Celebrating East African Writing!
Hi. My name is Jessica but my friends (who are very few) call me Jezzie, while my enemies – a constituency of them – call me Jezebel. I am 25 years old and HIV positive. My mission is simple – to give back to society what it gave me.
It was bound to happen but I did not expect it this soon. Today, I receive my termination letter from my immediate boss, a woman of small stature but fiery tempers.
“Please come to my office right now,” is the message I receive when she calls my extension. It is the first thing in the morning and I have not even unpacked.
I make way to the ivory tower, knock, let myself in and wait to be told to sit down. The offer does not come and the woman does not move her gaze from the computer.
“Take your letter,” she says coldly. “Pass by the accounts office to get your dues.” The month has just begun and there are hardly any dues.
I gather courage. “I hope this is not about the rumours that have been going round about me hitting on your hubby,” I say.
She swivels her chair and for the first time turns to face me. She stands up, hardly any height to talk about, but the fire in her eyes make up for the lack of height. The skirt suits make her look executive but the brown sun tanned weave on her head lets her down immensely.
“Get out before I call security. You are no longer an employee in this firm,” she hisses.
I get the message and walk out slowly but being one to always have the last word, I turn and shout, “I will get him. And I will make you suffer.” It is a promise, not a threat. It is not my fault that the hubby has been making passes at me! I did not ask to be born beautiful.
I bang the door and walk to my station. Two security personnel are already there to make sure that I do not take anything belonging to the company.
“Cowards, why two of you?”
They keep quiet and watch as I put all my belongings in a Nakumatt paper bag. Off I go, ending seven months as a receptionist in the firm.
I make a call to the hubby, Mr.Matano. “I have just been fired because of you! Will you pay my rent?”
“Please call me later, I am in a meeting,” he lies easily, just like all men when they are cornered.
Sooner than later, I will get you my friend. The world is a marble.
The landlord has sent the caretaker to remind me that the rent is overdue. I have already exhausted my one month deposit as agreed in the rules and regulations.
The poorly built and hurriedly finished block of 32 flats are a nightmare: water shortages, power surges, electricity rationing, cracks in the wall, broken pipes characterise the flats. It is only poverty that makes one stick to a cramped one bedroomed house.
“It’s bad,” I tell the caretaker as he looks pityingly at me. “I lost my job yesterday.”
“Sorry about that but I am just following instructions,” he tells me. Nice fellow, a rare thing in Kenya nowadays.
“Mom,” the screeching voice of Didi, my 4 year old son cuts across the house. “When are we going to start school?”
“Yes!” screeches Titi, Didi’s twin sister, “we are the only children in this area who do not go to school.”
“Tomorrow,” I lie to them.
Titi is the first one to counter. “Everyday you say tomorrow, tomorrow. Ai!”
I have to do something. This is beyond embarrassing. Tomorrow I will take them to at least three schools and tell them to choose the best one. That will buy me time. I am tempted to call the kids’ father to assist with the payment of the twins’ school fees. But what is the use of calling someone who has never bothered with his kids ever since conception?
“That is not my pregnancy,” were his words when I told him that I had missed my periods.
“You are the only man I have been sleeping with,” I had told him.
“What proof is there?”
That had sealed our fate. I just do not understand men. So sweet when they want to bed but so beastly when it comes to responsibility. It is something that has made me very wary of them.
I hesitate before dialling his number off head since I deleted it from my phone book but for whatever reason, the number is still within my system.
As quickly as I dial the number, I cancel it. My pride will not allow me to stoop that low. Maybe some day I will fix him. For now, I will tough it out with whatever there is.
“Mum!” shrills Titi again. “There is no bread or sugar!”
I move to the kitchen to survey the situation. It is worse than Kalahari Desert.
“Wait here, I will come back with something,” I tell the kids. I walk out to oblivion.
Kids choose the wrong time to be sick. Didi has a throat infection, judging from the chesty cough he is producing. His fever is rising. A look at my house infirmary reveals only empty bottles that cannot even be squeezed for a quarter teaspoon of medication.
I send a ‘Please Call Me’ to Mariam, a cousin and bosom friend who has seen me through thick and thin. She calls me back on the office line.
“I need some money to buy medicine for Didi,” I tell Mariam.
“No problem, pass by the office any time,” she responds.
Anytime for me is right away. But I don’t even have a single coin in my handbag. I go for the kid’s piggy bank. Didi hears me meddling with the bank.
“Mom, you have not paid back the money you took the other yesterday!” he hoarsely shouts from the living room. True, I have not refunded the kids’ money but I will do so one fine day. Promise.
Within half an hour I am in Mariam’s office and she gives shs.1000 which is more than enough. Mariam is God sent. Apart from her crazy lifestyle and her preference of dating women instead of men, Mariam has a heart of gold.
“Call this number. They, Poverty Line, are looking for a receptionist immediately,” Mariam tells me.
“Good luck Jezzie!”
I debate on whether to go to that place right away but my dressing does not allow. I trudge back home with the kids’ medicine and food under wraps.
While at home, my mum ‘flashes’. I know what she wants.
“Yes mum,” I call her.
“I am not well. My blood pressure medicine is finished and I need to buy another stock,” she tells me.
I am the one who is always burdened with these problems.
My siblings are just a messy disgrace. My three brothers, all over 25 and still living in mum’s house, are a total manifestation and classical case study of what useless men are. They do not have jobs, cannot keep any job that you get for them, depend on women for upkeep (my mum, their girlfriends and I) and worst is that they feel nothing about it.
I have one brother who is studying for priesthood. He is different, though financially he is out of the family equation of contribution.
Then there is my nephew, my sister’s 19 year old son, who has joined his uncles’ in this state of utter worthlessness. He has gone a step further and is now selling stuff from my mother’s house.
“Okay mum, I will come and sort out the medicine. But you need to kick those grandfathers from your house,” I tell her.
She is quiet. One of these days I will come and physically throw them out. Watch me.
The caretaker is back and this time he looks stressed. He is wearing the same clothes he had yesterday. His hair is uncombed and I guess it has to do with the stress.
“The landlord says he’ll bring auctioneers on Saturday,” he tells me solemnly, his eyes not meeting mine.
“I will have something by then. Trust me!”
He pities me; I know how mean and merciless the auctioneers are. I have seen them in action before and it is not a pretty sight.
The job offer from Mariam is still pending. They said they will get back to me to fix an interview time and date. But if they needed someone straight away, why wait? Maybe I should call them, just to find out if the position has been filled. It is the same story of silence from the other places.
Wa, I need money badly!
“Mama Didi, there is no food for dinner,” announces my house girl, whom I am yet to pay last month’s salary. She looks fed up but I guess she has no where to go at the moment. I am lucky that so far she does not have many relatives around. Apart from her Sunday church going and her visits to her grandmother after that, she is generally content with staying indoors. But I have seen house girls come and go and I know their ‘use by date’ is not more than six months.
I cannot go to the kiosk man for more credit because I have not settled last month’s bill. In fact I have been using a different route to get to the house, but I know that will come to an end soon. The kiosk man will pay me a visit and demand his dues. He has done that before.
The day is coming to an end and still no phone call from any of the places I had applied. I cannot sleep.
“Mom, we don’t eat meat any more, why?” Shouts Didi.
“The housemaid says the cows are on strike!” replies Titi.
“Moo, moo,” replies the naughty Didi. We all laugh.
Another ‘flashing’ from mum and this time I do not call. She flashes again and again but I neither have credit to call nor money to buy her the medicine. I dare not place my phone on mute lest the interview call comes.
I await the call.
Morning. I look at my phone’s screen awaiting that call. They have to call! They have to! My face does not leave the screen, just in case.
The call finally comes at 9am and I jump almost throwing the phone away.
“Yes, this is Jessica speaking.” I try to be calm but my heart is racing faster than a MaClaren car.
“10am. One minute late and forget the job,” comes the lady’s voice on the other side.
I have no time for arguments. I shower, dress and leave the house within 15 minutes. Men are right when they say that women take too much time getting ready.
There is no lunch for the kids so this better be good.
I pray that there is no traffic jam, but usually from my place in Ganjoni to the CBD takes less than 15 minutes.
I am in the office by 9:45am.
The moment I walk into the office, the secretary sneers and I guess it must have to do with my stunning beauty – which I take after my mum, a former national beauty queen.
“What do you want?” she asks. Her dressing, contrasted to mine, is casual. A white sleeveless top exposing her gaping cleavage is what she has on show.
“I am here to see Mr. Kombo,” I reply a bit nervously.
Another sneer, top to bottom inspection and I am ushered into Mr. Kombo expansive office. It is a red wall to wall carpeted room with matching curtains and black leather seats to complete the elegance. I am sure he did not design this office. It’s too feminine.
“Welcome, my dear,” Mr.Kombo tells me as he puts his hand round my shoulder and guides me to the resting lounge of his office.
“Thank you,” I croak. I actually do have butterflies, my palms are sweaty and my lips dry. I try to act composed but it is not coming out right.
“I was expecting you yesterday at 10am,” he says casually.
I almost choke on my saliva.
“I got the call today at 9am,” I tell him nervously.
“It’s okay, at least you are here. Drink?” he asks as he opens the mini fridge in his office. An array of exotic hard and soft drinks line up the chests in the fridge.
“Apple juice will do.” Safe mode is best option here, though a black Smirnoff ice would definitely cool my nerves.
“So, Jessica, how much salary are you expecting?” Mr.Kombo asks.
Oops, I am not expecting that. Mariam has drilled me not to mention figures but to play a mind game. Not now, with the landlord breathing down my neck and the kids starving, I have to mention a figure.
“Shs.20 000,” I blurt out and almost regret it. That is three times what I was earning at my former place.
He does not flinch. Instead a cunning smile spreads across his face.
“You could earn more, you know?” He half asks and half informs me.
“How?” I naively ask.
“You are a woman,” he says simply as he downs his drink.
I pause. Suddenly the sight of my starving twins appear in front of me. The house girl, the landlord, the size of the house, the meat all dance in front of my eyes.
“How much more?” I ask, quickly adapting his style of play!
He seems happy with himself that I have understood the nature of the game.
“Double,” he says. Another winning smile almost knocks me off the chair.
I want to jump in excitement but maintain the presence of mind to take him on.
“Triple,” I say jokingly, looking at him sensuously, my pale thighs, crossing and uncrossing to give him a peek at my legs.
“Deal,” he says rather quickly either because he does not want the figure to go higher or because of other circumstances.
“You start today at 2pm. But I start now.”
He leads me to a back door where there is a tiny office with a bed, toilet and showers. And that is where I sign my contract, without protection. I do not care as I am shs.60 000 richer on a monthly basis. Who was it who said that 75% of NGOs money goes to paying salaries? Poverty Line is no exception.
I started work as a receptionist but had to ask for half my salary as an advance. Mr.Kombo agreed, though he said that the notice was too short. I explained to him the problem and he told me he would sort me out.
The caretaker, wearing the same clothes for the 3rd day in a row, comes in early in the morning with 5 mean and nasty-looking goons. I am not sure whether the sweaty stench and tight T-shirts is part of the job. They stink. They scare. They are ugly. Why the shovels, pangas and crow bars? Crude Kenyans.
“I have the money,” I tell the caretaker as I place Kshs.7000 of crisp notes in his hands. He thanks me profusely and walks away a happy man, both for himself and myself. A rare Kenyan indeed.
“Please wait!” I instruct and go ahead to give him shs.1000 extra for himself and then place shs.200 in each of the 5 goons. The expression on their face is priceless.
“Thanks mum!” they at least have the decency to express their gratitude.
I reach the office by 9am and find Mr.Kombo alone. He explains to me that Saturdays is his day to be alone in the office and catch up with the paper work. I like Mr. Kombo and it does not take much convincing to go to the back room where we spend the whole morning making love – minus protection. He is quite agile for a man his age.
I spend the afternoon moving houses. There isn’t much to pack and Mariam and a few of her friends come in handy in helping out. The new houses are bigger, though the compound has only one block of 8 flats, with another separate smaller block of servant quarters, which, are not part of the deal.
The house is a 3 bed-roomed master ensuite. Finally, the kids do not have to share bedrooms with the house girl.
Didi is excited at the prospects of a new and bigger house. Titi is over the moon about her new room.
“We can play football here, yes?” Titi says as she looks at the size of her room.
“Don’t you dare!” I jokingly shake my fist at her. It does not take long to set everything in place and I look at Mariam and give a hug.
“Careful, my girl,” she warns me as my hug spills over to become a ‘thank you’ expression.
“You don’t know what this means to me,” I tell her.
After many years of dodging the church, I finally find myself going to thank God for the heaven sent gift. It looks different, less men and more women. The dressing of the youth has changed a lot. And there is too much dancing and shouting. The songs are funkier, the youth rockier, and the dressing scantier. This is not the church that I left some ten years back.
After church, I take the kids out for lunch at Kenchic.
“Mom did you rob a bank?” asks Didi rather too loudly for everyone to hear.
“Mom, I want that naked hen,” shouts Titi as she points to the somersaulting chicken.
The kids eat heartily and after that we take a cab to Splash Waterworld for a swim. You don’t get a chance to spoil yourself so often.
I would not trade anything in life for the laughter and squealing of kids at play.
It is here that I meet Abdul, a talkative but extremely interesting character. I like him. He likes me. We exchange contacts and promise to get in touch.
It’s been a tough but rewarding week.
© Clifford Oluoch 2009. Around Kenya In 9 Provinces.
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