Abrokyir Nkomo: Any Work?

Mon, 3 Aug 2009 Source: Nkrumah-Boateng, Rodney

By Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng


We all know there is dignity in labour-so long as it is honest labour, of course. Even if you are being paid less than peanuts for your sweat and toil, there is a certain satisfaction that comes on pay day when the money comes tumbling in. Back home, your army of creditors-including Maame Mansa the mad, screaming cigarette seller, Akwele the promiscuous beer bar owner and Auntie Adisa the fat, rice and beans hawker with a permanent scowl on her face may all be lurking around waiting to pounce on you for what is due them come pay day. They have made careful notes as you ate, drank and smoked your way through the month on credit, and by God, are your bills sky-high! You don’t know how they found out about your payday, but they did, rather mysteriously, and they silently appear by your side like ghostly apparitions whenever it is that time of the month. Everybody wants a piece of you on pay day. On top of this, your girlfriend/concubine wants a new dress or some money to go to the hairdressing salon and re-touch her perm because she is attending a funeral in a week and wants to look good. Within a week, you are eating, smoking and drinking again on credit, and you are wistfully waiting for the next pay day, for your pocket is as empty as a mosque in the Vatican City on a Sunday morning.

When most Ghanaian or African immigrants land in abrokyir, they do so with an unparalleled drive and passion to work. The immigrant knows where he has come from and certainly knows where he is going. He is not in town to soak up western culture, art, music or literature. No, he is in town to fulfill a burning ambition, for a load of problems sits on his shoulders. He may have family to take care of back home, school fees to pay, a home to build so that no landlord will bluff him when (if?) he returns back home one day to settle down, or a business to set up. Or he may want to save some money for further education in a few years’ time. He wants, rather naturally, to be a ‘somebody’ some day in the future.

Now, just as a drowning man will zealously clutch a stray straw that passes his way, the immigrant will grab almost any job that he can lay his hands on-once he has got past the tricky problem of the right papers for working and actually begins looking for work. Looking for work is in itself akin to a full-time job, as there are application forms to be completed, interviews to attend and rejections to deal with. He does not have the luxury to be fussy or queasy about particular kinds of work, even if he is a university graduate. At this point, the BSc or BA degree certificate will have to be put carefully in an envelope and under the mattress, whilst the mop and brush will have to be grabbed with gusto for some serious cleaning work. After all, the degree certificate will not pay the rent, no matter how many times you stare at it and admire it. Whether it is factory work, kitchen work or any other ‘ordinary work’, the key to escapism is to concentrate on the money that arrives in the account on a weekly or monthly basis, which can work miracles back home and keep body and soul together .

As a ‘Johnny Just Come’, you are usually advised that it is not proper to ask someone what job they do for it can lead to embarrassment and discomfort on both sides. Your old friend from home with the MBA who used to work in an air conditioned office at the Bank of Ghana a few years ago may not exactly relish revealing to you that he scrubs plates and pots and pans all day in a hot basement kitchen for a living, wearing a large plastic apron and elbow-length gloves and being shouted at by mediocre, poorly educated chefs and supervisors. Sometime in the 1990s, one of my cleaning colleagues at a posh block of offices in Central London used to come to work in full suit and tie, looking very expensive. He would then carefully change into his cleaning overalls and get scrubbing, mopping and sweeping all day. Come 5.30pm, he would change back into his suit before leaving. We found it very amusing. According to the gossip and rumour grapevine, he had led his white wife to believe that he was an office worker. He had to keep up appearances, I guess. I used to wonder idly what his wife’s reaction would be if she had to come into his workplace one day in an emergency and found her beloved on his knees vigorously polishing the banisters on the stairs at the reception. The poor woman would probably suffer a fatal heart attack!

Dear reader, there can be nothing more interesting than applying for a job as a cleaner or factory worker and stating on the application form that your highest qualifications on God’s earth was GCE ‘O’levels, even though truth be told, you hold a first class degree in mechanical engineering or political science. But of course you don’t want to be seen as over-qualified, as you desperately need the money. You are thus forced to demote yourself. Later on, your boss observes, from your conversations, that you do speak very good English and that the way you argue suggests a well-educated person. You swear by the wobbly aircraft that brought you over that the information on your application form is true and accurate. You reckon that it is worth under-selling yourself in order to realise your goals.

Of course, in order to make ends meet and to realise all the fantastic dreams you have (including sorting out your papers) you may end up juggling two or more jobs and working like a horse. You wake up before dawn for work, even in winter, yawning and cursing the day you got your visa as you stand at the bus stop shivering from the bitter cold, waiting for the bus that takes forever to arrive. You are forever running after buses and trains as you dash from one job to another, catching snippets of sleep on the bus or train whilst in transit. Fourteen or sixteen hours’ work a day are not uncommon at the crucial initial stages of landing in town, especially if it took you some time to find work-you need to catch up on lost time. You are not sleeping in your own bed enough to justify the crazy rent you pay for the tiny room you occupy.

You look drawn and gaunt most of the time and your palms are hardening with blisters-but never mind, it is hard currency at play here. You don’t want to lose your job(s) so you push yourself and work hard. Parties, nightclubs, relationships and generally having fun are all pushed to the backburner whilst you try to establish yourself- where is the time when you have three jobs? You volunteer to work through the Christmas holidays because you need the extra money this brings in. Unlike back home, you can hardly get time off work by telling your boss that your cousin’s wife’s younger sister has died at the village so you need to go away for a week. You know you will be told to go and come no more. You can’t turn up late for work with the excuse that ‘it was raining’. And most definitely you cannot sneak out during working hours to play the lottery and not return for the day. Every cent or penny that your boss wants to pay you, he wants to make sure you have worked hard for it. Very hard.

If you are living with your wife or brother or friend, then you may have the ridiculous situation of hardly seeing each other for a full week, if your job schedules are different. Essentially you are running after each other through a set of revolving doors. You therefore communicate by telephone or by hurriedly scrawled notes left on the kitchen table as both of you swing in and out, chasing dollars, pounds or euros.

But dear reader, our elders say that boiling water eventually cools down. You cannot continue to run around frantically like a headless chicken forever. There will come a time when you have to slow down. Usually this comes with the realisation that there is more to life than spending all of it cooped up at work all day. This realisation usually coincides with the reality of the fact that there is a limit to the punishing schedule that the human body can endure, for your waist feels funny these days and you are no longer the agile man or woman you used to be. Another realisation may be that no matter what long hours you work, it does not seem to translate into much in your pocket, for the tax man is standing by, greedily calculating how much to snatch from you.

At this point, you may then decide that one eight-hour job (with occasional overtime) may suffice, to enable you live like a human being again, as opposed to a sad workaholic. At least you can also attend parties, clubs, and funerals. You want to be able to spend some quality time with the lovely lady you have managed to lay your coarse, blistered hands on, even popping to the Cayman Islands or the South of France for a quick weekend getaway, if your immigration issues are OK now. You may even want to go to school and work at the same time. Or you may find a job with better pay that makes it worth sticking to that single job. As you have sorted your immigration papers out, you have a wider pool within which to look for work. At this stage, you can afford to be picky. If you are now in a position to secure an office job, then your work hours may be rather reasonable, especially in the public sector. Of course all this does not deviate from the fact that you still have to work hard, and your employers will make sure you will.

Of course, it is perfectly understandable that your friend/relative who is going through the ‘baptism of fire’ by working himself round the clock, will see your nine-to-five, thirty-five hour work as stress free luxury – a piece of cake, considering what he is going through. Especially if you have a high-ranking professional job, it is hard for your friend/relative to accept that you have ‘been there, done that and bought the T-shirt’, as they say. You simply smile and say nothing, for there is no point in doing so. You just hope and pray that sometime soon, he too will graduate from the hard knocks of working life in abrokyir and attain greater heights. Then he will realise that however incredible it may appear, the high flying consultant or lawyer with that sleek Mercedes and a fine house in the countryside who came from abroad many years ago to settle was also once at the bottom of the heap.

Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng is the author of Abrokyir Nkomo:Reflections of a Ghanaian Immigrant, which was released in May 2009.

Columnist: Nkrumah-Boateng, Rodney