12 February 2012

Job line by ’Dare Akinwale

Today is a typical Monday morning in Port Harcourt. On the roads everyone is in a hurry, pedestrian feet dancing to the riotous rhythm of the thick impatient traffic, horns pealing at varying pitches over the background of vehicular rumble and cacophony of vexed voices. It is the same everywhere, from Rumuokoro junction to the East-West road until I alight from the taxi at Eliozu junction. After two more cabs, I arrive at Chams centre, 83 Stadium Road, the venue of my aptitude test for Forst Bank. The crowd I find there however is unlike that of any morning in Port Harcourt, even a Monday morning, an army of applicants have invaded the grounds of the cream and brown two-storey building.

The gate is locked, so I stand outside with the others waiting impatiently for the gate to be opened. Some of the applicants gather in clusters, talking with excitement — as though their attendance there already guaranteed them the job. Others are gloomy and withdrawn, clearly showing their anxiety. I can understand that, I was here a few months ago to write a test for another bank. And after over a month of waiting, I was informed in an email that I did not score up to the cut-off mark, it was painful, very painful. I had looked at the screen and the black, bland alphabets bearing bad tidings, there was no name, it was one of those no-reply emails — and so there was no way to get back to the person who sent it, I suppose that angered me the most.

Someone screams behind me, it is a girl who has just recognised one of her former classmates. After a warm, prolonged embrace in which the girl is squeezed into the chest of a tall man, they start asking questions about their other classmates who are not so lucky to be in Port Harcourt. She teases the guy about applying for a bank job. Did he not read Genetics and Biotechnology at university, what is he looking for here? He seems genuinely amused by her question and for an answer, he laughs, grabs her waist and pulls her to him until their bodies are almost touching. She does not draw back even when his hands slide below her waist, caressing the roundness of her upper thighs under the tight, shiny fabric of her black skirt. She is laughing too and her eyes are twinkling at him. He says something out of my hearing, they laugh even louder and he closes the gap between them with an intimate embrace. Even if they fail the test, I’m sure they will be consoled by their amorous discovery of each other.

I turn my head away from them to the gate and see someone I recognise, but cannot remember from where, a black young man with a square face and a large nose with round flaring nostrils. He nods at me and I nod back with a silent ‘good morning’. We don’t attempt to say anything more or even shake hands; we both understand it is not necessary. This is not the place for friendship, it is a test centre, and we are all here because we need a job. Having joined the growing mass of unemployed Nigerian graduates, we are confronted with the harshness of our reality like someone emerging into the hot midday sunlight from a cool air-conditioned car. Before, when I was still in school, I did not understand when it was said that Nigeria has a nineteen percent unemployment rate, it was all numbers, just statistics. Today, this morning, I understand.

More people are arriving and we are still locked outside because those inside have not finished registering their names. All the applicants here should number over five hundred already, and yet more are coming. I shake my head, how did I ever get myself into this situation? Vying with a multitude of desperate job-seekers for limited vacancies that did not hold sure promise, how did I get here? This is not my dream of the sweet life I want to live. And even when, if, I get the job, what will it mean? An unceasing cycle of seven a.m. to six p.m. everyday labouring in a confining cubicle as a teller, or stomping the streets of Port Harcourt appealing for million-naira-accounts? There is nothing attractive about bank jobs these days, except the money. The salary that helped you afford those suits identifying you as a successful banker while hiding behind that dark façade all the stress, concerns, and problems, that came as a by-product of your prim job. But all that is for later, right now, the major concern is the money and the prestige of having a job, so that we can carry ourselves proudly among friends and update our status on Facebook appropriately.

The gate is opened by a smart-looking security man, and we squeeze through for a good place in the queue. I get a place at the back of the line, but I don’t mind since I am inside already. There are two girls behind me, they also know each other and feed my ears with their job-centred conversation. One of them is saying she wrote a test for Zen Bank and did the interview too, but doesn’t understand why they are not calling her back. That is why she is here today, just in case. I understand that, with job applications these days of economic growth, uncertainty is a prevailing situation. You have to keep on trying because you never know which one will work. Which test you will pass, which interview you will be called for. You never know, where you will eventually get a job, but just keep on trying until it happens. Just like throwing dice and waiting for the lucky number, until that number appears, it is harmful gambling. Her friend complains about the sun, it is not even nine a.m. yet the sun is already as scorching as if it is mid day. I don’t mind the sun even though I’m sweating, it is the least of my concerns, I mean for God’s sake I need a bloody job! The sun means nothing, and besides, the hall will be air-conditioned, very cool and soothing to make us as comfortable as possible.

We have been standing in this unmoving queue for twenty minutes now, what is happening? A short, squat girl with an oily, shiny face suggests that maybe the others have started writing. I agree, and say it is possible. I wonder if she is smart, whether she will pass the test we are yet to write and all other unknown stages of the selection process. With a face like that, she will not be a prime choice for customer service, maybe a teller, or marketer. I have heard from sources I consider reliable that one of the undisclosed criteria for selection is beauty. The very pretty are placed in position of glamour while the less comely ones like this girl here are hidden at the background. That is, if they are fortunate enough to be chosen.

The queue begins to disintegrate, people stand against the wall to hide from the unkind rays, but I remain standing. Some are discussing the test, three guys in a corner are talking about the weekend premiership soccer matches.

Up ahead, I spot another familiar face, a girl I met during national service in Zamfara state. I remember her very well, her name is Tomi. I am sure she will recognise me. During the three-week NYSC (National Youth Service Corps) orientation camp, she was one of the many girls I admired. I thought her beautiful then with her light complexion and smooth long, spotless legs stretching out of the uniform white shorts, big round eyes, and small thin lips that smiled often. But, before we had spent six months in service, Tomi’s beauty faded in my eyes, and I stopped liking her. Today, it is like I’m seeing her for the first time again, as if I’m looking at a repainted house, she looks like she’s had a repaint of nature’s beauty. Something in me tells me she will be happy to see me, to know where I live, to get intimate. I know this, a deep atavistic awareness I believe all men are gifted with, a near-prescient knowledge that the lady will find them acceptable, it is what keeps us going with the chase even when she is playing hard to get and what makes us win eventually. Tomi looks at the girl standing behind her, nods and says something, I can see her face better now and I’m fighting the urge to go and meet her. This is neither the time, nor the place, if we ever got together someone would sustain a broken heart in a short time, and that person could not be me. It is a good thing she did not see me, because then I would have to say something and I am not ready to lie this morning.

Someone calls from the reception, and the first three people including Tomi disappear into the building. The others rush to take up their places in the queue and the lines begin to move again. There is a little commotion as a few people cannot remember their spots in the queue and resort to arguing. The two girls behind me have been pushed further backwards by a boy in a black suit. He smiles at me as I glance at him, I don’t return his foolish smile. How can you wear a suit to this place when you are not coming for an interview? Most of us wear t-shirts and jeans; it makes more sense that way. This is just a test, not a fashion assessment.

A young bespectacled man turns backward and our eyes meet, he does not recognise me, but I remember him. Five years ago we were room-mates at the Ondo state University before he left for Bowen University. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember that I knew him as a nice guy, and a good cook. I feel somehow guilty for not remembering his name even though I remembered the taste of his food — but that is life, it is not my fault some memories last longer than others. He is wearing an old cream shirt with blue Jeans and a pair of black leather slippers, his face is covered with stubble. He does not look as good as I remembered him during his first year in Akure. I hope he has not suffered; maybe like me, he has just awoken to our mutual economic plight after a long period of slumber in studentship and national service. He still does not recognise me when he turns to look again. I am not surprised because his glasses have increased in thickness over the years. We used to make fun of his poor eyesight back then.

The perspiring guy in the suit is making the girls laugh by making fun of someone he saw studying for the test when he came. “Na wetin you wan read?” he asks, laughing.

“Do you know how many tests I’ve written, in Port Harcourt, Lagos, Abuja, Benin..?” He has my attention now, and when he sees I’m watching him, he asks again, “You know how many?”

“How many?” I return the question.

“Too many! I no fit count!” He exclaims with a theatrical movement of his hands. Several of us burst out laughing.

“Don’t worry, this one will be your last in Jesus’ name!” a girl prays.

“That is what I always hope for every time, until when I get their yeye email.” He says this with a slight frown, as if the statement evinced sadness in him. A reflective silence prevails after this exchange, as we move slowly towards the reception.

At last I am in the air-conditioned hall. A young girl sitting in front of a computer beckons to me and asks me to sit down, I obey quietly. She stretches out her small palm and I present her with my expired, faded driver’s license and a rumpled printout of the invite. She types the numbers on the paper, and my name appears on the screen. She tells me to sit up while an invisible camera captures my sweating face. Before I leave, she checks my details on the print-out again and calls out my name, “Adedayo Oluwaseun Ifedayo,” with gentle, deliberate affection like one savouring the taste of melting chocolate, her soft, throaty voice pronouncing each syllable with the right intonation — just like a decent Yoruba girl. She does not look at me as she calls my name, if she did she would have seen the smile on my face, she would have known I enjoyed the way she called my name. Maybe I should have asked if she liked the name, and told her she would like me even more. It might have lead to a good romantic story with a happy ending, who knows?

The hall is filled with computers, large, white, flat monitors in small, boxy wooden compartments like the tables in my school library. Each applicant has one of these computers to themselves, and as I walk between the long rows of desks, I observe that while some are busy calculating, or reading something on the screen, others sit down as if in a state of stupor gawking at the computer and those of us passing by. I am sure they are going to fail, I don’t feel sorry for them, it increases the chances for the rest of us, why did they not study?

There are three tests. The first one is verbal reasoning, twenty questions in seventeen minutes. It is easy and takes fifteen minutes to finish. I click ‘continue’ and the next test — numerical reasoning — appears. Another twenty questions in seventeen minutes. After assaulting my calculator with angry finger punches, calculating and cancelling uncooperative figures on my rough paper, and lots of guesswork, I complete the test five seconds before the deadline.

Abstract reasoning is last. I don’t like it even though I seem to unravel it faster than the numerical as I encounter diagram after diagram and try to predict the correct pattern among five options. What is the meaning of all these funny diagrams, how does it show my intelligence? Some of them don’t make sense at all; does that mean my capacity for abstract reasoning is retarded? The twelve minutes allotted for the fifteen questions is not over, I still have three minutes and three questions left. But this question thirteen does not make sense, after one minute I click something that looks like it might be vaguely correct, and then answer the last two questions correctly, I hope.

The computer congratulates me for submitting my assessment successfully but it does not tell me if I passed. Why not I wonder, it would not take but a second for all the results to be processed? I remain seated, still staring at the screen, wishing to see something I know I will not see, but it does not hurt to wish, does it? More people are coming in I have to vacate my position for others to take their own tests. I pick up my calculator, biro, unused HB pencil, and the rough paper that was my invite, and leave without looking back.

While outside in the even hotter sun, I am relieved, the test is over and I think I passed — even though the numerical reasoning was a bit tough, I am sure my excellent performance in the other two sections will compensate. The gate is locked, there are over a hundred applicants waiting outside, all sweating and staring at us as if they could garner answers to their own tests just by looking at us. While standing at a corner waiting for the security man to open the gate, I notice a girl passing by outside, she is wearing a white dress that ends a little above her knees and rides up as she walks, exposing fair, slim legs. She is lovely to watch, her legs moving in swift, sensual steps, as if with a life of their own. I hope to meet her again. If we become staff together at the Forst Bank maybe we will work in the same office, and then I will be able to compliment her about her legs.

I step out onto Stadium road and can see the people on the other side are looking at us with something that looks like amusement, or mockery. Maybe they are thinking: why do these people want to work in a bank? They do not understand, if they did they would sympathise, not mock at us. I also did not understand what unemployment meant before. I did not know how few jobs there were in the Nigerian labour market. I did not know that your course of study was irrelevant, that all you need is a job, an occupation to pay the bills. You don’t go looking for an engineering vacancy simply because you are an engineer, or search for agriculture jobs because you studied crop science, you will suffer disappointment if you do. The banks are the saviours, they are the respectable organisations that still have the decency to recruit fresh, and stale, graduates, which is why we are all here, and we are not ashamed of being here. We are Nigerian job seekers and this is Nigeria.

There is a book shop at Riz Plaza, about three minutes walk away. I want to see if I can buy a cheap novel. I’ve never been in the shop before; I only know it because my neighbour buys some of his best-sellers here. A lady in her thirties welcomes me at the door and shows me the fiction section. Most of the books are expensive, at least for my wallet, which boasts a meagre N1400, and I don’t want to leave without buying anything. Then I spot a slim green book leaning in the shadow of a bigger one. I pick it up to examine, the book is a woman’s memoirs, there’s something appealing about the front cover and it is only N1200. The title also sounds familiar; I must have read a review online about it. I pay and leave the bookshop, after promising the lady that I would return to buy more.

On my way home, I walk past the Chams building again and try not to look, keeping my mind on the book I just bought. Reading it will be a temporary therapy — to take my mind off the test and stave off the anxiety that comes with not yet knowing your fate. But I know that in the few weeks ahead, I will need a lot more than someone else’s story to make the waiting bearable until my phone rings again.

'Job line' was written by ’Dare Akinwale.

Copyright © ’Dare Akinwale 2012.

’Dare Akinwale was born in Kainji, Niger State, Nigeria. He is a graduate of the University of Agriculture, Abeokuta. ’Dare’s articles have appeared on cp-africa.com. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria. 'Job line' is his first published short story.


Muyis Adepoju said...

Nice interpretation of a day in the life of a jobless Nigerian youth...Well done, Sir. You should do more of this.

Oluwatosin Adeladan said...

Nice story!

'Dare said...

Thanks Muyis and Oluwatosin.

Anonymous said...

Lovely!, I love the imagination behind every scene. It made me laugh. More please!

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