Today, Yaw had an interview. He had sent out countless applications without so much as an acknowledgment, so today was a sign from the gods that his luck was about to change. Yaw had applied for well over 500 jobs since he graduated, and his initial hopes of getting a position had gradually faded into a mechanical duty to persist against the odds. There was always a story of someone, a friend, a cousin, a church member who had gotten something, somewhere. Half-truth, half urban myth but enough for him to keep believing that a chance may come out of nothing.
His mother’s prayers stayed with him in the times when he was close to abandoning his efforts. She had faith. It was simply impossible for her to believe that her son could waste a degree that she had sold her jewellery and taken out loans to pay for. According to her, it was only a matter of time before her brilliant graduate son would get his first post and be able to provide for the family.
But Yaw knew that the reality was stark and unforgiving. Some of his classmates had already given up, throwing their future away in plumes of smoke, a daily habit of smoking wee on backstreet corners and sipping sachets of spirits until they could no longer remember their shame. Yaw was resolute but his resolve was fading, he was in his third year of unemployment. The last interview he had was a bad memory of queuing outside in a line of more than 200 candidates for a street marketing sales job with a retail bank, by the time he had reached the front of the line they were no longer recruiting. When he arrived home he stifled tears from falling in front of his mother, passing her without explanation to spend two days in his room battling a fear of failure that would not subside.
Yaw arrived at the Ministry where his interview was being held. The outside of the building was worn down, showing years of neglect. Paint flaked from window frames and dust clung to the glass shutters. It was a relic from the time of independence when it was built brand new but, after the coup and the military regime, was left to crumble amongst the ruins of other state buildings.
The job was for an Assistant to the Research Officer at the Ministry of Welfare and Social Protection based in their head office in Accra. The salary wasn’t advertised but it would be less than 100 dollars a month without benefits. As a step into the civil service, it was a perfect start for a graduate looking to build a career in government. Perhaps over 1000 people applied and only a fraction were called for interview.
Yaw stepped quickly up cracked steps and into the foyer, an elderly woman at the desk did not raise her head to greet him, turning away to chat with a passing friend. Yaw patiently waited as the woman continued to chat, arching her ancient back into a cackle over a misguided in-law. The minutes passed endlessly and Yaw began to feel anxious, he would soon miss his turn.
Approaching the desk, he called after her politely but the woman continued to ignore him, pretending not to notice he was there. Yaw knelt to take his application from his bag and saw a couple of young men holding folders lined with paper. The woman eyed him as he scuttled towards them but did not protest as Yaw had feared.
Yaw called out to the group of young men standing by the stairwell.
‘Are you here..for the interview?’
They looked back at him blankly and then at each other as though they were not sure whether he was supposed to be there. They were dressed in near identical outfits, tailored grey jackets with black and white silk shirts and silver cufflinks. Yaw felt suddenly conscious of his faded church clothes and his leather belt that peeled at the borders.
‘Yeah, and what about you?’ One of them asked, a mocking grin across his face.
‘They told me 9 o clock.’
‘Why are you just coming?’ The tallest asked him.
‘There was some traffic at the roundabout just outside…’ Yaw stopped himself, his explanation was meaningless. ‘I applied for the assistant, D-block…’
They were already walking ahead of him, then up an uneven staircase cracking with rust. Some opened their tablets while others messaged on their smartphones. One left on the way to greet his Uncle, a senior official in one of the divisions. Yaw watched him. From his energy and assuredness, he looked like a fresh graduate. It would not be long for him Yaw imagined, with his money and connections. Yaw was reminded of his own Uncle and his failure to inform him that he had an interview today. It had been months since they had spoken and he dreaded having to face his standard derision.
Yaw took a deep breath and looked up the staircase, imagining what awaited them. His nervous excitement began to make him nauseous and he held the metal railing as he steadily climbed.
Yaw followed the interview signs directing him to the waiting area. He walked through a double door which led to a small waiting room. The room was full of bodies clambering over plastic seats and competing for space. Dozens huddled at the front desk clutching flip boards, busily jotting details on forms. Some gathered at the doorway, others queued in the corridor , it was a mass of bodies in a bubble of hectic din.
Yaw noticed one girl dressed in a light pink suit with a ruffled crème shirt, perched nervously at the end of a row of seats, her eyes fixed to the ground, she jumped at the sound of the door each time it creaked open. Another boy couldn’t sit down, pacing between the corners of the room, too disturbed to notice the glares of those around him.
‘Next!’ A voice called from the corridor
Yaw wondered how he had really ended up here amongst the select few. Amongst the thousand who had applied, five hundred had been eliminated by simple errors on the form. A missing address was enough to be removed from the next round. A test was then administered where you needed 80 percent to go forward. The 100 lucky enough to pass were then subjected to random selection based on a range of criteria only known to the Ministry, and widely understood as a chance to weed out those who had no connections or had not paid a bribe. Yaw’s family had no money and no big connection to rely on, so it appeared to be more of a bizarre joke when Yaw received the email that he had reached the interview stage.
There was a surge forward as people scrambled to hear an announcement by the receptionist who prompted the crowd to rearrange itself. Those with surname starting with A-F should stand here, she pointed vaguely. Those with all other surnames wait outside. A mild panic ensued, what did this mean? Was this code for some sort of elimination for people call Mensah and Sarpong? Nobody knew for sure but it was certain that it was not a good sign for the others who would have to wait an unknown length of time before the next divide was created. Yaw Achempong walked uneasily to the front of a gradually forming queue.
Judging by the speed of the succession of calls from the dreaded interview room, his turn would not be long now. Yaw would do his best, answer their questions and allow them to make their judgements.
Scanning through scrawled notes that detailed mostly his activities from university, Yaw was quickly taken back to those golden years of his bachelors degree.
He studied at the best university in the country, founded by the independence leader whose name was glittered in gold at the building gates.
His mother had fasted for three days before his entrance papers had arrived, and when they did she was sure it was a sign that God had delivered them. Since the day he arrived till the day he departed, Yaw felt at home walking the corridors, captivated in the library, enchanted by the lush green lawns that he and his friends lounged on. But most of all, he was drawn by the battle of the lecture halls where he would debate with lecturers on principles that their theories were based, always questioning why and what for. He would become a thorn in their sides but also the student that they gave a muted respect. Perhaps in Yaw they saw the youthful exuberance that had drove them to teach and in his idealism, they pitied and admired him in equal measure.
Yaw simply believed in the beauty of Africa and the simple truth of its inevitable development. But went further to argue that Africa would lead the world in a generation, perhaps a step too far. A point that he believed (right or wrongly) prevented him from the first class degree that he surely deserved.
‘Next!’ The voice jerked Yaw out of his thoughts and into the present moment. His turn had come.
Four elderly men sat behind a long wooden table draped in white cloth. All wearing spectacles that bordered eyes lined with wrinkles that spread across their furrowed brows, they shuffled papers piled neatly in front of them, occasionally squinting at text they complained was too small to read. A group of assistants hurried to and fro, shuffling in tight pencil skirts and brightly ruffled tops brought from overseas. Occasionally one of the men would raise a hand and shout an order, a woman would rush forward in response, bringing more papers and taking sheets away as though on a production line. These men, some of the most senior officials from the Ministry were not the type to keep waiting, they disliked questions unanswered and were known to work studiously under the Director’s command. The assignment to select one Research Assistant out of a thousand candidates had been a nuisance and a burden on time. A waste of three months better spent on more pressing administrative matters. They would be done by 12, they told the women. By all means.
No one noticed when Yaw stepped quietly into the room and stood beside the single chair that stood in front of the panel. He quickly scanned the room and set his eyes on the several piles of papers that covered the surface of the table, wondering where his application would be found. The men watched Yaw with disappointment as though he were not the candidate they were expecting and muttered a joke between them that Yaw could not hear. The senior secretary sat in the corner, her chair turned away from them ready to take notes.
‘Thank you sir’
‘I see you went to Tech.’
‘What makes you think we should employ you?’
‘Well sir, I have good research skills. I can write well and I think I can be of help in analyzing data and preparing reports for the Ministry.’
‘But you have no experience with government..’
‘I can learn quickly, I learn fast sir.’
‘I have done some volunteering to get some work experience on a research project in town and I help organize events at church….’
‘That will be all’ Yaw looked blankly at him, not sure whether he had meant to stop or to move to another question.
‘Also…’ Yaw tried to continue in vain. He could feel a desperate panic rise in his chest. Reality had slammed a window shut.
‘I said that will be all.’ The man paused, turning towards the women in the corner of the room. ‘Please escort him’
They stood and ushered Yaw to the door. He can still remember the dusty stench from a corridor skirted with mould.
Yaw didn’t grasp the enormity of what had occurred until he was out of the Ministry and into the open air of the city with the climbing heat and the surge of people flooding the street as his foot firmly touched the cobbled ground.
It was as though the interview had been a distant dream in which he had lost his way from reality and the certainty of his life’s struggles. Now Yaw begun to get a sense of the world that had he inhabited and had fought to endure. The harshness of it was clear and unrelenting and, as he moved within the thick stream of a bustling crowd, he wondered whether he had the strength to find his place in it.
His hopes were now nothing but a cruel taunt, an embarrassment and a sham, for he simply should have known that a boy like him had no place applying for a job like that and yet he had foolishly applied with every hope in the same desperate recklessness that allowed him to embark and complete a university degree.
In those first few months of graduation, Yaw had no limitations in his young mind, the world was open and new and full of his aspiration. Three years later, somehow he had not been able to rid himself of that naïve essence that he could compete and perform and be whatever he believed he could. And yet the world always reminded him that a young African man did not live in a world full of possibility but of limitation and boundaries, difficulty and struggle. Yaw felt the bitterness of anger before dejected shame creeped in. He thought only of how he would face his mother as he ambled within a frantic and unforgiving crowd.
Yaw boarded a tro-tro to the other end of the city to clear his mind that clattered and raced and could not settle. A young boy, rushed towards the window looking for loose change, the hunger in his eyes was palpable but Yaw turned away from him angrily.
One women hissed from inside, ‘Can you not find water to sell?!’ The rest tutted with approval. It was not acceptable to beg when so many older than you worked and toiled for little. It was feckle laziness on his part and the boy should have known better.
Yaw still pitied him for the naive and plainness of his poverty which was stark and unyielding. But in the same moment Yaw could feel hatred rise in his chest; the boy represented the shame in the failure that was all around them. The boy reminded him of his own failure to provide for the mother who waited for him anxiously at home, patiently hoping for good news. How would he tell her that the interview was a waste of his time, that he may never get an office job in his life, and the thousands loaned for his university degree had been squandered?
As he stepped down from the tro-tro, Yaw began to feel dizzy as his thoughts spun in a tired mind. His stomach has been empty since late yesterday afternoon and he had used the change for breakfast on the journey into town. His mind switched from his troubles to where he could find something to eat. He settled on roasted yam buying as much as his coins could afford, careful to keep his last note for the journey back home, three cars across to the other side of town.
Yaw had plans to pass at Ernest’s, the typist at Archer Street, to see whether there was any statements for him to prepare.
Yaw worked when he was called for. Ernest rarely called him unless he was very busy. Sometimes it was over a month before he got in touch and only when he was overloaded. Yaw typed affidavits mostly but sometimes contracts and legal agreements and other times visa applications where he needed to type a covering letter and occasionally draft one. On a good month Yaw made 150 cedis but he knew that Ernest made considerably more. It was barely worth the effort of paying the transport fare into town but Yaw noticed the lightness of his wallet in those weeks that Ernest didn’t call, how he would be forced to skip meals and pretend not to feel the hunger in his stomach in the middle of the day.
Yaw quickly changed his mind. He couldn’t bear the thought of Ernest’s constant talk of his wayward sister or the clanging of keys on his old dusty type writer. He would walk through the central market and try to get rid of his dark mood.
Yaw walked passed the market stalls where the women furiously jostled for trade and competed for custom. A few passersby stopped to haggle, but many were ready to buy. In fact, it was a place that you avoided if you didn’t need to buy anything. The crowd heaved, the sun forced sweat to trickle across brows as dust gathered in the air, seeping into cloth and settling on anything exposed. As the gutters filled with the rubbish of disposable water packs and meat pie wrappers, the crowd again surged as the sun forgivingly lowered in the sky and people became aware of losing time. Yaw darted between them, across markets, streets and lanes, until he reached the high street where the banks lined like neat building blocks in a playpen. Leaning against a bus stop flaked with paint, Yaw watched the bankers leave and enter in chauffeured cars and began to dream of their life of money. A flow of cash that never ceased but replenished like magic with a dream of investments and revolving interests. Yaw was soon distracted by the elderly women making desperate attempts to sell their groundnuts by the gates whilst being shooed away by a security guard who had run out of patience.
As the afternoon sun dipped, he came across a spot bustling with noise, Yaw had forgotten that the weekend had arrived. Those that could afford the risk had already slipped away from work and begun their first drink early. The music soared, filling the air with a jubilant mood as though simply surviving till Friday afternoon was something to be truly celebrated.
Yaw pretended to be one of the revelers and found a spot in the corner of a bar where he could easily be ignored by the waitress. He had no money to drink and no intention to squander his lorry fare.
A young man sat opposite him around his age dressed sharply in Italian suit with an open necked shirt. His dark fitted jacket looked new and he added a pop of colour to his top pocket. To each side was an attractive woman scanning through a smart phone, occasionally taking selfies which they would exchange and scrutinise. The man watched another woman at the bar who was wearing a short skirt and a top that spilled her cleavage. Yaw watched as she playfully glanced back at the man after he ordered the waitress to get her a drink. It was as the girl took his money that Yaw recognized him. It was Koffi, a friend from university. It had been years since they had seen each other. Yaw remembered he was the socialite of the group, good looking, brash with a family already connected in business. Koffi had the easy confidence of someone who had already arrived. Yaw hesitated for a moment before approaching the table, worried that his classmate may have forgotten him. As he neared, Koffi spotted him easily. His face broke into a smile before he called out the nickname that Yaw was renowned for.
‘Yes sir, I have heard you!’ Yaw laughed merrily, a flood of warm memories from his university days coming to him clearly as they embraced.
‘Charlie, how be? Come, come let me get you something.’ Yaw’s feeble protests went unheard as his friend slipped a tip into the eager hand of the waitress.
Yaw felt the bemused stare of the ladies who watched them, unsure whether to protest or approve. He was not their usual crowd, his church trousers and tattered belt offended them even more than his camel shoes which had worn through their soles. Yaw’s friend failed to notice his frayed outfit, his joy at their chance reunion was genuine and warm.
‘You know, my brother, life has not been easy. We are a long way from Breakers Hall’
‘True true a long way.’ Koffi replied, his eyes scanning the bar.
‘I’m surviving, like all of us. Or I think I shouldn’t be including you in our trouble. Charlie you are looking fresh oh!’
‘What can I say. It’s been one year now I’ve been working on my own. Three years waiting in the house for my people to fix me with some capital, to no avail. Now I’m into the software business. Got a contract last year through one of my church elders. Now the orders are coming fast. People are tired of using these Indians for all their IT, you know these people they don’t respect us and their rates. We do the same as them for half the price and we still make profit….’
‘You are doing well. I am happy for you brother. But don’t forget about those of us who are struggling. You heard Ansong was caught trying to travel to Italy through Libya and Akwesi had to marry and old white lady just to get his papers in the states. Those of us who haven’t travelled are stuck at home doing menial jobs or forced to teach at primary school. There are no jobs. And this government is doing nothing but running the economy into the ground….
‘The government? Seriously?! Do you think they have time to spare for you. My brother, forget. Just forget it. Immediately. The government is not worth waiting for. You think they are working for us? Beside there is money to be made and what in God’s name do these old men know about new markets? We are the ones who will reap, the young ones. But you have to know where the money flows. That’s all. Most are looking, few of them know.’
‘Well you are here to show us’ Yaw raised his glass in conclusion. He did not want to spoil an evening with his old friend talking of his disappointment, he would rather drown his sorrows in an alcoholic daze. It was no use in trying to argue in favour of a government who had rejected him, and tossed him aside. The government were not in the business of creating opportunities for men like him, it was a reality he could accept. But Yaw could never accept that this was how things were supposed to be and on another day he would have argued about the right to employment and the responsibilities of the state but he hadn’t the energy to fight. The day had defeated him. Yaw watched his friend down his drink in a sudden gulp, and felt the urge for careless indulgence, to allow the alcohol to drown it all away, the heavy expectations of a future he may never realise. The sting of alcohol burned the back of his throat. Yaw closed his eyes as he heard his friend call for more drinks.
It was early morning before Yaw arrived home. The outside gate was chained shut and it took all his effort to jump the break in the wall without waking the landlord. Alcohol still raced through his veins making him giddy with a boyish excitement, he was saddened to waste his playful drunkenness with sleep.
His mother’s bedroom light was off but the radio hummed quietly with the murmur of prayers and spouting of sermons. Hearing her son’s footsteps, she woke up and rushed to meet Yaw at the curtain that separated the hall and the bath house.
‘Today you have not come early at all…your Uncle has been looking for you since morning.’
Yaw watched her painfully as she spoke, wondering when his mother had become so old, so frail that he barely recognised her. The woman who had raised him. The years since his father died had been difficult and the toil showed in his mother’s fragile frame, the lines that covered her hands, on her back that now arched but nowhere more than in her faded eyes drained of spirit.
‘My Uncle?’ Yaw asked doubtfully.
‘Yes, your Uncle. How many do you have? He needs you to accompany him to Manso on Wednesday for work….We will discuss in the morning’ She added firmly, disappearing quickly to her room.
She pretended not to notice the stench of alcohol on his breath. But Yaw, knew his mother well and her sense of disappointment was palpable.
Once when he was a young boy his mother caught him playing football after dark . He had snuck out in the late afternoon instead of doing his chores. Yaw would never forget the shriek of laughter as his mother dragged him off the red dirt pitch by the scruff of his collar. But what stayed with him even more was the steadiness of his mother’s watchful eye in the months and years that followed, a scrutiny that seared after the death of his father.
The excitement of the night drew away, replaced with the familiar dread for tomorrow and the prospects raised by a day’s work with his Uncle. Pulling the mat from behind the lounge chair, Yaw lay down to rest his mind full of questions of the journey ahead. Could it be that the waiting was final over?
Yaw could barely dare to dream, neither could he force his mind to settle.
Joan Yaa Nimarkoh was born in the UK but moved to Ghana in 2009 where she currently works as a Policy Officer for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. She lives in Accra with her husband and two children.
Related country: Ghana