Celebrating East African Writing!
If you are in town in a perfect day of the year and see a stone-face that is not like other stone-faces you can bet you are looking at a person who is going for an interview- one that has made a profession out of interviews. Not that they are ushers or organizers but shortlisted candidates and desperate applicants who for one reason or another must lose –thanks to the interview panel.
This is why I wear stone-faces nowadays because I have to attend so many interviews. I apply for a job and then the Prometheus climb begins when I get shortlisted. And what do I proudly show? I am still jobless though I think I was always on the upper hand. It has to be either my presentation or the panel. I suspect the panel because with my qualification, I feel I am the right candidate. Let me put my case to you-and hope you can judge me fair.
I always pray to God before attending them. In fact, nowadays I yell because I think God won’t hear my petitions otherwise. Fate smiles my way and I am called for an interview. Bon chance! I encourage myself and think of my creative talent as I build my air castle before the interview panel.
I need cash at hand which my stingy aunt won’t easily part with. You see, she has already done so several times and she doesn’t forget the amount she gives you. She’s got a long-lasting memory like those video games that don’t forget your score. These days her love for me is equivalent to Mt. Everest; cold and there. She’s is indifferent to me as the lonely skies of the Antarctic. She gets irritated as easily as you get into bed. She’s is so unsociable and that explains why the only person who knows her name in the neighborhood is the milkman. But I don’t blame her; I should have left her house a long time ago. Besides the kith-and-kin nonsense doesn’t wash with me.
Some people have clad and clad that they get confused in the morning when it comes to what to wear. For me, though, I only have one piece of meat on my plate. I can’t choose, like my friends who have plenty of juicy meatballs floating damply in their plates. Never ask my type what clothes I will wear for what function. For I have no more shirts than backs nor more trousers than legs nor more shoes than feet—and sometimes more feet than shoes, for I can see my feet protruding from my torn shoes.
So I go to Sammie to hire one of his executive suits on credit. He’s the local estate suit Shylock. I have to be there very early; otherwise someone else would borrow my favorite suit. He normally insists you have to make an advance booking but my interview schedules are not programmed- besides I have no money. I should also take care of the suit while in my possession (like avoiding the misbehaving sky) otherwise I would include laundry charges as well. He’s young and jobless like me but has invested in suit-lending business when he realised the high demand.
His brother sells suits coming from a Nairobi tailor who ordinarily cuts and sews for none below the status of a minister. Sammie is also our favourite referee and for that purpose, he has two different addresses (Prof. Phillips for educational and Mr. George for personal), three different phone numbers, (when you call him, he has three vocal cords-a man’s, a woman’s and an old-man’s) many ghost websites and multiple email addresses. Depending on how much you pay him, good old Sammie is willing to recommend you.
I get Sammie. He’s with Onyii- a familiar and former college mate. He’s going for an interview too but he doesn’t reveal where. They are holding a mock interview. He is inside my favorite suit, he looks as gorgeous as statue, and he might have been erected by a Leonardo da Vinci.
‘So tell us something about yourself.’ Sammie asks him.
He assumes the humblest expression and recites thus: ‘Oh, Lord of Minutes and Centuries. Allow me the privilege and pleasure to introduce myself. My names are Mr. Ecclesiasticus Lamentations Onyango Ongonya Maji Marefu…’
But he doesn’t finish the dramatized recitation. Sammie is on him. ‘That ceremonious name won’t do! It’s intolerably cumbersome. It’s like carrying a donkey on your shoulders-such a name sounds good only on a gravestone.’
I add warily that there was no thought of pleasing the panel when he was christened such a tombstone family name.
‘But that’s an honorable and a brave title in my clan.’ Onyii protests. ‘It literally means ‘‘the-noble-one-who-killed -lions.’’ And that’s my grandfather. He killed so many tribes of lions.’
‘The panel doesn’t give a rap for your stories. The world is full of the so-called nobility nowadays, riff-raffs who take advantage of their own insignificance to imagine the earliest illustrious titles that pops up into their dreams.’ Sammie dismisses.
‘Where do you come from?’
‘I live in a leaking hovel where lizards, mice and bats enjoy such first-class but highly unharnessed democratic rights and freedom to an extent where...’
‘Answer the question correctly. What is your clan?’
‘I am clanless. I come straight from the heart of the people.’
‘Fool! Don’t you want to know if the boss is from you clan?’
‘We insist on cleanliness in this office. Did you wipe your shoes on the doormat when you came in?’
‘Yes I did’. Onyii states.
‘We also insist on honesty! Where did you wipe your feet when we don’t have a mat outside?’ Sammie laughs at the cornered Onyii.
‘Your CV says you used to bell the ring. I think you meant ring the bell.’ Sammie
apparently, I think it’s true he belled the ring-the CV doesn’t cheat!’ I tease.
‘Next question,’ I take my turn, ‘Do you feel qualified for the position of the chief humorist in our company?’
‘Yes, I do. Never has civilization of centuries summed up and assessed in one man. I have a gift of expanding the smallest amount of joke into the largest dose of laughter. I have advanced further through the dense forest of humour from primary school right to the university. I’ve confronted all the hidden dimensions of humour studies; I was always hungry for humourous information. I read humour books, sifting through propaganda for facts, underlined a great deal, scribbled questions in the margins, asked questions openly. I was always the smartest boy with knowledge of humour words than a pocket sized dictionary. That is why I was elected the Research Fellow department of Gallows Humours because of my outstanding qualification.’
‘That won’t do! Sammie cuts in. You fancy yourself a humour writer but you are merely caught up in the rituals and ideas of mongering rumours than the tangible practice of writing humour. The panel has noticed that you are trying to make too much of your humourous tragedy, which is as exciting as a belching competition.’
‘So where do you see yourself in five years time?’ I put in.
‘Of course, sitting myself where you are sitting your fat...’
‘You are just another ambitious author writing up with a rush. I warn you! You can never be a CEO after just five years.’ I put him off and add,
‘Work out too on your hobbies - you don’t reveal to the panel that you’re a member of ‘Legalise Local Brew Pressure Group’ or declare that you dislike sliced water melons simply because they remind you of John the Baptist’s head. That’s silly, don’t you think so?’
‘When is your birthday?’
‘I have no birthdays. Ah… I really don’t know the exact dates because mine was a stillbirth, which happened next to our granary in our village and was wrapped in pumpkin leaves.’
‘You are a silly lying goose; 450 feet of lying. Your CV states that you were born in January 1798.’
‘Then apparently it has to be true as the CV never lie?’ I joke.
‘That’s your choice date since your updated CV has yet another date.’ Sammie informs him.
‘How old did you say you were?’
‘I didn’t say.’ Onyii puts in cleverly.
‘I didn’t think you did. If you had, I wouldn’t have asked you again, because I would have remembered.
But I can calculate 1798 to present!’ Sammie breaks into a mad laughter.
But I don’t. I’ve always wondered why the interview panel would ask obvious questions and some times suddenly fail to understand the simplest words and imagine deafness. The chairman would inquire what day of the week it is. Poor me, I would respectively inform him, ‘To-day is Friday, Mr. Chairman.’
‘Eh! What? What did u say?’
Sammie dismisses Onyii, ‘you can never get the job; you haven’t the invention of a cockroach. You haven’t the street wisdom of chicken, no sterner stuff in you.’ But I suspect Sammie may be wishing that Onyii doesn’t get the job so that he could still hire the suits.
Sammie wants to give me his advice- he has more that the devil got sinners- but I am anxious not to get jammed in any conversation that would delay my voyage. I put on one of the remaining suits and it makes me look like a Second Century Roman Centurion appearing in a movie scene wearing a Rolex watch and Calvin Klein sunglasses.
I am excited as I hop into a Matatu that is so slow- it couldn’t have trotted a race with toad. It’s hot and bumpy; and crowded and too noisy and more than anything I wish to alight but can’t do that because it’s still twenty miles to town. Well, I could get off there and then if my borrowed suit won’t get soaked in sweat, and besides, even if I rode fifty more years and alighted then, it couldn’t be much further from where I boarded it. That’s why I notice idlers who watch everything that happens in the street as if though they own it, or may be owned by it.
I recoil, shut myself in my mind (I disappear into my inner self-where I spend more time nowadays) and try to concentrate, consoling and assuring myself that I qualify for the job I am going for. I am as cocksure as a hen is, that is, without knowing anything about it. I had dropped my CV around; dug for the classified information about the company I was seeking employment in a kind of an anxious dream that was still full of sureness.
I alight at the GPO where it looks like there is a conference in one of the telephone booths and I would say there is plenty of room. Crowds of people spill out from the office into the pavement staring or hoping to be stared at, according to their age. My legs wobble in the street with the energy levels of a starving village dog. Even the sky is overcast as if in discouragement and pours heavily down onto the tall buildings a very discouraging light (my stone-face doesn’t help much either). It is true what my grandfather said: ‘that all villagers who disappeared were said to have been seen at this one big concrete jungle, which possesses all the attractions of the world next.’
I meet a stone-faced security officer standing solid as a bank building. I will be polite to reveal to you that his evil looks would not win him so much as a goat for a bride and even that would be downplaying his features. He could naturally act, of course, in a horror movie without requiring a mask because his face, one third black with temper, and two thirds mean with his usual personification of ugliness, suits him for the role of an undertaker. That’s why before I could sign up my name, he barked at me that the interview was over and turned away to heighten my distress. He achieves the desired dramatic effect because then my heart sinks, as they say, into my boots.
‘But it can be fixed.’ He reminds and almost throws me another stone-face smile. ‘I can let you in at your own expense.’ Of course I hate people who keep their brains in their stomach and wallets. I want to protest but experience had taught me that it was better to give in rather than complicate further the situation. The last security officer had dismissed me when I vowed to bring him trouble: ‘Trouble? Trouble! But young man! You know that is my middle name.’ That had shut me up.
I meet almost twenty characters sitting obediently at the reception where they had been ushered in three hours before, looking like fairy princes waiting for their sedans and Volvos to arrive. I prefer to stand as I don’t want the borrowed suit to crease. Old company newspapers and pamphlets are strewn all over the table. One or two even pretends to be absorbed in a magazine- impossible, as it is to concentrate enough when you are worried about the impending interview. Besides, the tense atmosphere in the room is darkened further by the gloomiest stone-faces in town. Our joblessness surrounds us like an element and we decide not to pretend to like each other- good old rivalry of course!
There is this one with a tattered brown envelope- an eye sore among eyesores– and it’s an insult to the outrageous overstatement of the weighty and heavy fifty-page certificates and CV I carried in my briefcase. There is also this curious tall girl whose dress looked as if it had been designed in a rage and put on in a tempest. If she had tried to look picturesque, she had only succeeded in being untidy. As for her nails (why? they were only fit for an exhibition). Then there is this one who was wearing a shapeless blouse and skirt, without make-up, at whom forty nine out fifty people would not look twice. (And I think I was among the first to detect her) I also noticed a tall girl whose first experiment with make-up hadn’t worked that well. The dark outline shadow and the pink lipstick with her dark features don’t help.
But this is unbelievable! Onyii walks in. I look at the clock in the waiting room’s wall and it’s some fourteen minutes past two o’clock of a dead and forgotten day and time. He goes on to enact a ‘glad-to-ave-metcha!’ refrain with the other candidates. We all always enact this superficial acting when we just pretend to be pleased to see someone while deep down-given a chance- we are plotting how to cut the brake cables of their car.
But Onyii is full of humour. He justifies his lateness. That he is always late on principle- his belief being that punctuality is the stealer of time. ‘My old man says: “Hurry! Hurry! Get there tomorrow. Take time get there today”‘. Although later on he reveals to me the real reason. ‘I encountered a little complication in the Nairobi Swamp…’
‘Nairobi Swamp? What the…!’ I am confused.
‘I had to get the job charm which the witchdoctor prescribed -catch frogs in the act- which it required, and that had been difficult because those little creatures are slippery and fast.’ He explains.
It’s my turn to laugh because I knew the cunning witchdoctor who always bragged on TV that his mother was the greatest, and one so strong that could control the moon, make flows and ebbs, among other pompous abracadabra-jiberijee.
I am ushered into the interview room and nearly bump into the nails-for-display girl. She’s grumbling that her interview took less time than it takes a fly to blink. She complains that she has been shortchanged apparently by the panel. She’s rumbling like a volcano that is about to become active and almost composing a little song about it. This attracts the panel leaving me only with a leftover of attention and I stand there for a whole minute as she delivers her hot lava.
‘What panel’, she screams, ‘your talent is wasted as panelists! You really ought to be with the FBI in Guantanamo. You accursed lot. You used me, you scoundrels! You will pay for this.’ The security come in and carries her high-out. But not before she curses the panel: ‘cucullus non facit monachum- you are honest in nothing but your clothes.’ Encouraged, the security men use force on her, so much so that even the panel is scandalized and seem to agree with me that it was excellent to have a giant’s strength but tyrannous to use it like a giant. I am just about to wish her to enjoy her miserable – but, it’s an office of the gods to avenge, not mine to speak of it.
I sit down and stare into the wall in my bid to avoid the stare of the panelists, a poster exaggerates on the wall, and ‘we do like to make our visitors to feel at home.’ I feel like shouting back at it, ‘you obviously haven’t seen my home.’ There are two ladies and four gentlemen in the panel. I tense a bit and feel like an atheist coming face to face with two lightning goddesses and three vengeance gods and the god in charge of allocating wrath. The youngest though is busy chatting on the MSN as I hear the incessant chat-alert sound from his laptop and his perennial pressing at the Enter button, which confirms my suspicion that indeed he’s dispatching a message to the world next.
I make out the most expensively dressed man with a diamond ring to be the chairperson and as if in this realization, a ghost of smile passes between the face of this big man. He is very old and I wonder how he has escaped all these years from being mown out of office by the sickle of time. He wants to shoot straight his questions but my sixteen-page CV and the over thirty pages of certificates and testimonials delay his measured scrutiny...
‘Mr. Round Square Chumoto: B.A., Ancient and Modern Humour Writing from Royal Institute of Writing, M.A., Humour Studies. Awards achieved; Honorary Humour Warrior two years running, overall winner; Lord of Humour Prize. Positions held; Dean of the Faculty Humour Mongering, Research Fellow Gallows Humours from the International University of Humour Geniuses, Secretary University Humours and Jokes Committee.
‘And extraordinary Course Units too you have studied, young man,’ he went on with his analysis, ‘Introduction to Kitchen Humours, Bedroom Humours I and II, Theory of Bathroom Humours, Campus Humours, etc, etc.
‘And you have written lots of stories. We’ve previewed your four satirical plays, two novels and several short stories. I especially liked ‘Cultural Gymnastics’. I laughed out loud….and it felt good. It reached all the way down to the bottom of my shoes.
‘I must say I am very impressed Mr. Round Square Chumoto. So tell us, what was your early training in writing humour?’
‘Unhappy childhood,’ I snap.
‘Did you have an unhappy childhood?’
‘Yes, I did. My parents never loved me. In fact when I was born I had to find my way home from the hospital.’
I score a point because I can see the face of the lightning goddess lightening with a faint smile. But I am wrong. She prods, ‘describe how your unhappy childhood experiences sharpened your skills in humour.’
I falter and shake like a grasshopper in the hands of John the Baptist. I stare hard at the panel. How could I even begin to describe it? But say my life depended on it, say my life was being threatened by an insane guy who said I had to do it, or else?
‘I took my early training in humour out of poetry, drama and comedies. I found my humour in Shakespeare plays. Lips that Shakespeare taught to speak have whispered their secrets of humour into my ears. I have had the arms of Rosaline around me, and kissed Juliet on the mouth.’
‘Surely that’s a line from Shakespeare,’ she pursues further haunting me like a greyhound. ‘Have you been on the stage a lot then?’
‘Yes, a lot. The last time I was on stage, laughter was heard a mile away’.
‘Oh yeah? What was there?’ I don’t answer the question but go on impeccably.
‘They still talk of my Cyrano de Bergerac. I am sure nobody has ever performed the Second Scene of Act Two with more dedication.’
‘But,’ the all-knowing goddess strikes again, ‘I thought Cyrano wasn’t supposed to be in that scene’.
‘Yes. But the glue on my long nose got stuck on my villain’s sword when I swung, and had to lie on stage for fifteen minutes with my nose stuck to the heavy sword on the floor. Even so I never moved a muscle.’ The chatting god throws an amused glance at me for a second.
I could see sleep creeping at the chairman’s eyes, coiling itself around his brain for he was nodding unnecessarily. The wrath god next to him was following suit because he looked like he had one foot in the land of sleep and the other on a slippery banana skin. Only the lady, now filing her nails, and two of the panelists listened passively to my tale as I delivered the words like a well versed actor. Condescension and disapproval blended with certain amount of pity, some cold numbness, the enchantment which Portia felt towards the Moroccan Prince, was working on them as they bombarded me with questions.
‘Coming closer home, Mr. Round Square Chumoto, what would your vision for this company be?’
‘To write bluntly through telling stories. I will outdo the Decameron and the 1001 Nights. What Shakespeare did, I will do better.’
‘Do you have any commitments as a writer?’
‘I failed in politics. That is why through my writing I am on a quest to find out why the people never made it possible for me to be a Member of Parliament so as to own a lavishly customised and fashioned fuel guzzler like those I see during the national celebrations. That’s why my razor sharp pen and written words will tear those influential figures in the government to shreds. I will not excuse their extravagantly furnished villas along the beaches nor their air-conditioned limousines purring along on petrol paid by the tax-payers.’
I could see the still awake panel chasing after me (they were no longer following me). They had lost me as I kept to my impressive talk in a worn out poetical fashion leaving them still with the intolerable wrestle with words and meaning. They also looked less familiar with the mysterious jungles of English humour. Soon however I think their interest was transferred from what was being explained to the one who was explaining. It was very much like being mad, only it was worse because one was aware of it. But I went on never groping shamefacedly amongst my democratic feelings.
‘I will write about dishonest officials who abuse their key positions to feather their own nests. I will write about under-qualified persons appointed to over-paid posts, particularly poli-tricks. I despise these merchants of poli-tricks. So hypocritical, prattling with pompous verbiage, strung together by Machiavellian technical consultants, and sprinkled with misleading statistics to give impression of seriousness and truth.’
‘Tell us something about your interpersonal skills.’ It was the turn of the wrath god.
‘I am a very social person. I have over three thousand Facebook friends among them celebrities, opinion makers and politicians. I always advise Uncle Bob on matters of policy. I turned down, however, his offer that I should become an honorary citizen so that I can deliver my services profesionally. I do speeches for Mu-7 and often chat with Col. JJ War Plane. I am tagged in a picture with Mwammar in his profile portrait as we unveiled the United States of Africa vision in Addisville—what used to be the capital of Ethiopia. I am in constant touch with Cousin Obama…’
When the last question came, and the interview ended, I let out my breath. It seemed I had been holding it for all the time. My borrowed suit was wet. I may have looked as though I had been sitting in a steam-bath, all dressed up, all afternoon. But how did I fare? That’s the most interesting part.
When the chairman (his set time-beeper went off) and the other panelists fully awaken, they take turns to advise me about my aspiration to become the Chief Humourist in the company.
‘You are just ambitious growing up with a rush young man. We strongly urge you in good spirits to be aware that your head could bump abruptly against the low ceiling of your actual possibilities. Good humour comes naturally. One does not prod or poke it like you are trying to. We are afraid to disappoint you, but truth be told- you still have a long way to go before you call yourself a humour writer.’
‘But I am a humour writer and have first-class stories to tell.’ I protest.
‘We can see there is something there if you can get it out…’
‘But you tell them badly, your metaphors bump into each other.’ The chatting god adds. ‘You use aging munitions from the dump of dispensational literature. That ‘pedestrianism’ doesn’t work.’
They all look as if they had been prepared for this moment, and they chatter amongst themselves as if I was no longer there, and deal my ‘pedestrian’ writing an immortal blow (like when someone talks behind your back even though you are right in front of them). They didn’t mince words. ‘Huge translation of hypocrisy! Vilely compiled! Profound simplicity!’ There was no polite formula to summarily dismiss what I held dear.
‘If he is entirely serious about writing humour then seriousness would overcome all obstacles.’
‘Many people write badly at the start and this young man’, the wrath god agrees, ‘is extremely serious that he must have something. But he requires talent-another absolute of writing humour.’ The goddess informs the chairman who sadly adds, ‘his style is dreadfully dowdy-reminds me of a badly bound Hymn Book.’ The gods enact a harmonic uproar. ‘He shouldn’t let the unimaginative mind be a place whose occupants are separate thoughts. That is not humour in the least…’
I think I am done. A hard lump settles in my dry throat as they tear me to pieces without a shred of tenderness. I am troubled at the loss of all my years of humour study. I see them like pages torn from a book, strewn over the concrete jungle and the useless advice is too much for me. I feel like stomping out of the office like my sweet ‘nails-for-display’ girl because their advice doesn’t help me more than the dust we sweep out of our back doors.
‘We’ll get back to you. Go home young man. Is there anything else you want to say?’ The chairman dismisses me when I hesitate.
‘Nothing. Thank you for having me.’ I mumble and want to add. ‘Except that the clothes you’re wearing could keep a jobless man for a year and the ring on your finger—which I think is gold?—is fuelling fighting in Eastern DRC.’ But I don’t.
I feel that I have given away my whole soul for people who treat it as if it were a flower to put in their coat, a bit of decoration to charm their vanity, an ornament for New Year’s Day. I lower my head low, hardly finding the strength to stand. My one dream-my vision of myself as the Chief Humourist and great writer-has been wiped out and tears poured, umpteenth time.
I conclude that among the interview panel are brilliant and gifted people- I see -but many of them, also, are imbeciles and ignoramuses, and I had the fault of listening to them all with equal consideration- confusing my lack of bigotry with human feeling, thinking that we share similar goals—and that’s my undoing. I should not take their advice seriously. But again, I am also a fool. I went to schools, read books, but missed the page which said that there were no more jobs - all had been taken up!
I should give up on interviews. I have told my heart that but I lose every argument. I don’t know why I even go back to attend more interviews. There’s something about me when I enter the office, walk in the street – that represents joblessness-my clothes, my manners, my type; but if joblessness is bulky empty pocket in which an occasional chink resounds, then that chink must at least be audible. What I hope the interview panel to do is give me my due and get me out of joblessness. But as most interview panels are capricious and some of them holy terrors, surely my aspirations would bump against the low ceiling of my actual possibilities, as the wrath god aptly proclaimed from his dark sky.
They are not human. They look like men and they walk on their hind legs like men, and they talk and you can understand them, or you think so, at least now and then. But when it comes to normal human feelings and sentiments of human beings, they might just as well be damn ogres.
And for all those interviews, I kept waiting. I constantly checked my email- so did Sammie, I left my cellphone on 24-7. I kept watch, and I haven’t stopped till this day. Perhaps it is verbal kindness from those generous monsters when they promise that they will get back to you. It’s equally painful every time I read in the newspapers that ‘only shortlisted candidates would be notified’.