His determined march into my office told me something was up. Feet apart, he planted himself on the floor across my desk and stared down at me. I stared back. Suddenly he yanked out from a supermarket paper bag a bottle of petroleum jelly and thrust it on the desk.
‘Do you think this is fair?’ he demanded.
‘Sit down Baba Nare,’ I said calmly, ‘and tell me what this is all about.’
‘Sit down? You want me to sit down so that you accuse me of dirtying your precious chair with my greasy overalls? No sir I’ll talk standing. After all we work on our feet all day in the factory.’
‘Okay, talk.’ I switched off my desk top computer.
‘You are an African isn’t it? And so you should understand my cry.’
Alarm bells rang in my mind. The last one to one meeting in which a worker had started by reminding me that I was an African had not gone well.
Yes, five years back, an elderly stores clerk had come to my office and asked that we discuss a personal matter. I nodded and he sat down.
‘I gather you chaired last week’s job grading exercise?’ Dube asked me. The glimmering top part of his head contrasted with the grey hair on the sides.
‘Yes I did.’
‘Know what sir,’ he stood up and touched his knees, ‘in this company, I’m here. Yes, that’s where you people placed me. Yet last week you graded my younger brother and put him up here.’ He touched his hip. ‘Is this fair?’
‘I don’t quite follow…’
‘As an African, a real African, you should follow. This younger brother of mine you graded up here does not even come after me. There are two children between us. He and I never ate from the same plate. He was too young for that. How then could you let the committee grade him way above me?’
‘He is not above you. We graded the job not the person. In any case….’
‘Don’t play around with words. The truth is you graded him higher than me. I’m now head of the Dube family. How will I lead my family if a young boy has a higher position than me?’
I shook my head. ‘Baba Dube, positions here have nothing to do with home ones. Your brother has earned the higher grade. You ought to be proud of him.’
‘Of course I’m. And hear me well; I’m not saying bring him down.’
‘I’m glad we agree,’
‘Sure we agree. Just put me a couple of grades higher than him and this little misunderstanding is over.’
I started to shake my head and Dube shook his in a pitying manner. ‘And to think all along I thought you were a proper African.’ He left the office a disappointed man and never spoke to me again.
Today looking at Nare towering over me, I hoped this time I would not let down my fellow African as I had done five years back.
‘Yes Baba Nare, I’m an African. What are you crying about?’
‘This morning your salaries officer gave me details of my retirements benefits. I went to the bank and they paid me the two thirds lump sum of my pension. Do you know what I bought?
‘No I don’t.’
‘The Vaseline on your desk, just fat!’ He pretend to wash his hands. ‘You people defeat me. After forty-one years of continuous service, that’s all I’m worth?’
‘You still have your monthly payments to come,’ I reminded him.
‘Aah that,’ Nare sneered. ‘I’m now going to live at my rural home. The bus fare to and from the banks in town is more than the monthly payments. So I’m donating my pension to your company. Tell me, as an African man, do you think the company has treated me fairly?’
This was a trick question. I had to choose my words carefully.
‘I’m sorry pension issues are not a company issue.’
‘Is it a government issue?’
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘Whose issue is it then?’
‘Look, you get what we promised you will get. Unfortunately this has been eroded by hyperinflation. We have no control…’
‘Hyper what? Don’t hide behind those big words. All I asked was: ‘has the company treated me fairly?’’
I sighed. If I admitted it was unfair, that was giving ammunition to the workers. Next they will be announcing to all that I had admitted the company or the government had been unfair to them. Both these bodies don’t take kindly to being blamed. I would have a lot to explain. I therefore stuck to my ‘beyond our control’ explanation and blamed this monster called hyperinflation.
Suddenly Nare sat down and leaned forward across the desk. With a mischievous smile he whispered, ‘I don’t know about you but I never believed those pension people when they told us that pension contributions were a form of forced savings. But I believed my father when he said the worth of a real man is measured by the number of cattle he has. From the time I started working I’ve been buying livestock.’
‘Who looks after it?’
‘I have two wives, fifteen children and plenty grandchildren. I know for a manager like you the numbers of my livestock are not impressive but for me, it’s a lot. I now have over a hundred cattle and about thirty calves. As for goats and sheep, I don’t talk. I admit there is one thing the company helped me – a loan to buy a house. My house in the township is fully paid for. I’ll rent it out and live at home.’
He smiled, stood up, took his bottle of Vaseline and swaggered out of the office. I sat still, thinking of that year of drought when I sold the few cattle I inherited from my father. I had to. Agricultural experts advised us to sell and cut our losses.
Later that evening, as I burned the company fuel driving a company car on my way to my company house I wondered, am I a real man?