By Gabriel Oguda
I met Norman today. Why do I tell you this story? My first meaningful job in Nairobi was at Supa Loaf, yes, I have worked in a bakery. March 2003 – July 2003. At the site where the Cooperative Bank Gikomba Branch currently stands. Whenever I go to Gikomba, I stop around that place for a minute to whisper a word of gratitude. I first came to Nairobi in March 2003. Straight to Kibera to live with my elder brother in Lindi village, our house was just along the Nairobi River next to that famous bridge connecting Kibera and Langata. We would move to higher grounds every time it rained. Pray you donâ€™t live in Kibera. Respect those living in Kibera.
I came to Nairobi to school, I had made the Joint Admissions Board cut to join the University of Nairobi, BA (Anthropology). It was a big thing for me. It was a big thing for my village. I felt on top of the world coming to Nairobi, the seat of power, the civilization epicenter. For a villager used to chasing squirrels off cassava plantations, I had arrived. Indeed I had. Until reality dawned on me I couldnâ€™t stay in my brotherâ€™s house wasting his resources as I waited to join campus that October. Men must go out and sweat, my late grandfather always told me, and I promptly joined the long early morning queues to Industrial Area looking for casual labour.
I asked for a job, any job, at Coca Cola – they turned me away twice. I even tried my luck at Crown Paints, they put me on the waiting list. Knocked doors at KAA (I wanted to help clean their fire engines), they didnâ€™t even give me an ear. Just when I was about to step back to restrategize, my brother asked me to try Supa Loaf, the bread masters. I went to Supa Loaf HQs along Isiolo Road to present my case at packing crates of bread. They told me they had no vacancy but could refer me to their Branch in Gikomba. The Branch Manager, I forget his name, asked me to see Norman, the Supervisor on duty that day. Norman would tell me to come back the next morning without promising anything. I walked back to Kibera (I had no fare) that day feeling on top of the world. At last somebody believed in me.
But getting a job at Supa Loaf wasnâ€™t going to be as easy as I had earlier thought. This is how it works at Industrial Area. The morning shift begins at 7am. Everyone looking for a job stands outside the gate, the Supervisor opens the gate and makes an announcement; â€œâ€¦Today (there are no greetings), I only need seven people; 2 to operate the bread slicer, 3 to wrap bread, and 2 in the storeâ€¦â€ Outside we are like a sea of job-hunters, say in excess of 50 people. 50 people eyeing 7 places. The Supervisor then stands on a platform and picks out familiar faces from the crowd. The rest have to try their luck elsewhere. I am standing there wondering why Norman isnâ€™t calling out my name yet he had promised me a job today. I realize I was not the only person he had asked to come today. And he still had the veterans he had been working with for sometime now who were pros at the tasks. It takes me a cool 5 weeks, coming in daily to try my luck, to get my first assignment to wrap bread (the easiest job under the sun) in Supa Loaf.
People just want to do what they were hired for as they wait for home time. Here we are, in a bread assembly line waiting for freshly baked bread from the oven to run them into the slicing machine, wrap them and crate them for dispatch. Just before 10 mins to 7am (I was on night shift that day), we get a report that Nakumatt Supermarkets have sent in a request for an extra 20 crates that morning. We had already packed their usual consignment waiting for loaders to clear the store room then the supervisor notices it will take the loaders extra time to load the delivery lorry. Time is running out. So he goes round the slicing desk and asks whether anyone of us would consider helping the loaders out. We have already picked our cash (we were paid cash on delivery after every shift, no fuss). The veterans in our lot are already at the gate waiting for it to be opened they go home. They aren’t being paid to load so they will go home. I am tempted to leave with them.
There isn’t any herd mentality in the job market. I am new, still to make an impression. Those guys walking out are veterans. They are already assured of a job, theyâ€™ve proved themselves. If I join them, nothing will separate me from the bunch, I will still retain my lower perch in the pecking order. I raise my hand up and offer to help the loaders, even though I will be doing it for free. As we finish loading, the Branch Manager comes around to confirm dispatch, and he notices me. â€œKijana, who are you and what are you doing here?â€. â€œI am Gabriel, the son of a peasant farmer just helping out so that Nakumatt brings Supa Loaf more businessâ€¦â€. He calls Norman, the Supervisor, and asks him to assign me at the desk of the Clerk who was leaving for a two-weeks off duty that evening. I left my brotherâ€™s house the previous night as a bread wrapper, I returned the next morning as the Branch Clerk.
From the Manuscript, â€˜My Back Against The Wallâ€™ . This post first appeared on the writer’s Facebook Timeline