Celebrating East African Writing!
Government system of services was quite a mess several years ago. Civil servants were hardly accountable. Government offices were a place one would spend hours in need of a service while members of staff idle and dilly-dally, maybe waiting for a bribe to work/or hasten service delivery. This is the story of my first day and reporting in a certain government college.
I arrived early that morning, dragging my huge suitcase behind me, a small iota of apprehension creaming with the larger dose of adrenaline in form of excitement. As I walked by, male and female students were moving up and down while talking in a myriad of ways….animatedly, softly, emotionally, loudly and some, discreetly.
I felt like all eyes were feasting on me greedily, like a small white cock in the middle of fat black hens.
The bored security personnel at the entrance gate hardly acknowledged me as I went through to the administration block. In the circular parking lot in front of the building, several makes of government vehicles were parked in tandem. To the far left was the college bus, an old drab-looking Leyland with peeling paint, dented fenders and on further scrutiny inside, seats that were fastened into position using ropes. A second bus was inform of a five ton Isuzu truck that similarly had peeling, rusted body and a shaky carrier.
Later, I learned the students had nick-named it KIbiriti – because in addition to having a face-me type of seats, its carrying container resembled a match box. Once again, I was not accompanied just like I have never been accompanied in any of my academic enrollment days.
I spent quite some time in the darkened administrative building waiting for people who were quite not in a hurry to report to work and quite not in a hurry to start working.
Apart from the drab security personnel, everyone else seemed to report late, half asleep, winded and nursing either some tall hang-overs or wisps of domestic squabbles and their effects. Then they would take an extra one or two hours moving up and down, greeting seemingly everyone familiar in the entire floor and the floor above.
Finally, the door to the registry was unlocked and half an hour later, some progress. The old chubby lady had been up and down, greeting colleagues, feasting, stoking and haggling on threadbare yester jokes and reminding them of an up coming burial, last weekend’s wedding, next merry-go-round and whatever other mass business while busying herself locating keys, files, books, folders and ledgers. After what seemed like hours, she finally took her worn out seat behind a wide clattered working table and gave a big sigh.
She must have been tired already.
I was the first one on the queue which had several others behind. I went in.
She had a tooth pick roaming in her mouth but I noted her concentration was roaming even further a field. She was seated behind the most confused working area I have ever seen in my life.Seemed every other junk, office gadgets, tools, old magazines, newspapers, nail cutters, cracked and stained make-up kit, nail files, bottle openers, tubes of jaded nail varnish/polish, over-filled ashtrays and whatever other manner of items were in a mix-up parade. She took an hour taking stock of each item while locating out those she couldn’t find.
Finally, almost at ten, work commenced.
“You are new and want to register?”
‘What is your name?”
“Where do you come from Gachuhi?”
“Njoro in Nakuru. It’s Gachugu not Gachuhi.”
“O.k. Gachuki, you said your first name is?”
“Boniface, Boniface Gachugu.”
From the confusing clatter of items, books, papers, tools and equipments on the desk, she plucked a dusty pen from a stained pen stand but realized it was not writing. I had imagined it wouldn’t. She shook it severally, tried again but it only left a faint un-continuous line on the faded blotting paper she was scribbling on. She pulled out yet another but this one was even more pathetic.
Slowly, noisily and magnanimously, she rose from her seat, her huge bulk making and causing an orchestra of noises; from the groaning seat she had been seating on, the sucking squelch of the upholstery, the creaking bones of her joints to the swishing noise her shift nylon dress made. She lumbered out, dragging the soles of her shoes noisily on the worn out wooden-tiled floor.Her skirts were still embedded in the crack of her buttocks.
“Let me borrow a pen from the next office.” She offered carelessly as she vanished through the door. Twenty minutes passed by. Thirty minutes….
One hour later, she came back; tooth pick intact on her mouth. She had no pen.
“You are new and want to register?”
“What is your name?”
“I see. You’ve said Gachuru?”
“No, GA-CHU-GU. Gachugu.”
“You see Gashogu…”
“It’s Gachugu not Gashogu.”
“Sorry I seem to forget a lot. So all I am telling you Gashogu is….”
“My name is….” There was no need repeating it to her anymore.
She took her seat with a loud sucking belch and started searching for a pen on her working table once again. She poised in a disturbed state. Her hand rose to her face and several hard bony fingers confronted and attacked the edge of her forehead onto which an old messy wig patched. Motes of dandruff particles immediately rose from the scalp of her head and took to the air in protest.
She tried the same inkless ballpoint pens she had tried earlier on. I was appalled by all this confusion. The old enormous mahogany desk was spilling with endless heaps of files, old books with falling pages, big brown envelopes, dog-eared magazines, hodge-podge pages of un-matching newspapers, an ashtray brimming with cigarette butts, a cranky looking push-the-numbers telephone and other endless junk.
“Where is this damned pen?” she muttered tapping on the papers covering a big portion of the desk. Great clouds of dust rose to the air as she continued tap-tapping on the great mounds of paperwork. In a disturbed situation, she dragged her shoes to a corner table and fished out an old faded thermos flask with a broken handle from a huge old basket. A plastic cup, similarly old followed. She poured herself a generous amount of tea.
I rummaged through my bag and gave her my pen. She opened and closed several filling cabinets behind her until she unearthed what she was looking for; a seemingly new yellow file. On the top left, it was indicated with a thick felt pen, reference code, DIP/AAI class 2002-2005.
She perused through with slow Machiavellian thoroughness.
“Your admission letter?”
I gave it to her. She thumped the file to the next available space and pen poised,
“What’s today’s date?” I told her.
“What is your name again?”
I was getting annoyed by all this pettifogging but patiently, I repeated my name again. She wrote it down in a spidery hand writing but my surname Gachugu was misspelled.
I corrected her…wrong! She looked up so sharply I feared she had been shocked by electricity on her rear. A bolt of fury squeezed her face into a tight sneer. The tooth pick dropped from the corner of her mouth in fear!
“I know exactly what I am doing, o.k.? I have been here a dozen years even before you were born.” She glared at me hard and unrelenting.
“Yes, but you have misspelled my name.” I offered fearfully.
In a harsh flourish, she spun the file round so it faced me and passed the pen to me. I corrected my name and passed it back.
“How old are you?” The toothpick was back and intact.
She wrote 28.
“What is your name again?”
“Boniface, Boniface Gachugu.”
“Do you have your I.D, your school leaving certificate and a bankers cheques of not less than half the school fees indicated Mr. ….Eh, what’s your name again?”
She was repeating what was indicated on the admission letter which I had thoroughly gone through.
It was almost eleven when I finally finished with the lady. I forgot to ask her to pass back my pen, it was that stressing.
Outside, there was a line of several others waiting for the same ritual. They looked so expectant I felt sorry for them. The next stop was the cashier’s place upstairs where I found quite another long queue of students. The cashier was said to have gone an hour before for tea break. She came back half an hour later and work started albeit slowly.
Halfway through, she went out, it was lunch time.
The queue broke out as the students too went out for lunch. Two at the dot I was there only to find a crowd of students, some who had opted not to go for the lunch break. The cashier came back lackadaisically some minutes to three and again the line snaked into the office slowly. When my turn came and I slunk into the tiny office, the cashier scowled at me tiredly and her head slumped slowly onto her open hands on the desk.
“I am so tired. All of you; come back tomorrow morning.” She mourned.
I stood there confused, not knowing what to do.
“Don’t you have ears?” She scoffed at me angrily when I hesitated to move.
Someone in the back of the office laughed aimlessly.
‘What do I do with this file?” I asked her. She glared at me with eyes that brimmed fires. She had trouble focusing on me yet I was less than a meter away from her.
“You reported today?”
“What have you been doing since morning, you should have brought your file and cheque immediately. What time is this now? Bring them immediately and never repeat that mistake again, understand?”
I passed down the file and the cheque through the metal grills that separated the office in two. After an endless process of calculations, rough scribbling on the file fees section and noisy tallying using a crumpled jaded calculator, she passed back the file and receipts with a tense instructions to take the file to the undersecretary for confirmation, stamp and verification.
I politely knocked on the door marked UNDERSECRETARY.
A heavy voice grumbled from inside. On entry, a huge bald man was sprawled onto a tormented swivel chair, swinging it in clockwise and anti-clockwise slow motions. Judging from the choked, strained, creaking and grating noises that the seat was making, it must have been many times beyond its recommended weight capacity. The man seemed to enjoy this immensely as the frequencies kept increasing. I suspected he similarly would have enjoyed a similarly small squeaky fart were he to deliver one right there and then. Half of his head was buried in an open newspaper.
Compared to the rest, the office was a bit tidy with an old roll-out printing machine draped in a green cloth and a big old-fashioned type writer stationed on a heavyset office table at a corner. A threadbare matt was stationed at the entrance.
I stood there waiting for him to acknowledge me but he seemed all busy. I shifted my legs… I cleared my throat…nothing. O. k, I can wait. An ancient-looking wall clock had its second hand doing an unusual magic of going round several paces clock-wise and more paces anti-clockwise. Sometimes it stopped all together and made choked jumpy nods.
After 5 or 10 minutes, the man shuffled the paper and asked without looking up.
“What do you want?”
I told him in the most polite language.
“What for, why would I do that for?”
I was completely at a loss on what to answer this man. Then the usual silly dumb questions started flowing ….what is your name? Where do you come from? Why? When? How?
I got so tired of this college there and then; of all these awkward questions, processes, procedures and people who seemed tired with their careers, occupations and lives.
This man, I could only see his larger than life bald with several defiant tufts of hair sticking up as if mimicking the very fate that had befallen the rest of the hair.
I hated the owner of that head there and then.
He seemed the kind that would easily dilly-dally with one thing the rest of their earning lives, given a chance.
Finally, almost hours later, I got confirmation and stamp from this slack under-secretary man whom hardly gave me a penny-worth glance. It was hard to imagine he was in that office because he was an administrator. What kind who does not even notice his subjects/clients? I took off from this over-fed silly man and his similarly pesky office.
From there, I was instructed as a by- the- way to proceed with the file to the kitchen buildings to the cateress office to be issued with a school meal card and accommodation items.
It was almost evening.
The kitchen was adjacent to a long drab dinning hall with long metal-framed tables and old broken down stiff plastic chairs confusedly arranged around them. The floor had several pot holes and numerous visible fillings on previous holes. An army of flies were buzzing and circling the tables in unchecked abandon.
Within the kitchen were half a dozen staff in the middle of a loud political argument while busy butchering cabbages, skinning potatoes, strangling carrots or stirring concoctions in enormous containers over a feisty gas fire. They were all dressed in stale white, from white gumboots to white puckered head caps. They hardly acknowledged my presence as I entered the kitchen. As I came to learn later, it was a kitchen that received endless visitors every day. I looked around and finally tip-toed to the office marked CATERESS that was adjacent.
The door was wide open. I came face-to-face with a fat sharp-eyed woman briskly eating large chunks of meat from a wide chipped melamine plate.
She looked up at me with sharp annoyance and had trouble swallowing what was already in her mouth before speaking in a voice that sounded like a hacksaw on hardwood.
“What exactly do you want here?”
I could only stammer my need. What was wrong with this place? Everyone was angry, impolite, brash and confrontational.
“What time do you come here asking for a meal card? Government offices do not work up to this time. You come in the morning or you don’t, do you hear?” She shouted and veins sprung on her fat neck and temples with the strain.
“But I will write you one since you are new. Wait outside.” She commanded.
I spent several minutes sitting outside on a rickety seat listening to the lady thoroughly attacking, munching and tearing apart pieces of meat with a strange, great gusto. After wards, she stretched magnanimously and released a fat belch accompanied by a tiny elongated fart…With her volume, size and density, the small fart was completely out of line.
Right on the cooking area, her staff was into the climax of their frenzied argument.
The talking had turned into a shouting match. But they continued working nevertheless and taut muscles and strained veins shot upon their skins. Right in her office, she telephoned someone to come and issue a mattress from the stores. Unfortunately, the key to the store was nowhere to be seen. The person who had a spare key was in the other compound across. Someone else was sent to look for the one with the spare key.
The process became more and more complicated a procedure by the minute.
By the time I was finally getting a thin stained worn-out mattress, it was late in the evening. The cateress was also mandated to allocate me a room and a bed. Armed with the mattress, I went back to her office to collect my meal card and be shown where to put up. In her mean annoyed mood, she stormed out of her office, called a passing male student and ordered him to find me a place to sleep.
This time, she had a giant thermos flask out of which she was occasionally pouring herself steaming tea into a large plastic mug. I was almost sure she normally spent her days fusing, fuming, eating, drinking, sweating and …
© Boniface Gachugu 2009. R.I.P Boniface Gachugu, friend, brother, comrade in words.