TITLE: MANNA AT SAIPEM CAMP
AUTHOR: IZU NNAJI
The sun blazed in the mid-day sky as a group of young men stood in between two long rows of cabins looking like a bunch of Egyptian Mummies left to stand forever in the middle of an ancient catacomb. In spite of the hip-hop music that peeled from the clubhouse adjacent to the two long rows of cabins, the youths, numbering about 25 and dressed in homely clothes, looked sombre and wistful. Their ages ranged from 20 to 30, and with different sizes of plastic plates clutched in their scraggy fingers and shoved under their armpits, they stood in the scorching sun, dwarfing the warlike Spartans of ancient Greece in sheer stoicism. Further down the 25-metre passageway running in between the rows of cabins, there existed a shade created by a huge mango tree, at the foot of which lay an empty cauldron besmeared with crumbs of soured soup. But the young men would not seek refuge under the mango tree. They rather preferred to stay under the sun, at the other extreme of the passageway, for there, they would have a clearer view of the camp gate: the gate through which the truck must pass as it made its entry into the Saipem Camp.
Odion wiped his brows with a finger and flicked the greasy drops of sweat away on the asphalted floor. He turned and slowly looked up into the fair, handsome face of Eme, his best friend, and a flicker of hope coursed once again through his heart. Standing there beside him, his presence and optimism reassuring him more than words could explain, Odion recalled the discussion he had with him last night in the tumbledown cabin that Eme shared with his younger brother, Uzo. During their feverish discussion, Eme had reassured him ad infinitum that the process was as easy as ABC. It was no big deal at all. He just had to make up his mind, and then, endeavoured to be in the front, no matter the situation. Yes, whatever happened, he just had to maintain his position in the front.
“This is the only way to keep hanging on for now,” Eme had cautioned, burning his bright, lively eyes into Odion’s panic-stricken ones, “unless you have enough money in those dusty pockets of yours to keep spending in all these expensive restaurants.”
“Of course, you know I haven’t got any more money,” shrieked Odion, the twin marks on his dark, oval face squeezing into a frown that made him look much older than his real age of 30. “I’ve spent everything I had, and that’s exactly why I want you to give me an orientation on this survival technique – this technique that has sustained all you ex corps members for such a long time in Saipem Camp, and which I always envisaged would be my final recourse on the day of trouble. As you well know, I have been spending the little savings I made during my service time on food ever since I rounded out my service year last two months. And now that the money is finished, there is no doubt about it: the day of trouble has finally caught up with me. Eme! Just equip me with the rudiments of this bizarre technique which has kept you afloat for the past one year.”
And now, standing in the sun beside his lanky friend who towered above him like a palm tree, Odion fixed his gaze at the gate and prayed silently that the truck might arrive in no distant time. He had eaten only one meal since the previous day. It was a paltry breakfast of two slices of bread and a ball of greasy bean cake. This Sunday morning, excruciating hunger had forced him out of the church service – forced him to run back to the Saipem Camp to get ready for this all-important moment: this moment when Eme would introduce him to the battle ground where free food became the prize of the triumphant. His bowels churned and rumbled endlessly in protest of this egregious departure from the normal, and as they undauntedly demanded to be assuaged, Odion looked helplessly around at the stern faces of the other competitors with whom he must soon be locked in a battle of survival. And then, the snag suddenly impacted his brains like a thunderbolt. His tiny slits of eyes narrowed even further, and his Charlie Chaplin moustache twitched involuntarily.
Odion eyed his co-competitors once again. Yes, he was really the shortest of the pack! God! How could he ever pit himself against such a bunch of tall, hungry, desperadoes? He turned and looked at the man at his left side. To Odion, who was only five feet one, the young man appeared tree-like. Desperately, Odion turned to his right and gazed up at Eme once again. Eme looked down and flashed him a grin. Odion grimaced and combed his stainless-steel spoon through his bushy hair. He looked down at the hairy, stubby legs that emerged from underneath his khaki shorts, ending in a dusty, decrepit flip-flop.
“What the hell!” thought he almost aloud to himself. “Height is of no consequence in this battle. What is important here is to maintain my position in the front line. And, hey, I doubt if even a combination of Andrew The Giant and The Undertaker can stop me from doing just that.”
“Hello, Odion,” greeted someone, jolting the short hungry man out of his thought with a start. It was Uzo, Eme’s younger brother, on his way to the Refinery canteen. “So you’ve finally joined this train, eh?” he added, a derisive smile playing around the corners of his mouth.
A pang of indignation momentarily contorted Odion’s face.
“Uzo,” he rejoined with cold acerbity, “you may well enjoy the cosy atmosphere of the Refinery canteen as long as it lasts. We all did that, remember. But be sure to join this train sooner or later. Of course, here at the Saipem Camp, it’s a totally inescapable destiny for anyone who fails to get a job at the end of their Youth Service year, and you know it.”
An inescapable destiny indeed, for the Saipem Camp had gradually become a dumping ground for jobless university graduates. A wire-fenced clearing, the size of a football field, located at the rear bushy portions of the huge purlieus of the Warri Refinery; the Saipem Camp was once used as a makeshift residence for the multinational company that built the petroleum refinery. It contained about a hundred long container chains arranged in rows, each divided into tiny cabins that served as rooms for the company staff. There were other containers converted into toilets and bathrooms, and some others joined together to construct a clubhouse for recreation. But soon after the management of the refinery was handed over to Nigerians, the Saipem Camp was converted into a little village where all the male university graduates deployed to the Warri Refinery for the one-year compulsory National Youth Service were accommodated.
Unemployment, however, bestrode Nigeria like a King Kong. Its simian stench pervaded the entire country. At the Saipem Camp its dank, diabolical claws hovered over the heads of all the Youth Corps members, waiting to snatch them up by the nape of the neck as soon as they rounded out their service year. The imperative corollary of this predicament was that most of the corps members had nowhere to go after their Youth Service. They simply stayed back and continued to hope for that elusive day when fortune smiled on them with a profitable employment. Despite the fact that they were required to relinquish their accommodation at the expiration of their service year, the ex corps members did not mind squatting in some dilapidated cabins declared unfit for human habitation, or going to knock at the doors of their still-serving counterparts like pitiful little waifs seeking to be taken in by a benevolent master.
But when compared to the hellish jungle that the Nigerian streets were, the unemployed ex corps members of Saipem Camp understood, albeit with quiet trepidation, that the camp was indeed a great privilege. Out of the tens of millions of unemployed graduates wandering the stifling streets of the corruption-ridden country, fate had been most gracious to puke them upon this heaven: This heaven where their always was a nook for one to lay ones head, where clean water was never in short supply, and where surprisingly there was never a power cut.
But the most sublime attribute of the Saipem Camp was its miraculous supply of food to all its denizens who, with no iota of doubt, had sunk to the nadir of human existence. During their service year, all corps members serving at the Refinery were entitled to two meals everyday, eaten within the comfortable confines of the Refinery canteen. But at the completion of their service, the identity cards were quickly retrieved from them, automatically stripping them of the power to enter the Refinery complex anymore.
God so kind, however, corps members were not the only ones accommodated at the Saipem Camp. Batches of soldiers were always deployed to the Refinery to guard the expensive installations there. These soldiers, who were also quartered at the Saipem Camp, were not permitted to eat in the Refinery canteen like the serving corps members. Twice everyday, at noon and sunset, a van trucked food in cauldrons into the camp for them, and in sympathy with the plight of the ex corps members, the soldiers often demanded a surfeit of food from the Refinery authorities, so that the university graduates could have the crumbs after the unschooled soldiers had had their fill.
But as time went on, and the number of ex corps members unavoidably burgeoned, the leftovers could no longer suffice the hungry lot of the ex corps members. The soldiers, irritated by their bedlam during meals, now often threatened to beat some of them with whips, and even went on to carry out their threats sometimes, despite the fact that most of them were younger than these ex corps members: These ex corps members who should have been the hopes of their country. Lawyers, Doctors, Engineers, Scientists, and Accountants pilloried by hunger in the noonday heat, like a bunch of errant bats hanging stranded in the sun, exposed by a sudden break of dawn.
And finally, the moment arrived. The green-coloured van rolled slowly through the gate, ran across the open lawn in front of the caravans and stopped at the end of the clubhouse. The erstwhile catatonic crowd suddenly became animated. The miraculous manna had landed!
Two little girls clad in white aprons brought the heavy cauldron down from the van and carried it down the long passageway to the foot of the mango tree. But the already salivating ex corps members knew better than to allow their limbs betray the war of their appetites: no one dared move until the soldiers had arrived the scene. Odion’s right leg trembled and almost spurred him inadvertently forward, but he quickly restrained it with all the willpower he could muster. Like a pack of starving dogs tethered to a stake only to watch a juicy bone dragged across their faces, Odion and his colleagues swallowed hard and waited for the moment of action.
Soon, the soldiers, numbering about forty arrived, dressed in their military uniforms. Clutching their various plates and food flasks in their hands, they walked disdainfully past the pitiful bunch of Nigerian graduates, who quickly lurched forward and followed sheepishly on their heels. Eme rushed forward, looking hurriedly around for his friend. But Odion had no intention of dragging behind. He had already meandered to the front, pushing and straining with all his strength to maintain his position their. The strategy was well understood: WHATEVER HAPPENS, JUST ENSURE YOU MAINTAIN YOUR POSITION IN THE FRONT!
“Halt, all of you!” thundered the hash, husky voice of the tall sergeant whose duty it was to dish out the food in the cauldron. “Won’t you control yourselves and give us some chance to finish with the food before you begin?” retorted he, poking his dark face at the blighted ex corps members as they approached the spot where the cauldron sat at the foot of the mango tree. “You better behave yourselves, or else I’ll pour the whole remnant into the trash bin when we’re through. Am I understood?”
“Yes, sir!” chorused the squirming bunch of hungry graduates, building a palpitating wall of stretching, distending bodies around the soldiers as they shared their lunch.
As the cauldron was opened, the food in it turned out to be Odion’s favourite: steaming pottage beans, cooked with vegetable and huge chunks of fried fish. Odion sniffed the enticing aroma once or twice, and then readjusted his position right in front of the steaming cauldron. With his arms held pugnaciously akimbo, and his podgy frame leaning precariously forward, he cast a semblance of a strutting cock poised for a cockfight, only this time, his adversary seemed to be none other than a steaming cauldron of pottage beans.
Nor were the rest of his comrades ready to accept defeat in this battle of survival. With their shiny, desperate eyes wide open, they followed every movement of the ladle with rapt attention as it dipped into the large pot, resurfaced with the brown sloppy stuff, and then descended into one of the many food flasks on the floor to empty itself of the much desired burden before going back into the cauldron. Every journey of the ladle evoked a terrible apprehension amongst the crowd of hopefuls who stretched beyond limits to peep into the pot. It was always necessary to gauge the rate of the descent of the content of the pots, to ascertain whether hope should be sustained or not.
Such moments were moments of deep concentration: Moments when pottage beans hypnotized a great conglomeration of Nigerian graduate scholars, demanding the unconditional surrender of their bodies, souls, and spirits. It sure would go unperceived – totally unnoticed – at such moments if a hypodermic needle was stuck all the way into the buttocks of anyone of them and removed again. And as the food in the cauldron descended, so their noise and squirming rose to a crescendo.
“What is wrong with you idiots!” the tall sergeant suddenly barked, hovering over the steaming cauldron to bore his bloodshot eyes into their wide, wild ones. “I say, what is the matter with you all? Can’t you wait for one to finish, before you begin to fall into the pot like drunken flies?”
His reproof seemed to have an electrifying effect on the crowd. A sudden hush befell the hopefuls as they simmered with their pulsating emotions, praying that the blunder should not cause the khaki boys to empty the cauldron to their detriment.
And there stood the cream of Nigerian scholars, panting and stretching away their lives in an unprecedented display of human self-preservation, waiting for the precise moment of the cue. There surely would come that long-awaited moment when, completely unannounced, the tall, dark sergeant would give the huge pot a push, causing it to slide a little towards the crowd. And then, all hell would be let loose as the squirming crowd unleashed themselves and their pent-up desire upon the remnant in the pot.
The boys had been well tutored on the waiting game. Like vultures in a bloody abattoir, they had imbibed the elusive art of patience. They had been taught to stand and to wait – learnt to scheme and to squirm and to entreat the young soldiers to just take pity and be humane enough to leave some remnants behind. Like students of telekinesis, they had been taught to concentrate on the pot and to continuously will the elusive manna to fall.
And there they thronged round the soldiers as they shared their food under the mango tree. There, their wide-open mouths drooled saliva, and their necks stretched and distended as they gazed at the fast diminishing food in the pot. Their hearts bled for the beans in the pot, not minding the jets of saliva that sluiced into it from the odorous mouths of the unkempt soldiers.
But some of the time, the situation turned terrifyingly hopeless, and this afternoon was bound to be one of them. By dint of some certain bad luck, the sergeant had decided to play possum and rather continued to drain the cauldron of its enticing content. With smouldering excitement, the comrades watched bemused as the food gradually drained in the pot. They could no longer help but begin to shuffle closer to the boiling epicentre.
“Epa!” Eme suddenly heard someone sniffle by his side. He turned and observed. It was Odion his friend: Odion, the Electrical Engineer, caught in a moment of aberration. What could he possibly be saying? Or was he uttering in tongues prayers meant to conjure the stern-faced sergeant into according him some advantage?
“Epa!” whimpered Odion once again, gazing suppliantly up at the tall sergeant.
It then occurred to Eme that Odion could as well be passing some very vital information to the sergeant. Oh, that was it! Odion was a Bini by tribe. The tall sergeant himself was a Bini by tribe. The twin mark on his gaunt cheeks was a telltale sign of that. Epa was a form of greeting amongst the Bini, and Odion had used it as a last resort to signal to the stern-faced sergeant that a son of his soil was drowning in the crowd and needed some help.
“Epa!” this time, the shriek came not from Odion, but from Eme. He could hardly recognize his own cry of agony as he took the cue from his friend, intending to draw the attention of the sergeant to his plight, even though he was not a Bini.
But the stern-faced sergeant was in no mood for any of such nonsense this afternoon. He never even deigned to look anybody’s way.
And that was when the unthinkable happened. Odion, in his wonted incontinence, lost grip of his control. In a sudden lunatic spasm, thinking that the soldiers had had enough, he lurched forward, tottered for a moment like an epileptic, and then pitched into the cauldron of beans on the floor. The force of his impact caused the sloppy stuff to spatter, soiling everyone’s clothes, including those of the soldiers. The khaki boys quickly took mastery of him. They dragged him by the ears out of the pot of beans. And since he had to come down hard on the pot of beans without the impediment of shame, the soldiers also had to come down hard on him without the impediment of mercy.
“A-beg, sir! A-a-ah, my ear – my ear!”
“Shut up! You will die today!”
“I didn’t know what I was doing! I swear, sir – A-beg!”
“Shut up! I say, you will hear something today!”
Pouncing on the podgy Electrical Engineer with the Charlie Chaplin moustache, the soldiers began to beat and kick and thrash him with their leather belts, while he lay prostrate on the crumb-ridden floor, yelling and thrashing his feet wildly in the air.
And finally when it was over, Odion, holding an empty plastic plate in his right hand, and a huge dessertspoon in his left, retired to his tumbledown cabin shivering, but not as much from rage as from hunger.
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