One of the most important things to happen in my life occurred at the tail end of 2009. I got fired. A whole bunch of us did, actually. Before that I had never been fired. I thought the world to be kind, that people grew old in their jobs. There is a deceptive comfort in employment, an entitlement even, in some cases. You get so comfortable you imagine that your desk is your family heirloom, populating it with framed pictures of your family and bland inanimate mementos that you smother with sentimentality. You even get a potted plant sometimes, subjecting it to hearing your conversations about work. Because you spend so much time at work you basically move into your desk. It becomes your home. Your office chair is like your birth right. You’d fight for it. “Who took MY chair?” you demand as if the chair is an extension of yourself, an additional limb. You buy cool mugs to use in the office. You know someone is deep into employment when they drink tea from a cup that’s written, “I’m not a cactus expert but I know a prick when I see one.”
You have your very own special spot in the office cafeteria, and everybody knows it, so nobody sits on anyone else’s seat. You join the office cartel that unofficially runs shit in that place; selling bootleg cigarettes, torturing office snitches after working hours, engaging in office sabotage, peeing in the potted plants of the bitchy boss, deciding which new employee is cool enough to join your table at lunch, selling handguns and drugs at Christmas office parties, initiating interns into your ring of office outlaws by stapling their fingers because you, the O.G, were there when the office only had six employees in 1997. You are chin-deep in employment, invincible, badass, you’ve seen many bosses come and go, leaving the same curtains they found. I wasn’t that chap but I was a Senior Features Writer, and not only was I a Senior Features Writer, but I was a Senior Features Writer with a business card. Yeah. Put that in your pipe, and smoke it.
Then the bottom fell off.
Here is how – in a paragraph. On 13th Nov, 2009 – to be precise, a knot of South African suits who ran the publishing outfit we worked for grimly shuffled into the boardroom. We should have figured something was afoot because they avoided eye contact. Suddenly the contents of their files seemed very important. We – the staff – filled all the chairs crowding the big table in the middle of the room while the suits stood against the wall, which, when I think about it, was like those walls hostages stand against before they are shot by a firing squad. We thought they’d come to give us some updates and then we’d be on our merry way, banging copy, chasing deadlines and the works. I had an out-of-town assignment; the claim form had already been signed, and after the bothersome meeting, I planned to go downstairs to the accounts office, collect my dough and bust. One of the suits called the meeting to attention. He was a tall chap with owlish spectacles, the undertaker of the meeting. One of them cleared their throat. In short, he said that the gig was up. Magazines weren’t making any money. They were shutting it all down, cutting their losses and running for the hills. We were given a couple of hours to clear our desks. The severance package would be sent to us as soon as it was processed, they said. There would be a financial management consultant coming in next week and staying through the next month to help us handle our finances during this dicey transition. We were encouraged to take full advantage of that service, especially for folk who were obsessed with buying plots.
We were stunned. And, to be honest, blindsided. But nobody clutched their hearts and fainted. Nobody wailed. Or shouted, “You shall never break us, you sharp-nosed, pale-faced imperialists!” It was clean and surgical. There was no blood – at least not on that day. We only started bleeding in the following days. I did, at least. After that bombshell, we dragged our bodies back to our desks unsure of what had just happened. The smokers gathered outside to smoke and murmur through their plumes of smoke. I had very few things to clear from my desk – I remember this colourful South African voodoo-like doll I had bought in O.R Tambo Intl. Airport in Jozi. The person who sold it to me told me it would bring me nothing but luck. Right. I had some magazines which I trashed. I had no special cup, thank goodness. It’s dangerous to get attached to a special cup for the office because when you get fired where do you take it? I didn’t have any plants or photos of anyone on my desk. I had less baggage. I was travelling light in this capitalist ship that had now hit an iceberg. As we emptied our drawers [I found groundnuts in my drawer that were almost as old as my daughter], we avoided looking into each other’s eyes, lest we saw weakness there and by Jove that wasn’t the time to show weakness. Later, standing outside our cars [most that were on loans] we spoke bravely, defiantly, even.
“Arrh, you know, this came at a good time, actually, I think I will now just focus on greenhouse farming.”
“Yeah, bro has been doing pigs for a while now. Rather, he’s farming pigs. I think this might be it for me and pigs. I will join him.”
“Manure. I will do manure.”
“My wife has been complaining I’m never home. I now have time to make babies.”
“I think I will take some time off to reflect on what I want to do with my life. This has come at a good time.”
This had NOT come at a good time for me. I was 33 years old, and at that age, for some reason, I thought I had no time left. That I couldn’t afford a bump in the road, because the train of life was in full throttle. I felt old. I thought I was old. I had plans, milestones. It didn’t help [then] that I was the father to a three-year-old who had not come with a manual. I marvelled at how unequipped I was at being anyone’s father. How reckless it seemed for that baby to trust me as a responsible adult who knew what they were doing. Hell, I couldn’t even find my own socks without help, how was I going to raise a whole child with a kidney and lungs? Fatherhood was bewildering, daunting. When I was a child and I had new shoes, I’d wake up in the morning and for a few seconds it would just be me waking up but then it would hit me that I was the owner of new shoes and the excitement would make me get out of bed quickly to experience the thrill of being a shoe owner! It was the same as being a father. I’d wake up and in those first few moments, as the sleep fog was clearing from my head, I’d lie there as me then realise oh shit, I’m not me, I’m someone’s father! Then I’d just stay in bed a bit longer before my ill-preparedness was discovered. Now I was someone’s father who didn’t have a job. Who had rent to pay. whose career had been derailed. And most importantly and depressingly, I had no plan. Have you ever built a paper boat and placed it on a basin full of water and watched it go round and round? That’s how my life felt. A slow spin; directionless. It didn’t help that my best friend – a guy we ate beans and chapo with in vibandas in Uni – had bought a house. A whole f**n house! Who the hell buys a maisonette with a backyard at 32? I felt like a failure.
What I remember most about the days after losing my job were the mornings. First, I’d wake up and feel like someone who had woken up in a hot, barren desert. Vast, yawning emptiness crowded me in every direction I looked. There was nothing between me and the horizon. Do I go east or west? I wondered. My job loss had changed everything, but mostly it had changed my schedule. We lean on our jobs so much that when we lose them we stumble and stagger, clutching at straws. It must be worse when you are married and with children because your ‘nakedness’ is unhidden. When you are married and the wife leaves you in the house, it increases your sense of hopelessness. You feel insecure about your worth. It yanks your ego, testing it. When I’d step outside the gate, and look down the street in the estate, I’d see no one in sight. If there was anyone there would be two domestic managers gossiping outside a gate.
The first few days I’d stay in bed a little longer, listening to the sound of Theresa – the DM- cajoling the baby, Tamms, to eat. I’d just lie there, sheets bundled against my torso, thinking and not thinking, hearing but not hearing, feeling but not feeling. Then I’d finally drag myself out of bed and walk out the door and Tamms would be surprised to see me. She’d take a moment just staring at me standing at the doorway of the living room trying to decide if I was a hologram. She had that look, “Wait, shouldn’t this nigga be at work?” Children are entitled shits.
Eventually, the house became too depressing, a reminder of my joblessness. Plus, we had a Kisii domestic manager who would sing Kisii songs the whole morning as she went about her chores. Kisii songs are shrill and piercing, like someone performing brain surgery on you without anaesthesia. And so, to trick the body that I was still productive and because I hated being left in bed, I started leaving the house early like I had things to do. If it was these days, with the new road network, I’d have taken the southern bypass and driven at 40km/hr but because I was saving on fuel and couldn’t afford to drive around to “clear my head” (a luxury of the haves) I’d drive to a car garage my friend managed in Westlands and wait for him at the kibanda there, sipping tea and munching on a hot chapo while reading a newspaper that went around amongst mechanics having their breakfast at that early hour. On Fridays, I’d meet him and some other pal of his at Pitcher and Butch where they’d get a bottle and they’d only ask me to pitch in whatever I had. Some days I do go to Oyunga Pala’s bachelor pad on State House road where he’d pour his favourite drink – Old Monk rum – in two glasses and we’d sit at his open-kitchen counter and I’d glean off hope from his encouraging words.
That whole year of 2010 life was quite uncertain. I felt like I was constantly faced with questions I had no answers to: What happens next? What if I never get another job? Will this writing thing ever stabilize again? I’m 33 years old, do I have time to catch up with my peers? How the hell does he [my boy] get money to buy a house? He must be pushing drugs. Or selling kidneys. Shouldn’t I be dealing with different problems at this stage of my life, not wondering about my immediate future? Thankfully, what saved me the most was that from the severance package, I paid rent seven months ahead because one uncle of mine had told me (everybody gives you advice when you lose your job) that ‘whatever you do, Biko, don’t ever let your wife pay the rent. It will screw things up. You are a man, you always pay the rent because rent is a roof and the roof is your pride.” I didn’t have savings to speak of because I didn’t imagine that my job would suddenly grind to a halt. I thought I’d get a warning, a sign or even an email from life warning me to start saving up.
I think my first post on this blog was on 28th February 2010. It was read by 25 people, 21 who commented. I’m almost sure that it was about something frivolous. Starting this blog was a creative outlet. Somewhere I could exhale. There was solace in writing. This – being here ten years later – was never in the works. In 2010 there was no plan other than to write. Nobody I knew was making money off writing blogs. You didn’t blog to earn a living. So I wrote the blog to burn time, like a diary and a community, a gang, you fellas, somehow started mushrooming around it. We called it ‘high school’ for those who have just joined us recently and it was fire, I tell you. We were brazen and light and courageous, we were not afraid to pee in the wind.
Now here we are. We are ten years old. And things have happened during this time, mostly great things. My writing career has pretty much largely been a spinoff of the blog. I don’t take your patronage here for granted because there are a million things you’d rather be reading. And because you come here and read the blog you have sustained my life. It schools my children, it clothes me, it buys me chapos, it makes my 89-year-old grandmother eat back in the village. If on September 13th, 2009 you would have told me, “Biko, start a blog, it will be your day job,” I would have thought you cuckoo.
However, all this wouldn’t have been possible had I not lost my job in 2009, but also that loss was an education in itself. An education on life. I learnt about courage, that quite often half the battle is won when you simply get out of bed. Because when you get out of bed you are telling the day, “Let’s see what more punches you got for me, you old fart.” I might have lost my job but I gained courage. Courage to take a path beset with great uncertainty. Instability breeds character. Most importantly that loss taught me the value of saving money. My God, rainy days are coming. Or to be more dramatic, winter is coming, people, keep your granaries full. If you are reading this and you are in your 20s, put away money, nothing is assured – tomorrow someone else might be sitting at your desk. That was probably my biggest lesson in my early 30s. That and that it’s never too late, you are never too old to start over. Most importantly, and not to make this sound like a self-help post, but this is so key; stick. to. your. lane. Run your race at your own pace. Don’t look at the chaps ahead. Do you. Focus on your small steps. The race is long and only the ones with the strong minds will finish it, not the ones with strong thunder thighs.
As we put up balloons to celebrate ten years on this blog, what better time to do it than today when last week we won a continental award, AFRICA DIGITAL AWARDS for, and wait for it, Africa’s Best Continental Blog. I wasn’t sure we would have taken this with the kind of numbers Nigerians have. Asanteni sana for voting and for reading.
To celebrate the wins here, I’d love to hear from you about 2010. Where were you in 2010? What were you doing then? What did you believe in with absolute conviction ten years ago? Most importantly, WHO were you in 2010?
We are closing the Safaricom-sponsored online creative writing masterclass for 2020 next week. We want to close it with a loud bang. If you have been thinking of doing this class, I suggest you register for this one. It’s going to be rad. Sign up by sending an email to [email protected] We will discuss shit like descriptive writing, how to create a writing discipline, creative nonfiction, self-publishing (for those who want to write books) and a session with the great Oyunga Pala, the godfather of this literary shit.