Shipwrecked on a Desert Island
Her name was Irene Nzioka. She lived with her sister. We started chatting the way people do when on a queue. “Do you know I have been to fifty-four interviews so far,” she said.
When I was a boy, I thought I would have a house, a car, a wife, and a child by thirty.
The streets bustled with pedestrians and motorcars. It was eight o’clock as I walked up Ronald Ngala Street, amidst matatus driven by mad men. A grey-haired old man in a kanzu was nearly smashed and flattened by an ugly, graffitied minibus blaring loud music. The tout, mad and monkey-like at the bus’s door, yelled at the old man, “fala wewe”, as the bus from hell sped off. A minute later I was crossing Moi Avenue.
Last year I attended the wedding of a boy I grew up with. We came from the same village, went to the same primary school and secondary school, Nyamu and I. We were brothers and we believed it. His mother treated me like a son and my mother always welcomed Nyamu in our house warmly. We parted ways after high school. He went to Nairobi University. I went to Kenyatta University.
When Nyamu called me to tell me he had met a girl he liked, I did not think he was serious. We all meet girls and most of us don’t marry them, but Nyamu was serious. He wanted to marry Cynthia.
I arrived at the wedding (in Embu) clutching a wrapped painting I bought from Tuskys, a present for the newlyweds, and some money in an envelope stuffed in my pocket.
There were beautiful girls at the wedding, but I did not approach them. I was in a low mood.
A few months ago, I took a bus to Ngong at the Railways Stage off Haille Selassie Avenue. I was desperate for a job. I was ready to take any, including being a community radio presenter, even though I did not study journalism.
Shallow pools stood on the ground. It had rained the previous night. Mud caked the soles of my shoes. A passing bodaboda rode through a nearby puddle and splashed the dirty water all over my trousers. I nearly went back home. Instead I found a puddle of relatively clean water, soaked my handkerchief and cleaned my trousers, hoping they would dry before I arrived at the venue of the interview. I wiped mud off my shoes, and scraped mud stuck on the soles against a rock.
I found ten young people at the interview, and by the time the interviews started, ten more had arrived. It turned out they were looking for volunteers, unpaid interns. I negotiated for transport allowance to no avail.
Bemused by an Mshwari SMS informing me that my debt was due the next day, I went to a restaurant and ordered chicken and fries.
I took a bus at Kencom, to Upper Hill, and alighted where Valley Road intersects with Ralph Bunche Road. Another job interview: at Mayfair Centre on Ralph Bunche Road.
I have not spoken with my grandparents for months, my uncles or aunts. I don’t meet up with my cousins. I don’t get calls from them. People used to call me, asking about my weekend mpango, now they don’t.
My mother and father no longer ask me whether I got a job. They don’t ask how I survive. When we talk on the phone, there is nothing to say.
My brother, my only sibling, went to Iceland two years ago to study. He is a software engineer. I heard he got engaged to a girl from there. He is bringing her home to meet the family in December. It’s all everyone talks about.
We dropped our applications at Mayfair a year ago. I read in the newspaper that there were thousands of applications. They were overwhelmed by them. By us. Thousands of us.
I worked as a marketer for a while, handing out flyers, walking into people’s businesses trying to acquire customers, that kind of a thing. I was shy in the beginning but got used to it. I even learned to relish it.
I had a client who treated me like a ping pong ball. “Come back tomorrow, I will have your money then,” he always said. But the day never arrived. One day when talking to said client in his hardware shop, a man with a potbelly eavesdropped on our conversation and told me I was impressive. He invited me to his office the next day. In my head I was thinking, is this how breakthroughs come to people?
That night, I posted on Facebook: “Don’t sit around waiting for opportunity. It won’t find you in your house. It won’t find you in your comfort zone. Opportunity comes to the man in the battlefield. Opportunity follows the man of action. If you are in the arena, the gods will take note of your courage and grit and reward you.”
The man ran a property management business. A small affair, I realized, standing in front of his office at nine the next morning. He had not opened yet, so I went for a stroll and came back an hour later. ”You are late,” he said. I explained I had arrived at nine on the dot and found the office closed. He needed someone like me, he said, a young man full of enthusiasm and a go getter. “The thing about many young people in your generation,” he said, “is that they don’t have enthusiasm. They are lazy and entitled. They wait for things to happen. They blame the government for everything, yet God has given every one of us two hands to feed himself.”
We talked for ages. About his journey as an entrepreneur, his glorious past when he used to be a millionaire and drank the finest drinks and women flocked to him like ants to a bowl of sugar, and his fall from grace. He was in the process of rebuilding. He wanted a man like me. He would be a great mentor. I was excited, until he told me he would not pay a salary, that remuneration would be commission-based. He wanted a marketer, someone to bring in clients, but with additional duties like cleaning the office. I had to ask: shouldn’t those extras be remunerated separately from client acquisition?
The message came when I was at the tailor’s. I had gone there to fix some trousers and shirts. The tailor said to me, “Kwani what is the good news? You are smiling very hard.” I told her I had been invited for a job interview and she said, “Praise Jesus.”
I did not have a suit, though, I knew I needed to dress to impress. I had no friends I could borrow a good suit from. The tailor said she had a suit I could rent. It was slightly bigger than me, but I took it anyway. I pleaded with her to let me pay a quarter of the sum first and the balance later.
I received three early text messages before I left the house: one from Mshwari about my almost due loan, one from Tala about my already due loan, and one from a friend I owed money. It would have been worse had I bumped into my landlord.
Before the interviews started we got to know each other. The depressing thing about talking to your fellow interviewees is hearing how more qualified they are for the job than you.
Her name was Irene Nzioka. She lived with her sister. We started chatting the way people do when on a queue.
“Do you know I have been to fifty-four interviews so far,” she said.
“Tell me you are joking,” I said.
“I am not joking-oh.”
“I tally them in my diary.”
“That reminds me of those movies where someone gets shipwrecked on a desert island and he tallies up the days as they come and go.”
“That is how unemployment feels. I am shipwrecked on a desert island. I am all alone and nobody understands my struggle. To have a job seems to me to be the most marvellous thing. To wake up early in the morning, bathe, make coffee, dress, and dash off into the street all business-like. To have somewhere to go, to be with your colleagues all day and come back home in the evening tired and hungry. You kick off your shoes, put on some music, make a drink, unwind, watch one episode of your favourite comedy show, cook dinner, eat, watch a movie to unwind, or read a novel, go to bed by nine or ten, and because you are tired you sleep like the dead until the alarm wakes you up the next day to start the cycle all over again.”
“That sounds appealing to you?” I said.
“There is the money at the end of the month too,” she said.
I do not tally up my interviews like Irene, but I have been around the block. I have held a few jobs and ran two failed businesses.
I used to sell polythene bags to shops, my side-hustle when I was working as an insurance salesman. I supplied polythene bags during my rounds looking for insurance clients
When the government banned plastic bags, I had to go back to the drawing board.
After our interviews, Irene, myself, and a few of the other interviewees we had connected with walked back to the city. As we walked through Uhuru Park, Irene observed the children sitting in a boat bobbing on the waters of the pond at Uhuru Park and she said, “I miss being a kid.
I said, “I don’t. When I was a kid all I wanted was to grow up.”
“Me too,” she said. “Now that I have, all I want is to be a kid again.”
One of the guys said, “You can’t turn back time.”
Irene said, “I know that. But I do wish I was a kid and didn’t have to worry about things like getting a job.” She looked at me and said, “How did your interview go? I thought mine went well.”
I said, “Mine too, but that’s what I always think.”