Tuesday, March 22, 2011

If You Ask Me

*I hadn't uploaded in a while 'cause I was writing a book (fiction). And I've decided to upload the first chapter here for everyone to enjoy while I shop for publishers. I guess I went totally Nigerian on this one. Be Champions.

Chapter ONE
All Work Makes Jack A What?

Some people are born to suffer in this life. There's nothing any man, imam, pastor, or motivational speaker can say me to convince me otherwise. My stand remains this world isn’t fair and some people are born to just suffer. My life is the testimony to that fact. The way I saw it was ill luck and good luck existed the same way there was good and evil with the world trying to reach equilibrium since it couldn’t be eradicated. I remember my mother’s voice telling me to pray always but at what age would my prayers be answered? When I've passed my prime and become a man in his late seventies with the achievement of most men in their early twenties? When I retrospect about my life I shake my head in disbelief because it appeared there was a dark cloud over me all my life.

I’ll begin with the year I was delivered. My mother had a best friend and they did lots of things together from childhood in Edo state, Esako West to be precise. While my mother could be regarded as the focused one of the two her best friend was playful and saw life to be enjoyed while still living. The were so close and enjoyed having similar experiences that they got married on the same day to the men of their dreams and nine months later they were both heavily pregnant. While in her state my mother decided to run an errand- to get provision for the house. She called on her best friend who was also her neighbour. She replied she was too tired to stress herself, besides my mother suggested they go by public transport. My mother, the 'wise one', told her that her own mother sat her down once and explained that a lazy pregnant woman delivered a lazy child. The rationale behind the statement is something I still do not understand. As far as I was concerned there were so many personal and social factors to consider if an individual decided to be lazy. But I know in Africa we have quotes like that which a lot of people do not understand their origin or meaning but use it in their everyday interaction. My mother left without her friend and her errand led her to a market thirty minutes away from her home. While she was there her water broke- I was on my way into this treacherous world. Her friend experienced the same and because she was at home she was rushed to a clinic less than five minutes away. My mother wouldn't enjoy the comfort of a clinic delivery for her first child and neither did I. The market women who apparently 'knew too much' cleared a stall for my mother, laid her on a wrapper and that was where I was delivered. On my forehead remained a scar due to their carelessness that would forever remind me of how and where I came into this world, a market place in the hands of market women. That was the reward my mother got for being hard-working while she was pregnant and as for her friend, well, being 'lazy' paid off.

As expected I became best friend to my mother's best friend's son, Anthony, but we grew with different parental styles with our mothers playing key roles. While my mother made sure she instilled her "hard-work pays" approach, my best friend had a more relax approach to life thanks to his. There were times he made me feel stupid for worrying over issues like getting my school uniform dirty after a game of football. In my head I would be thinking about how my mother would whip me all over my fragile body for getting the uniform she washed everyday dirty, while he would be praising me for scoring the goal that got it stained in the first place. After my secondary school years I prepared to get admitted into the university. While I failed the Joint Admission Matriculation Board’s (JAMB) University Matriculation Examination (UME) twice before getting a decent score worthy of admission, my friend passed it in his first trial but decided tertiary education wasn't for him after a semester at the University of Benin and with his parent's blessing he learnt a trade. Not that I failed the exam twice due to lack of being intelligent but the pressure was overwhelming that I made stupid mistakes. My mother was also my home tutor at the time and I constantly learnt out of fear and she made sure failure was not an option. The first time I sat for the exam I felt I was over-prepared, all the questions were in a multiple-choice format and I knew the answers of most of them before going through the options. I was among the first to submit in my hall and I had to wait for Anthony who was through half an hour later. The first question he asked me was, "What Type was your question?" That was the first time my world froze.

The one-day examination was the most written annually in Nigeria and to reduce examination malpractice there were different types of questions arrangement, about five. The questions were same with the only difference being how they were ordered so question number one on Type A question sheet might be question number twenty on Type B question sheet. That was why it was necessary to identify on the answer sheet the Type answered by shading the appropriate box. That I forgot to do. I ran back to the hall but was walked out. I couldn't speak up because the fear my mother had instilled of her had been generalised to all adults. It was impossible for me to talk back to adults. I felt the invigilator would bring out a cane and whip me. All I could say was, "Sorry sir, thank you sir," knowing the consequences of what I had failed to do. I couldn't tell my mother what happened and I watched her countless times as we had early Morning Prayer session where she called unto Almighty God to make me excel in the examination. An examination I knew mine wouldn't be marked in the first place. My result was never released but a statement, "OUTSTANDING". I blamed it on the 'system' when defending myself to my mother. No result was better than a poor one according to her. My second attempt was more dramatic. Some undercover officials from the examination body indicted my centre for examination malpractice plus gross examination misconduct. I would not deny that but it wasn't every candidate that was involved, atleast I was sure of myself. The invigilator in my hall was dictating the answers after taxing every student interested N200 and was caught on camera. The result of everyone in the hall including mine was withheld. I didn’t have to provide any explanation to my mother because she watched it herself on TV. I was fortunate to pass the third time and that was the beginning of the final lap of my educational career. Anthony on the other hand was initially a barber but told me of his plan to become an auto-mechanic. He was actually on his first week as an apprentice when I packed my small bag and travelled to Lagos to commence my four years in the University of Lagos as a student of Economics.
Initially, living in Lagos was very difficult and I could not cope. The traffic, noise, and people constituted what I despised about Lagos. Most of the people I met during my first few months acted like they could swindle me, like I wasn't a Nigerian. Still, I coped. Life in the university was hard no doubt and the lecturers made it harder but I thanked God for making me maintain a second class upper as I began my final year. It was all smooth sailing academically until my finals. I remember my last paper. It was supposed to be the easiest paper and a lot of my course mates barely studied for it but I took no chances. I remember vividly spending two sleepless nights to understand what it was all about. On the day of the paper everyone was excited and couldn't wait till it was all over and celebrate the end of a four years bloodless war. The paper was scheduled for two o'clock but by twelve I was already in my faculty's library doing a final revision of the course. I still do not understand how it happened but I decided to rest for a little while the air-conditioner in the library cooled my head. My eyes were shut and as I opened it I saw the time, it was forty minutes past two. I was confused and thought it was a joke. I ran out of the library into the venue of the examination hall. My entrance created an attention that distracted everyone, the paper had begun almost an hour ago. That was the second time my world froze. I try to compose myself as I approached one of the invigilators to explain my plight but he signalled to me to wait by the entrance with the security man present. I stood there with my examination docket in my hand, my heart filled with fear while my eyes were filled with tears as I couldn't rationalise what was going to happen. I hoped history wouldn’t repeat itself as I remembered my first sitting of the university matriculation examination. The invigilator told me he wasn't going to allow me write the paper that it was possible I had sneaked out earlier with a question paper to solve the question outside the hall with a text book. I knew my failure to write that paper was an extra-year served fresh. I had to involve the librarian who pleaded on my behalf as well being an alibi and confirmed I had slept off in the library. I was allowed to write the exam after the whole drama with no extra time given to me. I had less than an hour and a panic attack to write a two-hour paper. When the final result was released I had an E grade. That was the first and only time I had lower than a C during my four-year programme. That affected my cumulative grade point average CGPA and it fell from a second-class upper division to a second-class lower division and that was the painful part. To graduate with a first class a student had to graduate with a CGPA between 4.5 to 5. Second-class upper division was between 3.5 to 4.49, while second-class lower division was between 2.4 to 3.49. Lower than that was either Pass or Third class. My final CPGA fell from 3. 62 to 3.48 because of the last paper. All my hard work from the previous semesters that I had put in to graduate with a second-class upper became useless. As far as employment opportunities were concerned a second-class upper division student was considered before a second-class lower student regardless if he or she graduated with a 3.49 or 2.49 they were ranked the same. Life once again showed me I had ill luck.

My mother was disappointed in me because of the grade I graduated with. I explained the circumstances but she couldn't understand why I didn't think of totally making myself absent from that paper and have an automatic extra year. That way I would have offered extra courses to boost my grade back to a second-class upper division. She didn't attend my convocation to prove the extent of her disappointment, instead she sent a note.

"You are always in a hurry and even with the scar on your forehead you still choose to constantly forget never to be. Instead of you to have waited for me to get home for you to be born, you came while I was in the market to disgrace me and deprive me the joy of a blissful delivery. Now that you are grown you still maintain that negative trait of rushing everything. Of what point was you graduating early with a poor result when it would take you years to have a decent job. I didn't put all my effort in training a second rate student".

It actually didn't take me years to get a job in Lagos but a week after my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme so my mother was wrong. Not that the job was even one I was proud of. Before that I had been posted to Kano for my service year where I spent it being useless, teaching the English Language in a primary school situated in a rural community where the Head Master himself barely understood the language. I spent most of the year sitting in my small desk and chair pretending to teach while the students also pretend to learn. Due to the politics within the education board all my students had to pass and they passed the subject in flying colours. They needed numbers to prove the citizens were enjoying the benefit of free education in the rural areas. After wasting that year becoming dumber I got my NYSC certificate and travelled down to Lagos which I had to admit I had grown to like.

I decided to work in Lagos and not return to Edo state because I knew I wouldn't be able to cope living in the same state with my mother. She would constantly remind me of the failure she saw in me and even in my twenties it was painful to hear that. I got employed in a company, Cash-Mir limited, run by Syrians, Adad, Baltasar, Ashur, and Anas. Adad was the oldest and in charge of the entire operations and was hardly in Nigeria. He came around every six months, June and December. The rest were mere supervisors as far as I was concerned. They drove expensive cars and smoked from morning till evening. It wasn't as if technical intellectual input was needed for their business. It was practically a warehouse situated in the industrial part of Oshodi. They were the sole distributor and importer of an energy drink, StrongTin, in Nigeria and West Africa. The business was simple but capital intensive. It worked like this, my company had the exclusive deal to import StrongTin into the region and imported nothing less than 150 cargo containers of StrongTin energy drink per month but for easier calculation I assumed 150 containers per month. There were 1,250 cartons in a container, making 187,500 cartons in all. There were also 24 cans in a carton making it 4.5 million cans imported in a month. It was sold to retailers at the value of N200 per can making the revenue on 150 containers N900million per month. So even if monthly expenses including taxes were N600million which was quite outrageous, there was still N3.6billion these Syrians enjoyed yearly. That money does not circulate in Nigeria. It was transferred to their country, into financial institutions like Bank Audi. You wouldn't believe if I tell you what Nigerian bank managers would do to have their money spend just two months in their institutions. These Syrians enjoyed making naira but avoided as much as possible spending it here even on labour.

Those were the people I worked for and as an Economics graduate I was being paid N30,000 per month for stock taking. Initially I thought it was a joke when I heard my take home pay until I realised the highest paid Nigerian there was getting N100,000 and works in the legal department. The Syrians don't get salaries but allowances. I know none of them had a personal account and all their expenses in Nigeria were paid by the company. From a bottle of Coke to a N10million a year accommodation at Lekki. The youngest of them, Anas, got an allowance once to buy a Range Rover Sport, which was his sixth car. He was the flashy one. There was a time he bought a N70,000 phone for a Nigerian girl for being a ‘girlfriend’ and she began to jump all over him, acting as if he saved her life.

My N30,000 per month made me to constantly be on the lookout for a better job with a better pay, I lived in a room in Bariga with a friend from university. The rent was N70,000 per year so we split it in half meaning my share was supposed to be N35,000. I didn't have the money so I told him I would pay him N3,000 monthly from my salary. So in a year I end up paying N36,000. That was N1,000 more. Excluding rent allowance I had N27,000 to spend on other expenses. I spent N200 on transport per day and I worked 6 days in a week. That made N1,200 spent on transport weekly, N4,800 monthly. That left me N22,200. Every month I had to cough out N750 on utility bills which was my half while my room mate paid his making it N1,500. For feeding I budget N500 everyday making a total of N15,000 in a month. That subtracted from my previous balance was N6,450. I tried as much to save that amount but it never got to my savings account. There were unforeseen expenses every month that took my worth back to zero. There was a time I was alone in my room watching TV which my room mate bought. Thanks to the Power Holding Company of Nigeria the voltage got so high that both the voltage stabiliser and the TV fuse and circuits got burnt. I had to cough out almost N15,000 to fix that. There were also stores on my street which I couldn’t help but owe. There was the woman selling Ewa Igayin who told me my debt was now N650. There was also Dandere. Dandare was the name of the mallam I owed the amount for three or four packets of Gold-Circle condoms, a tin of Peak milk and two N10 biscuits. I also owed Iya Shingbai N600 for six bottles of star plus the bottles which I had failed to return. In summary, financially, I was a total wreck. Now imagine how I felt when I got to church one Sunday and the Pastor walked up to me and said he noticed I had never paid tithe. He added that givers never lacked and I had to tell the Pastor the reason they gave in the first place was because they didn't lack. I was a bonified hustler. Mtshew...

I knew I had two options to improve my condition. The first was to get a better job which was the most difficult. I remember when the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) was recruiting. The turnout of graduates in Lagos state alone was so high the venue of the aptitude test was changed from a 1,500 capacity hall to the National Stadium, Surulere. Over 4,000 candidates were spaced out in the stadium. As I wrote the test with my laps used as my table I looked round. I overheard they needed to recruit only 50 candidates from Lagos and I lost hope. “Was there any point?” I thought as I walked out to get a commercial transport bus to Oshodi. At least I still had a job.

The second option to boost my condition had to do with demanding better wages. After all I was a second-class lower Economics graduate of the University of Lagos. I knew doing that might lead to me being relieved of my duties. Those Syrians did not care about qualifications as long as the job is done for the minimum cost, that to them was being efficient. I stumbled upon the curriculum vitae of my superior, Mr. Shakiru, in the administrative department one day. I was amazed he got employed.

Mr. Shakiru Orewale

Education Background
University of Ife
B.Sc (First Class Honours) Business Administration (Degree in view)

University of London
Masters in Expenses Administration (IJN)

I was outraged. I asked myself what he meant by “B.Sc 1st class honours...Degree in view”. My interpretation was the man had no university degree and it was even obvious by the way he spoke. I had thought he was just dumb, educated but dumb. Then ‘Masters in Expenses Administration’, I could not think of what that meant. He then added In Jesus Name (IJN). He might have had bigger educational dreams than I did but I had bigger accomplishments, yet he was earning N20,000 more than I was every month.

I also thought of changing my department, probably to marketing. Marketers were being paid N40,000 and enjoyed a monthly transport allowance of N5,000 plus N500 weekly to spend on recharge cards for their cell phones. They also enjoyed commissions on sales plus it was easier for them to embezzle. A marketer once stole over N200,000 worth of StrongTin. He was supposed to deliver it and never did. I saw him once on an okada as he drove pass where I lived. All I could say was, “Lucky Guy”. When I suggested to Mr. Shakiru my intention to join the marketing department he told me until they found a replacement for my position and also that I didn’t have the marketing spirit. That was over six months ago. I kept watching marketers being hired and resigning as they found a better job. The fact that the nature of their job kept them out of the building most of the time made them opportune to meet people and write recruitment tests as they came up. If that didn’t work out I thought about doing something more labour intensive, that way I could make over five times what I was earning. Anytime a container arrived at the premises from the port I usually gathered some men in the area whose job was to empty the container and carry the cartons into the warehouse. Each man was paid N1,500 per container. Any man that made himself available for 150 containers in the month made a cool N225,000 tax free from my company alone. That was more than what most bankers earned. Plus, there was flexibility in their working hours. I thought about it, these men were close to donkeys and carried heavy goods with ease. I wasn't eating well enough to go through it plus I had a fragile stature. I hated as I see my Mr. Shakiru count the naira notes after the Syrians must have given him from the vault and distribute them to the labourers. “Where is mine?” I say to myself.

The Vault. I personally haven't seen 'the Vault' but I know it was in Adad's office and the Syrian did not allow us Nigerian workers in. I had tried guessing how much was in it but the Syrians kept surprising me by the amount they had coughed out from that office. Right now my guess was between N30million to N50million. The vault contained money that never got to the bank and it was used to pay 'unprecedented Nigerian taxes'. One of them was unprecedented National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) levies. From what I had observed you never pass an inspection by NAFDAC. There was always one rule or guideline that was breached and their men shut the building and immediately paste their sticker, stating to the public that “blah blah blah... We shut them down”. It was always dramatic and funny anytime a NAFDAC team storm into the building. The last time they trooped in a woman was in charge, she was recently posted to Lagos and wanted to prove that unusual business as usual wasn’t usual. She shunned everyone as she walked straight to the direction of our warehouses. She was disappointed when she saw those working there had safety and protective gears on. It was after she came up with the most stupid safety guideline I ever heard. She said a running tap was supposed to be in the warehouse for washing hands. Mr. Shakiru explained there was a tap right at the entrance but she was adamant. She screamed for the warehouses to be shut. She demanded to see who was in charge and by that we knew she wanted to see a Syrian. Adad wasn't around but these officials didn't care about the individual's position as long as he or she wasn't Nigerian. Baltasa was the only Syrian around. He approached her and walked her into Adad’s office. She stormed out of the office few minutes later screaming, "Does he think I am a child?" She looked at another official, "You won't believe what this guy did, he gave me chicken change. Common N500,000." I was infuriated when I heard that, 'common N500,000', was a year and about five months salary for me and this woman was being offered it for being corrupt as far as I was concerned. She was called back into his office and negotiation started. She walked out with N2,500,000 from the vault and 50 cartons of StrongTin from the warehouse that they wanted to confiscate the products within. The woman, since she was in charged had put N500,000 in her bag in Baltasa’s office and told the other officials it was N2 million naira she got. In my head I kept thinking N2.5 million = Almost 7 years salary for me. The Syrians were not faced, that was business in Nigeria as usual. Besides, NAFDAC did not top their most hated agency list. There was the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) and the Nigeria Customs Service.

Nigerians complain about how difficult it was to get a Visa to travel out and from what I had observed it was also that difficult to get a visa to come into Nigeria. Most especially when it came to obtaining a work permit. Plus when you get a work permit you have to pay taxes. Syrians that I work with would rather pay bribe than tax, besides, most of them couldn't get a work permit in the first place. Anytime they heard officials of the Nigerian Customs or FIRS were around they become nowhere to be found, all of them would disappear and left the company to Mr. Shakiru. They left with one order, "Give them anything they want." They had a reputable lawyer, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) which we usually called during this period. He settled their entire legal disputes with the state. The officials would wait for the lawyer to arrive and after conversing in the premises for few minutes they all left usually with cartons of StrongTin. The Syrians returned and prepare cash to be delivered to the lawyer to settle officials. The most I had seen transported by our own Nigerian Police to the lawyer was N30million.

You would think because we knew all these details the Syrians would be nice to us. The Syrians do not care about anyone except themselves. They were the minority in the building and had probably two Nigerian loyalists, still they knew they were in control. Last Christmas the bonus we were given was a carton of StrongTin. I did not not say "I was given" but we were given a carton to share. It was an insult to me, besides, whenever any of us was thirsty we walked to the warehouse and popped a can open. We couldn't walk out with it but as long as we were in the warehouse we could drink as much as we liked. Not that the Syrians knew but there was no way they could notice. Shipments kept coming plus those given out as 'gifts' to officials and promotions were never accounted for.
Like I earlier said, this life wasn’t fair. My best friend, Anthony, who was in Edo state decided to relocate to Lagos after years of being an auto-mechanic and he couldn’t afford a car of his own. He knew a whole lot about cars he could never own. He chose to hustle with me. I decided to let him stay in the one room I shared with my other friend till he got a place and probably we would move in together. Before his arrival I had talked to Mr. Shakiru about him and suggested that he was a wonderful marketer. I had written a CV just like the one he had for Anthony. I had written he had a 'Ph.D in view'. Anthony arrived Lagos Saturday evening and resumed with me on Monday. Mr. Shakiru was impressed at their first meeting because he had such a talkative and extroverted personality that he believed was superb for marketing. He made a remarkable impression and showed great promise. He gave him a phone and N500 worth of credit for it and instructed him to follow the team going to Gbagada, all he had to do was get contacts and know the area. That evening we were soaking Garri in my room when a text came in on my friend's new phone.
"Dear customer, you have selected as the star winner in our recharge and win promo."

I laughed it off and made him understand methods used to swindle people with false claims of winnings. The next day, Tuesday, my best friend told me he was called and was told to come to an office to collect his prize. People he told at the office tried to talk him out of it and expressed the danger involved. It might be a trap to lure him to a hidden location where he could be used for ritual purpose. I decided not to help him out with directions as my way of discouraging him but he left anyway. More than three hours later my friend drove into the premises in a branded car and N10 million richer. He resign that day and travelled back to Edo state the following day, Wednesday. That was how my friend whom I helped get a job became a millionaire in 3 days while I was still struggling to survive on N30,000 a month. He started his Pineapple juice factory in our state and from what I heard his lowest paid staff was getting N40,000 per month. He had offered for my services but my mother expressed her disappointment if I accepted. She explained that I would be giving the false impression that hard work did not pay. She wanted me to make it on my own, to probably hustle till I died. She had no idea the situation I was trapped in and didn't seem to care. So, my hustle continued in Lagos.

My life would probably remain the same until the tenth time my world froze. That was why I was in a comfortable bed and the mattress did not feel like it was on the floor. From the smell and equipment I saw I was no doubt in a hospital ward. That was when I remembered the last thing I saw before I blanked out. It was a very bright light, the brightest light I had ever seen and I wanted to run away from it.

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