverse developments that have thus far shaped the Nigerian state. It offers a much better means of viewing the positive and negative realities of the peoples of Nigeria. This is the point Egya Sule (2014) harps on when he argues thus: “The white people or those living in the west are very eager to know what is happening in the jungle called Africa, and the novel has the latitude and amplitude to present what they want to know. […] the reception of Nigerian writing in the west should not form the yardstick for measuring the strength of our writing. That the west promotes a novel or a novelist does not mean it is a great work. It only means the novel or the novelist has succeeded in being the best window through which the west can glimpse at Africa.” (My emphasis)

It is against the foregoing backdrop that this paper engages a novel by one of the more vocal voices in the ginormous and gnarly hall of Nigerian literature. Here we refer to one of the half-heartedly heeded but consequential works of Abubakar Gimba. A prolific scribbler and fecund artist, Gimba, as his works shows, was a thorough-going observer of the various events playing out of the huge, rudderless and unorganised socio-political and economic theatres of his motherland. Like many of his fellow writers, he has been able to deftly thematise the troublous and disheartening peregrinations of his country from joy to sorrow; from hope to despondency. With an uncluttered artistic mind, he has meaningfully exposed the rotten underbelly of the various human institutions in the land; sarcastically dissected the sheer foolhardiness and psychosis assailing many a political ruler; and critically graphicalised the crudity and crippling hypocrisy of human beings universally. In doing this, he stays committed to the duties of a writer who, as Gbemisola Adeoti (2015: 3) appositely clarifies, creatively addresses any observed aberrations of social norms. The writer, Adeoti stresses, [s]ometimes in his/her perception of the direction in which the affairs of the state is heading, s/he, in overt or coded tones, offers criticism. But s/he may point out alternatives which may involve reform or revolution, depending on his/her ideological preferences.”

The writer in Gimba does not sidestep the big social issues. His is not even a commitment to the abstracts concept of justice, equality, and peace. Trail of Sacrifice (1985), Witnesses to Tears (1986), Innocent Victims (1988), Sunset for Mandarin (1991), Sacred Apples (1994), Footprints (1998), and A Toast in the Cemetery (2002), are some of Gimba’s creative outputs which reflect and satirise social ills in his country, as well as project some plausible ways out of the woods of visionless leadership.

Given the subject matters of his works, Gimba is one writer who subscribes moderately to the view that a serious work of art worth burning the candle for is the one that splendidly refracts and artistically reflects the goings on in a given society to the point that it aligns with Karl Marx’s postulate in his book, Eleven Theses on Feuerbach (1888), espousing the dire need for change, to wit: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it’. This economist cum novelist’s works are such that not only inundate us with the shaming and roiling leader/follower-created stasis and stymied progress, they also dramatise for us the feasible chute out of the socio-economic and political doldrums that we have for long been sequestered in so much that many have come to take it as the ideal way of human existence. And that the panaceas are products of revolutionary cogitation and radical undertakings is a mild understatement! Gimba Kakanda stresses this point in a tribute to the author at the time of his demise in 2015: “Gimba’s thoughts for our generation are to inspire a mental revolution, and a change through non-violence.”

Gimba’s Trail of Sacrifice is an engaging fictionalised account of the prevailing political condition that necessitated the establishment of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC); its operations; and the seemingly insurmountable impediments militating heavily against the true fulfilment of its enunciated cardinal objectives. The simple but deep work sardonically unearths the conflicting contradictions inherent in the scheme. The controversial fact that the scheme was arguably designed to hit the rocks irredeemably and the underlying staggering tripod of ruse, hypocrisy and bare vacuity on which it stands precariously a few years after its creations become inexorably manifest to the discerning reader.

More importantly, the novel does not avoid the riling and tiresome acts of adored mediocrity, cherished nepotism, graceless compromise, blinding corruption at all levels of importance, and the depressing infrastructural decadence that have gradually coalesced to make Nigeria a proud paper giant fast competing – shamelessly – for the most conspicuous seat in the ramshackle edifice incredibly housing a number of failed and failing states which appear peacefully satisfied!

However, the novelist demonstrates through his artistic erudition and vision that it is very plausible for corps members to indelibly scrawl their marks of success on the smooth sand of history through rugged pertinacity to the undertaking of tasks that can catalyse changes in the lives of people, genuine willingness to render altruistic services to people regardless of their ethnic or tribal affiliations and religious persuasions, and through unfeigned faithfulness and unalloyed loyalty that brooks no arrant compromise.

For the corps members and the-would-be to succeed in their services to a fatherland that has done diddly to merit their services, the novel makes a case for sincerity in the face of hanky-panky; adherence to the creed of noble and patriotic actions within the ambit of national interest when confronted with discouraging acts of individualism coated with some ersatz patriotism; solid optimism in response to deflating display of pessimism; the enthronement of reasoning and deep reflection when confronted with cloying sentimentality, emollient rationalisation and gross appropriation of the fripperies of mere demagoguery; and of course, brotherly and comradeship disposition coupled with boisterous display of camaraderie when thrust into any human community where tribal prejudices and some misbegotten ethnic jingoism prevail freely.

Furthermore, the novel unequivocally champions the need for all citizens, the beleaguered followers and the psychopathic rulers who understand everything but the basic tenets and character of leadership, to divest themselves of the threadbare habiliments of self-adoration, self-consideration, self-aggrandisement, individualism and crass materialism, and in their place don the garments of selflessness, collective interest, and the desire for honour and glory of the larger society. This way, the novel implies, is how we can start the regenerative process that will lead to the rebirth of the good we had once seen at the early days of the country’s independence and that will put us back on the track of economic abundance, political progress, and social wellbeing.

Now to the synopsis of Trail of Sacrifice. The name of the factitious country of the novel is Kokania (Some brilliant creativity! – Sounds perfectly like Nigeria. What is more, both have exactly the same number of letters; seven in all). Kokania has just emerged from a bloody and grisly civil war. The feelings of animosity, tribal prejudice and insecurity amongst the Kokanians are so thick that they can be sliced with a knife. The ruthless military government in the saddle must do something if the country will not book a permanent place in the cockpit of violent convulsion and negotiate obscurity.

Consequently, without seeking the opinion of the people, the military apparatchik, as its wont is and in its very infinitesimal wisdom, decrees a programme it claims will “foster and forge national unity and discipline” into existence. Expectedly, the fresh graduates who will be used towards the attainment of the supposedly national beneficial goals named National Objectives Fulfilment Brigade (NOFB, a fictional doppelganger of the real NYSC) will not hear of it. Before the self-acclaimed “saviour-rulers” of the nation could fully roll out the full scope of the programme, the various ivory towers in the country are already engulfed in the suffocating flames of remonstration and demonstration preceded by repeated exhaustive dialectical jousting.

Leading in this all-important protest are the undergraduates from Dualcity and Pondo universities. But the superior force castrates the inferior – the powers that be respond in their most cherished tradition, crudely and with brutal force to the protestation of the armless students. The resistance against the taking-off of the NOFB suffers an irreversible knockback. The new graduates henceforth will have to serve their fatherland for one year in any part of the country the government so deems appropriate.

Among the foundation participants of the new scheme are Sadiku Baba, Joseph Makanjira, John Kaiga, Mosabat and Masi. The protagonist, Sadiku, is an auspicious graduate of Economics from Pondo University. An indigene of Anoya State, Sadiku is, together with Makanjira, from Dualcity University, posted to Kumaga State. The two of them serve their one year in Redemption Crusaders High School, Mwene, where they teach such subjects as Economics/English Literature, and Physics respectively. Sadiku distinguishes himself at his duty post in spite of his expressed lack of interest in the scheme and the avoidable challenges militating against it. His exceptional acts of selfless service to humanity stand him outstandingly out.

Gimba’s Trail of Sacrifice is indeed so loaded with salient messages that it seems to be bursting in the seam. As we course through the ten-chapter work, the fact that the NOFB is structured on the need to achieve national unity is, according to the student analysts in Pondo University, “nothing more than a theatrical robe, with which to deceive the nation. It is manipulative in design. The whole thing is neither here nor there”. If we extrapolate this to the Nigerian NYSC, this flinty submission would be patently true. For to be sure, as of today, the scheme in its over thirty years of existence cannot be said to have truly engender national unity. Nothing more than the relationships between corps members and their respective host communities and the palpable trepidation and cries of marginalisation that exist among the various ethnic groups attest to this.

In the fictive version of Nigeria (Kokania), the members of the community where brigade/corps members are resident often regard them as aliens and to that extent often refuse to work with them during the community service. Right within the fold of the brigade/corps members, a very serious ethnic prejudice subsists, with each first and far above anything else considering him/herself as a Koka (Hausa), Sosa (Igbo), Heho (Yoruba), or Watu (Efik) before thinking or projecting themselves as citizens of Kokania/Nigeria.

The prevailing tribal dichotomy and acrimony is more dramatized by the subsisting reality between the paramount rulers in Nayiba, the capital city of Kumaga State. These are the Gash of the Medidans (the paramount ruler of the Medidan ethnic group) and the Sahbu of Amenteh (the dominant ethnic group). During the courtesy visit of the brigade members to them, the Amenteh people and their traditional ruler are bent on side-lining Medidan people from the scheme of things, saying “they are trying to trample on us even harder than did the white man” (p.63). And in a scathing but veiled sarcasm, the traditional ruler further notes, speaking about the main objective of the NOFB, that “the Central Government [Federal Government] knows what is good for unity. Those at the centre know that unity does not mean stepping on someone’s toes persistently. Here in Kumaga State, we are yet to understand that basic truth”.

The overt import of this utterance is that it underlines the fact that no national unity can be fostered, forged or sustained where it is the case that the ethnic or tribal groups within the country nurse a sense of injustice and/or marginalisation. To federate in un-freedom is to give free rein to suspicion, distrust, and disharmony. This, indeed, is where the objective of NOFB/NYSC appears as a mere charade and the sense of seriousness of its advocates/managers skin-deep.

Additionally, the way and manner in which NOFB is birthed makes it defective. Where the government should have easily conducted a plebiscite to know the opinion of the people for whom the scheme is meant, it decides to foist it, willy-nilly, on the people. The scheme is then sustained by the brutal force of a government that is alienated from the people and so lacks legitimacy. Left with no other choice, the young people of Kokania convince themselves that “the exercise is meant to punish and humiliate us, if not to maim us. By giving us such below-the-poverty-line, subsistence income, they not only intend to make us suffer but also turn us into beggars. They not only want us to go a-borrowing, but also go a-sorrowing. It is all planned” (p.8). Accordingly, they conclude that “the motto of the NOFB should not be ‘Service and Humility’ as it is meant to be, but ‘Service in Humiliation’”. The panoptical words of Sadiku ring a loud bell of sense:

It is my ardent belief that, in matters concerning and affecting us, we should be kept in full picture. If the government is convinced that we are to form the core ingredients of a successful Brigade, then we should be consulted. We are not raw materials. Therefore when the government wants to use us towards the attainment of certain supposedly national beneficial goals, why should we not be contacted? Why should they only talk about us instead of talking with us? Why? The answer might be contempt. Perhaps ignorance. Or tactlessness. Or political short-sightedness. All these and other reasons combine to produce their apparent arrogant indifference towards us. And on this we must do something. (p. 11)

Again, the above will amount to a drop in the ocean when placed by what obtains in Nigeria, where government considers it a misnomer to seek the views and inputs of people to policies before implementation. The actual version of NOFB was, like many other polices, solely conceived by government. The people are never kept in the picture. The government talks about them and not with them. On the wide, perforated canvass that is Nigeria are numberless signposts of supposedly people-oriented programmes without a scintilla of input from the very people. It is therefore not surprising that the behemoth of a scheme, NYSC, has achieved, quite gamely, some modest feats and adulations. The young Nigerian graduates who participate in it see it purely as not only Hobson’s choice but also a time-wasting endeavour – nothing more!

• Adesola (toludemola1@gmail.com) teaches Literature at Kings University, Odeomu, Osun State. His research interests are in child-soldier narratives, postcolonial studies, and African studies.


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