Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Ice Cream Stand

Chidera, visibly irritated and scowling, sits in the back seat of the car that’s been hired by her company, or rather her erstwhile company. The negotiation between her and RainSted management had gone south, and she gave her one month resignation notice.

After three years of working in such horrid conditions and having to constantly fight for what is rightfully mine, I think it’s time I bowed out.

“Madam, are we going to the hotel?” the driver asks, snapping her out of her train of thought.

“Um, hold on.” Ransacking her bag, she picks up her phone and makes a call.

“Hey, Dera. What’s up?” An excited voice emerges from the other end of the line.

“Hey, Nonyem. I’m good. How are you doing?” Chidera asks.

“I’m alright. I’m tidying up my desk for the weekend. How did the negotiation with your management go?”

“Not good. I can’t talk about it now,” Chidera says looking at the driver. Then wiggling her wrist, she glances at her watch, “Listen, why don’t we meet up at The Palms this evening, and I can tell you all about it? It’s 5.13pm, so if you leave the office now, we’ll have ample time to chat before Half of a Yellow Sun starts showing. I’ve been dying to see to that movie!”

“Sounds like a plan. I hope you’re OK though,” Nonyem inquires in a motherly tone.

“I’m fine, honey. Never felt better. In fact, this feels like the best decision I’ve made in a long time,” Chidera replies reassuringly.

“OK, if you say so,” Nonyem says, unconvinced. “Does Nkem know you’re in Lagos?”

“Yes. I called her yesterday when I touched down in Lagos. She said she was up to her eyebrows in work, editing some articles and opinion pieces for New African, and wasn’t sure she’d have any spare time before Sunday. As I’ll be leaving for Abuja Sunday morning, I doubt I’ll see her.”

“Hmm, Nkem? She’s always busy. You won't believe I haven’t seen her in five weeks. One day she’ll work herself to death,” Nonyem quips, to the amusement of Chidera and herself.

“Well, you know she’s always been a workaholic, even in school,” Chidera adds with a chuckle. “Anyway, I’ll send her a BBM and convince her to escape work for a few hours.”

“Good luck with that.” Nonyem responds sarcastically.

“Thank you,” Chidera retorts in a similar tone. “I’ll hang up now, so you can tidy up.”

“Alrighty. Ciao.”

Chidera hangs up and sends Nkem a BBM while giving the driver instructions.

Thank goodness, there’s packing space. Chidera thinks to herself as the driver stops her at the entrance.

Alighting, she makes her way into the sea of people exiting and entering the mall. The animated voices and the smell of ice-cream emanating from the Cold Stone stand make her forget the conversation from two hours ago she’d been playing in her head en route to The Palms. As she walks towards the ice-cream stand, she feels her phone vibrate. Searching her bag frantically, she finds it and answers. It’s Nkem.

“Hi, Dera. I’m in the parking lot. Where are you?” Nkem asks.

“I’m inside, by Cold Stone.”

“Ah OK. I’ll meet you there,” Nkem responds and hangs up.

A few minutes later, Nkem meets Chidera at the ice-cream stand and they embrace tightly.

“Long time, no see!” Nkem exclaims exuberantly. “I love your hair. You look like a Nubian princess!”

Even though neither knew what a Nubian princess looked like, it was Nkem’s quirky way of saying someone was beautiful.

“Aww, thank you, Nkem.” Chidera replies, grinning from ear to ear. “And I love your lipstick. It suits your skin tone. Makes you look very sultry,” Chidera chimes.

“Thank you. I got it from MAC over there.” Nkem replies, pointing to the store.

As they stood chatting about trivialities, Chidera’s phone rings. She answers informing Nonyem of her location.

Shortly afterwards, Nonyem approaches the ice-cream stand and lets out a short laugh on spotting Nkem. 

“Is that Nkem I’m seeing, or is it a ghost?” Nonyem asks rhetorically. “Dera, how did you manage to get Nkem out of her dungeon?”

The trio laughs as Nonyem hugs Nkem and Chidera.

“I’m meant to be on a diet this week,” Nkem mutters resignedly to the amusement of her friends as they order ice-creams. “But what the hell, it’s been ages since I had this.”

The ladies leave the stand and proceed to an adjacent bench.

“Umm, pleasure,” Chidera moans as she eats her ice-cream. 

“Yes, the little pleasures of life. Speaking of life, what happened today at the office?” Nkem asks.

“Oh, that. Mtchew,” Chidera irreverently kisses her teeth as a slight frown appears on her face. “As you guys know, I was asked to relocate to Lagos from Abuja, but the company wasn’t willing to pay the relocation allowance I asked for, so I resigned. Can you imagine they offered me 380K?

“380K?” Nkem and Nonyem chorus in disbelief.

“Are they high or what?” Nonyem inquires sardonically.

“Maybe. They thought I’d quietly take it and find myself a flat on the Mainland.” Chidera pauses to take a spoonful of her ice-cream, then continues talking: “It seems they’d expected me to commute from the Mainland to the Island every day, because they kept saying they would exceed the budget if they met my demand. But I’m pretty sure they had no budgetary worries when they relocated Pierre and put him up in an expensive, self-serviced apartment in Ikoyi. And to make matters worse, he’s my subordinate! Imagine the nonsense!” Chidera exclaims indignantly.

“Pierre gets an expensive apartment just because he’s an expat staff, but I, a Nigerian staff, cannot get a decent relocation allowance! What sort of discrimination is that? He uses the company car and driver without any regard for his fellow colleagues because,” in a French accent, Chidera mimics Stephanie, her boss, “‘Lagos isn’t very safe so he needs the car to move around.’ Damn right it isn’t, but it is safe enough for him to go clubbing until 5am.”

“There’s a double standard RainSted applies to some of its staff and consultants. For example, when RainSted's CEO visited Nigeria last year, Stephanie sent an email inviting only our expatriate consultants to dinner. I was surprised when I saw the email, but you know what I did? I forwarded the email to our Nigerian consultants. Stephanie only realized what I’d done when one of the Nigerians RSVP’d,” Chidera says with a wicked smile. “Then she called me asking why I had invited the Nigerians and said that she purposely didn’t want to invite them. When I asked her reason for excluding them, she said they were going to bring plus ones. What sort of an excuse is that?”

“A stupid one,” Nonyem replies dryly.

“Prior to my joining RainSted, they weren’t contributing to their staff's pension accounts. If this happened in France, would they get away with blatantly cheating their staff? It’s the same thing with taxes - they evade them. Yet Stephanie has the chutzpah to say Nigerians are corrupt.”

“Don’t mind them,” Nkem chimes supportingly. “They say Nigeria is corrupt, and yet they benefit from the status quo. Reminds me of when I worked for Trip manpower. They would pay a taxman on the sly to produce income tax certificates for foreign workers whose taxes they weren’t paying. Then there was also the issue of quota trafficking where Trip exceeded the number of expat staff it was allowed to employ per year for a particular job designation, so they bribed immigration officers to turn a blind eye to their questionable activities. What people, especially foreigners, fail to understand is that the briber and the bribee are both corrupt.”

“It’s a shame the Nigerian government doesn’t compel multinational companies to use local labor, especially since unemployment is rife here,” Nonyem says incredulously while eating the last of her ice-cream. “Tell me why a company, like YOTOL, should hire a generator mechanic from Spain, when there are so many capable mechanics in Nigeria. It just doesn’t make any sense. I mean, I understand the logic of employing specialists from abroad to fill a skills gap, but when it’s obvious the position can be filled locally, why not do so?”

“What pisses me off the most is when an expat who’s working back to back with a Nigerian gets paid almost 400% more for the same job. What justifies his salary?” Nonyem demands in annoyance. “He doesn’t pay for accommodation or for transportation as those are provided by the company, but Nigerian workers have to pay for all that with the meager salary they earn. YOTOL keeps talking about cutting costs, but won’t source locally for workers; neither would they ensure the transfer of technological knowledge between foreigners and Nigerians, so they can keep using the skills gap excuse to hire expats. I’m so sick and tired of these oil companies and their antics.”

“Well, you know since the recession, Europe and America have been struggling to keep their citizens employed, so one way of ensuring they remain employed is to have them hijack jobs meant for Nigerians.” Nkem remarks matter-of-factly.

Chidera and Nonyem nod their heads in agreement.

“It's a crying shame the Nigerian government is in league with multinationals to screw Nigeria over,” Chidera says, sounding almost defeatist. “I wonder when we'll have leaders like Thomas Sankara, who cared more about his country and less about his pocket.”  

“I wonder, too,” Nkem sighs then looks at Chidera with inquiring eyes. “Dera, do you think you made the right choice? I mean by quitting.”

“Hell, yes!” Chidera interjects. “I just need a few days to clear my head and determine my next course of action, but I’m pretty certain I’ve made the right decision.”

Nkem, now smiling, looks at her phone and announces, “It’s 6.47. Let’s head upstairs to the theatre before all the good seats are taken.”