The first day is always the toughest. It is usually a Monday at exactly 8 am. You walk into gawky stares from people who seem like they have nothing better to do with themselves. Judgemental looks that feel as if there are tearing you apart limb by limb trying to decide whether they like you or not. The looks that make you feel as if a person’s competence nowadays is judged by their outward look. Like you walked into a nasty gossip about you. You get stuck within the first few weeks trying to come up with what it is with you that is not likeable. You flash back your whole life in scenes trying to remember a time when people did not like you and the reason they did not.
It comes to you eventually, that one time in your class back in Primary School when the teachers and students all, kind of, hated you. Not for any particular reason really, at least not of your own doing, but because of your father, he owned the school. Teachers were stuck in between acting friendly to you and still being fair to all other pupils and your schoolmates loathed how you were always favoured. And this had made the space in your life shrink to a cold, pale discomfort like a vacation house in winter. You had to be transferred to another school, the one that your father did not own and truly, you discovered that the special benefits you used to have were no more. Regardless, you liked it.
Two weeks ago, you cleared university graciously, and the world stared at you blankly to see how you played your cards. The world would have to wait a little longer to see your cards, your father pulled out his cards first and talked to a friend in the government office who offered you a job instantly.
Today is your first day. You walked in and noticed your closest age mate was at least twice your age. The human resource manager, in particular, is an old man who looks tired and angry for no apparent reason. He keeps clearing his throat ostentatiously and smirks at your blunt insistent use of words to his responses. If only it were not mandatory for you to have to interact with him, but you have to since in line with the organization’s culture the HR has to assimilate you into the organisation’s norms and value. He informs you of how now you are medically insured, and also saving for your retirement. From a net salary of thirty thousand, eight thousand goes to NHIF and NSSF. Twenty-two thousand seems okay, considering your lack of skills, but then he keeps talking, in a slow, annoying voice, saying that the first three months is probation; therefore you would receive half the salary.
The fact that you will be receiving a meagre salary of eleven thousand per month tears you to bits. For starters, you just moved to the city from Nyeri. You were at Dedan Kimathi University, the school in the middle of a forest. An institution where you are woken up in the morning by the chirping of birds and the shadow of Mt. Kenya. Life in Nyeri was easy and cheap. The rent, in particular, was so cheap that you practically thought of the landlady as family. She would bring her tenants tomatoes, cabbages and onions from her farm every time they were in season, for free, the last four years you were there. In Nyeri, if a problem ensued with the water supply, the whole neighbourhood would go on a rampage. A water shortage in Nyeri was unheard of. As if lady luck would camp in Nyeri from time to time; there were those good days when I would go to buy eggs from the local shopkeeper, and he is in an unusually jovial mood would tell me of how his chicken had been laying so many eggs as if they were in a competition of who would get the most eggs laid. To cut a long story short the shopkeeper would freely add three extra eggs to your purchase. That was the lifestyle you were used to – a comfortable life that embraced communism and being kind to each other.
Now, you are in the city. The rent practically and unapologetically splits your salary in half. Then the rest gets washed up in the bizarre fare and food prices and here is an old man, who tells you that for three months, you will only pay for rent then fast for food and gather raindrops for water. It is true what they say that when sorrows come, they don’t come as one but as a battalion. It does not add up. You hold your rage firmly in your hands and explain your situation to the HR, who does not to give two flying fucks about your problems. So you result to calling your father again and explaining everything to him. Later in the day, the HR will summon you to his office again and tell you that you had received a good recommendation, so he is taking you out of probation.
In the office, you begin learning what it is precisely that you do. You are determined to make friends and conform as fast as possible, but then they do not like you at all. They think you are there to replace them. They got hired in the eighties with practically no educational background. For the past thirty-seven years, they have worked on the same desk from morning to evening and therefore your new swagger, and many certificates are not something they receive with open arms.
Most of the workers belong to the traditionalist generation and view almost all of your ways as wayward and non-conforming to work ethic standards. The way you dress becomes an area of scrutiny as they do not understand your casual business wear – how you could put on a blazer and pair it with a fitting khaki trouser and term it as being official. In campus, you were a fashion designer, not by any qualification, but your love for fabric and your aptitude in dressing yourself and others. In the second year, you put two and two together and bought a sewing machine. With the little money you could put your hand on, you bought linen and fabric that you found interesting and made clothes out of them. Good clothes. You dressed models, men and women alike, you won campus awards, and you made money. You loved doing it, so even when you had to stay all night because you had classes all day, it never bothered you one bit. That was your thing.
Now, university is over; your skill died together with it. You have a future plan from the salary you make from this stupid job to rent some space in town, bring your machines and linen and do what you were meant to do. You have read about how Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey started small, but their passion put them on their feet. You will be the Jack Ma of fashion. But how do you do it with a meagre salary, no networks, no capital and in a new town.
Employment is where dreams go to die. It starts with self- doubt, you question yourself on whether you are good enough to go on entrepreneurship alone. Then a monthly salary makes you comfortable, and your dreams start to drain down the gutter. Then, when your passion dies and you are a desk zombie, you build up hasty conventional dreams of climbing up the corporate ladder. Three years, you will be assistant manager, then three to four more years, you will be a department manager and then a senior assistant manager before a senior manager. If you do not go back to school to improve your skills, then your life becomes stale at exactly assistant senior manager o’clock.
At tea break, an old lady comes to your desk and gives you cash to fetch mandazis for the ten o’clock tea break. At first, you feel like its demeaning, but then a later thought hits you that you were the only young person in that office, so whatever. You bring back the mandazis and find out that none was yours because they forgot to count your share. They remembered to send you but forgot to give enough money for a mandazi serving that includes you. You let this go. You decide to take tea only, but by the time you get to the flask, it is empty. Old women took two cups of tea while you were out to fetch their mandazis
By lunchtime, the conviction that this job is not the place for you is stronger than ever. When everyone goes off to lunch in groups, you stay behind for two reasons; you have no idea where they have lunch and how expensive it is and two, you need to save up every little coin to buy yourself out of this frustrating old office. Crippling thoughts always attack when one is all alone. You start feeling as if you might never be happy again. From your view, life begins to look like a series of compromise and unreachable targets. In the big empty office filled with the smell of old paper and furniture, at lunchtime, a tear trickles down your cheek unnoticed until it lands on the desk in front of you.
They begin coming in from lunch at two. Most of them with toothpicks in the middle of their teeth like they were coming from a successful hunting and BBQ trip. All afternoon nobody seems concerned with work. The most they do is make old lame and loud jokes on politics while holding out the newspaper before them.
Now you understand why they do not like you, it is because you do not like them either. Over the next couple of days, you attempt to find solutions for your problems. You try bringing food from home for lunch and eat in the office kitchen but then, at lunch, you walk into the kitchen to find office women busy. They are removing maize and peas from their cobs for an evening githeri meal at home with their families. That day you walk back home with your lunch meal in your laptop bag, untouched.
Then you lose your fancy made blazers and stick to a shirt only like most of them. That day one of the guy invites you for lunch and to your sheer disbelief he pays the bill. You walk into the office like them, with a toothpick between your teeth. Slowly, you are becoming less like you and more like them to fit in. Peer pressure never ends in high school.
But, you will have to quit that job. You have to keep looking for opportunities that suit your skills and a place that receives you the way you are and do not have to adjust – because life is short. It will not wait for you to get your shit in order. Your twenties are your prime years, and the more you spend them trying to fit into a clique that is twice your age the faster they will run out.
People who conform to a particular set of predetermined conventions can never explore what they are meant to be. Another chance is offered and the world puts in a new stare to see exactly how wrong you play your cards.