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On Reserve


Letters from Nigeria

              by Ehi


Poor Jeremiah

Sunday 2005-11-20

Dear Wendy

This weekend, I have not been feeling good at all. I have been reflecting on the fact that the problem with Nigerian capitalism is that those who work so much get next to nothing. No, I am not planning to start another Bolshevik insurgency, neither is this letter meant to be an exposition of Marxist evangelism. I just feel like writing down these things. You see, I wish I was a poet, I would be writing poems about these things. But I am not. I can only write letters. I am not sure if this really is cathartic or, even, the extent to which catharsis is therapeutic. But it sure feels good to write a good friend about these things.
You see, I have been at my current job since June 2 2004. I was started with a salary of N13,000 per month (US$1 = N140, €1 = N165). Today, I earn N15,000. Now N15,000 is exactly the same amount I was earning in 2001 at a different job. In 2001, a “de rica” of rice cost N40, today it costs N100. There have been increases also in such things as transportation and house rent and… just about everything else. The result of all these is that one can no longer “make ends meet”.

I have worn only one pair of trousers for the past eighteen months. Now I am not one to ever bother about such a thing as clothes. But I am a bit worried now, because usable shirts are now down to three and that means having to wash mid week as the shirts can’t last me through the week. My two pairs of shoes are bad beyond repairs. The only piece of electronic thing in my place, which connects me with the outside world, my radio, is malfunctioning and needs replacement before it stops functioning completely, and I have problems replacing it. If it were possible for me to describe how attached I am to the radio in this write-up, you would realise what a pain this particularly is. Why, if you asked me to choose between having a place to live and owning a radio, I would choose the later without stopping to ponder. This month, I have been having a very hard time just because I sent N5000 to my younger sister, Miriam, as a contribution towards her planned shop. It is not enough for her, but it was even more than I could do. I sent it against my better judgement because I had already promised her. I promised her because I realised I was only for myself, and I believe no matter how small you earn, you must show concern for those around you. But the problem of sending money home is that everyone suddenly thinks you are on. For just a week after sending money to Miriam I got requests for money from others!

And what work are we talking about? Well, thinking about my present job and some I have had in the past, I will say it all always seem to go together – slave pay, long hours, nasty boss, everything. I leave my home by 7.30am Monday to Friday and the closing time is indeterminate – you know, like policemen. Sometime, we close 7pm, 8pm, or 9pm. Rarely, one is asked to come on a Saturday. Do not ask me about overtime pay, that does not happen in this job – you know, again, like policemen.

My boss is the archetype of the capitalist nigger. He is a low mentality man who is not without a capacity for motiveless wrongdoing. Spoilt, egoistic and hedonistic, he is the incarnate of Narcissus. You probably can recall the youth in Greek mythology who saw his reflection in a pool of water, fell in love with himself and stood there admiring himself till he pined away. I think this slim fortyish light-complexioned guy will make a good object of study to psychologists who specialise in selfishness – if there are no such they better create them. Here is a typical day in my place of work.

I get to the office by 8.35am and find that the guy to open the door has yet to come. I wait for 10 minutes and he comes and opens our first floor office. After opening my windows, I dust my computers and do not bother putting on the AC, knowing the electricity supply is too low to power it. Soon, sweat is gushing out of my body. Sweating is a problem with me.

At about 9.30 the boss comes in. Once he gets into his office, the intercom on my table rings. I pick it up.

“Hello, sir?”
“Come here!”
I go over.
“Have you checked the mail?”
“No, sir.”
“Why haven’t you? You are a fool. Do I have to remind you?”
“There are no credits on our phone.”
“What do you mean there are no credits on our phone?”
“The phone we use for the mail, credit units have run out on it.”
“Then why don’t you go outside to check the mail? Do I need to tell you that?”

I go to the cybercafé on the other street and download his mails into my flash disk – the one you sent me. I use my own money to purchase a two-hour credit units for N250, with the understanding that Lola will give me the money the next day.

By the time I come back, my desk is overflowing with documents for typing. But just as I finish printing out the mails, NEPA (that is the electricity monopoly of Nigeria) takes away the electricity.

Mike, my colleague who sits across from me rushes down to put on the generator, but there is no diesel to power it. He goes to inform Oga. But how dare he go to tell Oga directly? Oga tells him to go tell Lola, his girl Friday. So I have no light to enable me attack the mountain on my desk. Mike has an even larger mountain on his desk and he keeps mouthing the frustration of working in a place where the quality of administration is zero. By 4pm there is still no diesel. I am not sure why. The heat is unbearable and I would be far less miserable if it was a little less.

Meanwhile Oga, whose home is almost within a shouting distance from the office, left for home by 2pm. He does this most times. The unwritten rule here states that people are to go home by 6pm, but only if the boss is not around. If he is around, you leave after he has left. Well, he is almost always around. Today, as it is approaching 6pm, some people are packing their bag, in readiness to leave by 6. Some do not bother, knowing that the boss is likely to come in. And just at 2 minutes before 6, the glass door is roughly pushed in and he charges in. He looks around at faces, satisfied he has dashed the hopes of these good-for-nothing slaves of going home “early”. He has obviously rested and slept, so he looks refreshed. He would even have looked relaxed were it not for the misanthropic aggression writ on his face.

He charges into his office and settles in. After a while the lights come on. Someone had gone to buy diesel. But this generator is so small it cannot carry everything in the office. I have to choose between switching on my computer and switching on my lights. Certainly I choose the former. As it is now dark, I cannot see what I am typing. So I pick up the paper I am typing from, hold it up to the light from the screen of the computer, memorise the line, set down the paper, type it and repeat the process till I am through. When Oga reads it and finds any typos he is going to call me a fool and ask me if I was blind when I was typing it.

As I am printing, Bayo, the clerk comes in and begins to complain in muted tones that Oga has “climbed up”. “Is that not wickedness?” he asks no one in particular. What this means is that the boss has climbed up the balcony to relax and gaze downstairs until the sights a girl that catches his fancy. Climbing up means he is in no hurry to go home.

When I finish typing and printing, I leave the draft document, along with his handwritten draft, on his table. Bayo further tells us he heard Oga boasting that we thought he was not going to come back but he just came in time to stop us rushing home.

By 8, we see his PA carry his bag past our office. I call Mike to alert him that we will soon go home. But he reminds me of the Jeremiah incident. Poor Jeremiah. One evening some months ago, Jeremiah, our security man, saw Kole, the PA bring out Oga’s bag and dump it in the car and he naturally assumed it was time to prepare to go. He disconnected his intercom box and brought it upstairs. As he was going out the door, Oga came out of the corridor and sighted him. He retraced his steps and came into our office.

“Oh, that Jeremiah. Just because he sees them taking my bag away he assumes we are about to go home. He doesn’t know that I can still go into the library and sit down for the next hour.” Mike and I burst out laughing uncontrollably. “The two of you will go, but he will be here.” And saying that he walked into the library across and sat down. The following day Jeremiah confirmed to us that they stayed a further 30 minutes.

That is the incident Mike always takes pleasure in reminding me of whenever he thinks some fat-headed optimism about going home has crept into my head just because I caught sight of the propulsion of a bag. But in reality I never bother about it. I take it as it comes. Why, I am usually the last person to leave and the guy who locks the doors often has to shout at me that everyone is gone. By 8.30 the boss finally goes and the rest of us leave for home. The hold-ups at such places as Bank Anthony, Maryland and Yaba are so bad it takes me an hour to get home from Ikeja GRA, but I finally get home by 9.30. As always I am hot, tired and worn out. One day I returned from work and went to sit outside with Sunny, a neighbour. After a few minutes I asked him if he saw my friend, David, around. He and David then told me that David was sitting right by me on the bench. Such is the extent of my tiredness whenever I return from work. I think though that my health situation has a lot to do with this.

Memorable things do happen here almost on a daily basis. The other day, there was the ATIN incident….

All these are only made worse by the slave wages. But I know of several people who earn even far less than I do. How do they cope with the extant harsh economic realities? I guess this letter is long enough. Maybe next time I will talk a little about all that as well as the ATIN incident.

Till next week when I write you again, have a blessed time
Your friend


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