Expectations and reality

The description that I was given was completely at odds with my experience.

No 1: “She runs an employment bureau.”

My understanding: a clean professionally set up office, IT savvy, with well-trained courteous staff.

No 2: “She used to work for the UN but left and started her own business.”

The United Nations. Hmm … a high profile employer. She must be intelligent and with substantial influence over potential employers.

No 3: “Just last week she had some openings in PR.”

She is familiar with the field and has the right contacts in the market.

No 4: “Go and see her. Her offices are opposite N***** Centre. Tell her I sent you.”

A busy yet respectable part of the Central Business District. And a personal reference which means she doesn’t accept walk in clients.

It sounded promising. Or at least my interpretations of the verbal cues did.

The offices of the employment bureau were on the 4th floor of N***** House. I walked into the building and entered the lift.

Except there was no button for the 4th floor. It only went up to the 3rd.

Disoriented, I wondered whether I was in the right building. And when the wall of the lift that I was leaning against started opening behind me – a double-sided lift – the feeling of discomfiture grew.

I alighted on the 3rd floor and saw a balcony above me: blue railings with a narrow rectangular strip all around, and a spiral staircase. I followed the staircase up which grew narrower as I climbed, and emerged in what must have been the attic to the building, and a seemingly dead end except for a passageway to my left. I peeped down it and seeing the first room closed was turning around, relieved that I had been mistaken about the address, when a person walked out of the second door. I turned again and there was a white sheet of paper glued to the second door with a fading typed message in large capital letters reading “Computer skills, Secretarial skills”

In the right hand corner of the page, scribbled in blue, were the opening hours for the business:

Mon – Fri 9 – 5

Sun 9 – 1

The paper was peeling off the hardboard door, curling inwards from the corners, and there was a step down into the room – always a bad sign when the threshold to a business is uneven. Having come this far, I stepped in.

I saw four old and dusty desktop computers covered with brown canvas bags placed against the wall; I wasn’t surprised at the absence of eager, enthusiastic students. A smaller door adjoined this room to the next. A young man in a crumpled, long sleeved, collared shirt sat in a chair clutching a brown envelope which probably contained copies of his certificates. Behind him, on the dusty windowpane, were some short pot plants with dark green leaves in plastic containers.

As I walked in, another young man sitting behind a desk looked up. He was shuffling through papers. Before he could ask why I was there, a Muslim woman walked out from a wood-paneled office behind me. She was dressed in a long sleeved turquoise and navy blue coat, and a scarf in matching colours was draped around her head with its edges floating down across her shoulders and over her front and back. From the style in which she was dressed and the fairness of her skin, I assumed she was Arab and so I was surprised when she began to speak to me in Gujrati. She ushered me into her room and closed the door behind her. I explained who I was, who had sent me and why I was there.

She rocked her head from side to side, the equivalent of a nod, pronouncing “Inshallah, Inshallah” then turned to the last page of my CV and said, “Add more references, and keep them local. No one will call an overseas reference. Telephone costs are too high.”

Looking up, she related an anecdote about how she had a very close family friend in South Africa whom she couldn’t speak to as often as she would have liked. I mumbled in response.

Then she fingered the bottom right corners of the first two pages in her left hand. “Shorten your CV to 2 pages. No details. Give them enough information to invite you to an interview and then fill in the gaps when you are face to face. And only include a language if you can speak, read and write fluently; if not, remove it.”

I was confused. Her quick tips had an imperative tone but she was mixing them with maternal endearments and personal anecdotes … I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it so I nodded along. It was too early to form an impression, and act on it.

Having read the document backwards, she finally arrived at the first page. I thought to myself: This is when she will ask more about my qualifications and experience. Instead, she clicked her tongue against her teeth and said, “It is such a shame that you haven’t got any accounting skills. I have so many positions for girls who know Accounts.”

I was steamrolled. My eyebrows must have lifted in surprise. Oblivious, she continued.

“Do you know shorthand?” she asked. “Can you type? Do you know how to use a computer?”

I leant forward and indicated my computer skills on the CV document.

She brushed my hand away impatiently and said “Beta, how fast can you type?”

I had once before been exposed to traditional stereotypes and the demands of a conservative society. Start a home business as a travel agent, I had been told. But this lady was brutal.

And then came the clincher.

“Would you be willing to take a sales position at a shop?”

My vulnerabilities were rubbed raw. I was thoroughly sobered and the experience felt all the more abrasive because of the mixed signals I was getting: affectionate handles, curt comments and a total disregard for my educational background.

I extricated myself from her wooden office, and as I walked backwards out the main door, her parting shot was, “Wait. Have a look at this list of accounting and sales openings. Maybe one of the young girls at your mosque will be interested?”

I clambered up the superstitious step and out the door.

Walking down four flights of stairs – I dared not get into the lift again in case this time there was no button for the ground floor – I succumbed to a wave of doubt, more aware of the risk I had taken, and questioned the wisdom and motivation for my recent decisions.

Was she right? Was my only hope a crash course in accounting or shorthand? Had I just thrown away a good job with a good salary on a whim? Had pride and arrogance got the better of me?

Outside, it took every ounce of fresh air to straighten my muddled thoughts. Pedestrians walked past and then turned to stare, not used to seeing anyone stand still in the bustling streets of Nairobi. There was only one thing to do. I couldn’t go back and undo what had been done. I didn’t even want to. And yes, I may have taken a gamble but it was for the right reasons.

Deep down, I knew I had made the right decision. Now, I just had to believe in myself.

So I crossed the road, shook off the shadows and smiled at the lady behind the reception desk.

February 23 2012

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