The beautiful thing about art is in its ability to explore every facet of life and present them in the most appealing way. This can be said of Chinyere Chukwudi-Okeh’s book From the Crevices of Corps Hearts. I personally have not read many books that talk about the National Youth Service experience the way this author is able to bring out stories about these experiences so well that people can relate to.
The Book is a collection of short stories, each carrying in it various meanings and many messages. The first story for me is the one with less twists and plots but is an apt summary of the experiences of corps members who are stepping out of their comfort zone for the first time. The opening paragraph unfolds this as Zainab takes her first step into the real world:
“We little cherished our sheltered lives at the University, and wanted as much from life as it demanded of us. Before admission we had craved to be enclosed within these academic walls; now we yearned to wander free-the walls had suddenly become an obstruction. We could hardly wait to be garbed in Khaki and addressed with such monikers as” Corper Shun”…” (P.3).
This encapsulates the desire of youths for freedom to be many things; to be recognized, to be seen and to be heard. The first story “Burdens and Bundles of Dreams” narrated by Zainab speaks of her entrance into a new world and its strangeness. It wasn’t much of a pleasant welcome as she felt the weight of her dreams crushed by the reality of filth, disorganisation and ugliness that characterized the environment she had to compulsorily enrol in as ‘prisoner’. “The only image that came to mind as we checked into the camp was that of prisoners on a queue, submitting their personal effects and sharp objects while being allocated to their cells…” (P.6).
Zainab like many others went in to serve her nation with so many strong feelings. “Amidst strong feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and a deep-seated passion to serve my nation, I carried my burdens and bundles, and set out on the much-awaited epic journey of national proportion.” (P.4). While some others like Ejiro and Ukali in the story “Mami Courage” went into this strange world with huge egos and full confidence (mostly derived from heavy alcohol consumption) that it would be just a walk in the park only to discover that nothing good really lasts long, at least by the standard of the Nigerian economy. Ejiro’s dream fell apart like the way he fell from the bike with a borrowed fake London suit on his way to get a job he thought would be a break from his harsh reality- joblessness.
For a character like Paulinus’ Baby in the story “Forests of Faeces and Chemistry”, Youth Service was a medium to explore sexuality, search deep into the recesses of her innermost desires and free herself from the shackles of the one who loved her but didn’t know how to express it. His constant show of love opened her up to hate and resentment. Youth Service was a means of finding meaning in the hands of mysterious strangers like Akwa-Ibom boy. The dream for an appealing romance ended in three weeks with her worst nightmare, Paulinus becoming what she wanted most. Three weeks of sweet eye-opening sex caused her to see what true love meant. It was not in sex. It was in loyalty.
Chinyere Chukwudi- Okeh brings out the inner conflicts of corps members; fears, dreams, hopes and weaves beautiful stories from them. Although, she spent a lot of energy trying to explain what she means rather than just allowing the reader unravel the meanings for himself/herself. For a first book, she deserves an applause for telling stories people easily forget. After all, it is just a one year exercise. However, she is able to show how this one year can make or mar the lives of many youths.
The book can also be seen as a clarion call for the government to step up its game in addressing the concerns of youth corps members. The awful state of the camps and terrible treatment of corps members by officials should be addressed. Unfortunately, this year for many corps members opened up with so many dreams but their reality is far from what they have ever imagined. Chukwudi-Okeh puts it succinctly in the first chapter of the book.
“As the days drew by, anxiety mounted upon uncertainty and made us wonder where our places of primary assignment would be. We all dreamt of good jobs and the corporate life. Every corps member desired to be well-posted but life is full of surprises and ironies. Not all graduates would find work in the oil industry, the banks… some would teach in villages, others would work without salary while others would be turned into errand boys and girls” (P.10).