Celebrating East African Writing!
We sat in little circles around the small white formica-topped tables that filled the office kitchen – all ten of us, senior management included, waiting for the CEO. Nervousness had kidnapped our smiles, for even as we exchanged polite pleasantries, one couldn’t help but feel the suffocating squeeze of heavy tension. It left the room devoid of any ease. Everyone was dead certain of my impending public humiliation by the CEO.
That the CEO was ardently looking for ways to fire me was no secret. The genesis of our sour relations was when I discovered the company was paying for his mistress’ expenses.
‘It’s not your mother’s money!’ had been his unsurprisingly hostile response.
In a scheme to frustrate me, he gave my assistant, Peter, a raise that dwarfed my salary. Barely minutes after demanding to know the reasons thereof, an urgent meeting request was sent to all staff by the Head of Human Resources department.
He walked in with large steps that belied his stature for he was a short man of almost five feet. His dark complexion resembled the sky on a starless night and his pink lips always reminded me of that African caricature in Tintin comic books. His scent met you before you met him – an expensive perfumery of enchanted forest freshness. As he stood before us clad in dark trousers, white shirt and red tie, a careful eye could see the rapid rise and fall of his heart that betrayed the rage behind his amiable smile.
‘I know you’re busy men and women so I won’t take much of your time,’ he started, glancing briefly at his Rolex before returning his gaze to us. ‘I came here as your CEO to address certain rumors that have been circulating in this office.’ His thick Ivorian accent made it difficult to distinguish ‘a’s and ‘o’s.
The silence that ensued was pin-drop.
‘I have said this before and I will say it again. In a country such as this where labour laws and standards are lax or inexistent, this company is by far very fair to its employees. Before you all signed your contracts, weren’t you given an opportunity to quote your expected salary?’ His nostrils flared angrily. ‘I am paying each and every one of you roughly the same amount of money that you asked for. So when I hear about oooo so and so is paid much more than so and so I get angry because you’re trying to say that this company isn’t fair – that I am not fair.’
Everyone was dead still, which was no surprise. It was no secret that almost all my colleagues were hired by virtue of their pedigree and associations. They were someone’s someone and my increasing wrangles with the CEO was a source of great discomfort to them.
‘With all due respect sir, I do believe this matter can be resolved in private,’ I said, unable to take it anymore. After all, everyone knew he was talking about me.
‘What did you say?’ he asked in disbelief.
This was the first time that anyone had ever questioned him in public.
‘If you have something to say then I want you to say it in front of everyone here,’ he roared angrily. A network of tiny thick veins was quickly forming on the sides of his head.
A sudden burst of anger and adrenaline nudged me on as I asked ‘Why was my assistant, Peter, given an arbitrary raise without a performance review? And why are expatriate staff earning six to seven times the amount paid to local staff for the same amount of work done?’
Peter looked up in shock at the realization that their green patch of grass was a fatal illusion. He was clearly unaware of the great disparities that existed. Everyone else fidgeted on their seats.
‘These are exactly the rumors that I was talking about!’ the replied, dramatically clutching his heart with both hands as though he had been stabbed. ‘No one here is paid six to seven times more than their colleagues and even if they were, this is a business, not a charity.’ His accent was so thick that he was barely audible.
‘Illegitimacy, whether known or unknown by its unfortunate victims, can never be justified,’ I replied hotly. ‘There is an obvious bias that needs to be addressed.’
‘We’re a young company, barely one year in existence. Increasing people’s salaries isn’t a priority,’ he said this with an undisturbed countenance, completely oblivious of the implication of what he had just admitted to. In essence, he was justifying, at the expense of local staff, the comfortable lifestyle of serviced apartments in leafy suburbs, European cars, lunch at those white-only establishments where you had to be politician, a politician’s companion or an expatriate to afford just a single cup of tea. The tragedy of it was that he slept well at night.
‘Come to my office and we will sort this out!’ he barked.
He picked his phone from the table and marched out of the room.
Officially the pariah, everyone left the kitchen keeping as much distance as they could between them and me. Moments afterwards, Peter returned.
‘Did you actually go to complain about my pay?’ he whispered disbelievingly.
‘Mind your language. You may be taking home the fatter bacon but I’m still your boss.’
‘I didn’t mean to disrespect you. I just wanted to know how you knew.’
‘About your pay you mean?’
He nodded sheepishly. Looking at him, I was sure that he had been assured of taking up my role soon. He was an open book but invariably a blank one, always letting someone else define his story.
‘It doesn’t matter how I know. What he’s done is wrong and if we don’t stand up to him now, there’s no telling what he will do next.’
‘You need to be careful with these people. Fighting an equality war isn’t worth the empty stomachs of your children.’ His expression was a disturbing mix of innocence and bravado.
‘Full stomachs cannot be bartered with our future,’ I shot back, unable to believe his myopic stance. Looking at him, I understood why as a people we were where we were. Affliction was our addiction and self-aggrandizement our obsession.
‘Have you sent me the report I asked for yesterday?’ I asked, knowing very well that he hadn’t finished it.
‘No, I was just…’
‘Finish and send it to my email before you go out for lunch,’ I snapped.
He scurried off in the opposite direction. I turned towards the door and made my way to the elevator and up to the 7th floor.
The CEO stood up as soon as he saw me approach his office. Other than a small section of the room reserved for meetings which was covered by blinds, the rest of the walls were glass.
‘Today you have decided to undress your elders in public,’ he chastised even before I sat down. ‘Back in the village where I come from, we believe that actions such as yours bring curses that follow you to your grave.’
His smile disappeared.
‘I came here to inform you of my resignation,’ I said coldly.
He put his hands in front of him as if in prayer, briefly looked up and solemnly did the sign of the cross. ‘In that case you have made me a happy man today.’
‘The money you steal will haunt you as sure as the world goes round,’ I said.
‘There, my dear, is where you’re wrong. Do you know the principle of natural selection? If it wasn’t me, it would have been someone else.’ His eyes gleamed with excitement and I saw him for who he really was – a sick little man.
I rose up to leave. ‘I hope you’ll still be happy to know that yesterday I sent a report to the Board detailing everything you have done. They know that you ask for a cut in tenders. They know too how many times you have dipped your hands in the company’s bank account to pay your loans. They know about the business trips, your nephews whom you brought to work here and your mistress’ expenses. They know it all.’
His jaw dropped open as though it had suddenly turned into an iron weight.
‘And you know what else too? They offered me your job. I thought about your family – how unpleasant it will be for your children to go back to public school, how the house you live in and the car you drive will be mine.’
He tried to speak but no words came out.
‘I thought about all those things and my conclusion was the same as yours. If it wasn’t me, it would be someone else. The principle of natural selection. If you check your email right about now, you will find an announcement from the Board’s chair to all staff announcing the change of guard. In a few minutes, security will be with you so I suggest you take this time to pack up whatever you want to take with you. You will be hearing from our lawyers as well.’
It was impossible not to smile. I had repressed the exuberance far too long. He sat deathly still and only moved his eyes when the security guard gently knocked on the door, saluted and asked what Madam wanted done.
‘Wait here until he finishes packing his things and show him out. Then ask the driver to be ready for me in fifteen minutes. I’m going out for celebratory lunch!’
©Hazel Osembo 2014