In this country, a boss should always be bald and have a big belly. My uncle isn’t bald, he hasn’t got a big belly, and you don’t realise, the first time you see him, that he’s the actual boss of a big office in the centre of town…
He wears thick-framed glasses, a worn-out leather bag and a smile. You would think that he’s a doctor, or maybe a tailor of silk tiyab. But what does he do exactly? I don’t really know. Mama says he’s a businessman. Baba says he works with the government. When I ask my uncle, he just laughs.
“I sit and listen to others for a living,” he tugs at my braids, “and if you’re smart Zainab, you’ll learn to do the same. You want to make money, don’t you?”
Yes. I want to make money. I have wants and ambitions, even at eleven years old. Milkshakes, a smartphone, internet that stays connected. But in this country, money is like water. Mama swears we have so much of it – the Niles, the Red Sea. But where is the money when the water cuts? I don’t know.
One day, my uncle takes me to that big office. The guards scramble to attention when we approach. A generator whirrs loudly. Inside, I count the waiting faces in the lobby. Twelve.
“Who will bother us first?” he asks. “Guess.”
I choose incorrectly. But it doesn’t matter. Soon, all twelve faces have said hello and more. My uncle listens, shakes hands, reassures.
“Don’t worry!” he booms, “Aren’t we like brothers? Tell you what, call my secretary. Let’s not talk in front of my niece here.”
Upstairs, his secretary jokes that I’m “an excellent excuse.” I feel offended. What have I done? Nothing! But I stay quiet. I don’t want to go home just yet.
I watch my uncle work. He signs papers, takes calls, drinks tea with grey suits. An hour passes. People lurk before entering. Some compliment my hair. Most ignore me. There is chat of exports, of dams and construction. The country is going backwards. Blame the South, Egypt, Ethiopia, us!
“Wallahi, inta hagani.” I hear my uncle declare. I swear, you’re honest.
Strange. He says it to them all.
Another hour crawls by. It is hot. I have stopped listening to the conversations. I want to go home now.
“Are you bored yet?” my uncle asks.
“Maybe a little,” I venture.
“What a shame!” he smiles, “We’re making money here.”
Money? I don’t understand. No one has mentioned money. No talk of the pound or the dollar. No notes counted or exchanged.
“Money?” I perk up, “Where?”
“In a hidden safe?” I look curiously around us.
“In a bank somewhere, yes! But think…where is the money in this room?
I’m confused. I can only stare at him blankly.
“Ah, you haven’t been paying attention to our visitors! That’s the secret Zainab,” he smiles, “In this country? The money is in people.”
Azza Elnaiem (@) is a young Sudanese-British doctor who has grown up as part of the diaspora in the UK and abroad. She likes to think of herself as a ‘woman of science’ but writing has always been a passion of hers. In her spare time, she enjoys reading fantasy novels, discussing global health policy and investing heavily in scripted reality TV story-lines. If you would like to read more of the nonsense I spout, I can be found on Twitter.
This story was published as a finalist of the AFREADA x Africa Writes Competition. Writers had to produce a 500-word story from the first two sentences of Alain Mabanckou’s novel, Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty. Read the winning story here.
Related country: Sudan, #TIBT