It was the fourth time Nkem was calling in one day, my phone battery was running down and there was no electricity to recharge it. She was in the middle of an outburst when I cautioned her to be strong.
She reminded me of our dreams and aspirations from our time in Nsukka, when we were students at university. We had become very close in our final year. We were best friends and people called me her “sister from another tribe” because we spoke different languages. My mother tongue is Yoruba, while she spoke Igbo. However, after almost four years in an Igbo region, I had picked up enough words to express myself in the language. Yet, most of our daily communications remained in English, the language we both wanted to master.
We completed our degrees and, just before we signed up for the compulsory stint with the National Youth Service, Nkem announced her intention to “visit” her fiancé in South Africa. Everyone, including her beloved mother, pleaded with her to complete the all-important youth service programme, the pride of every fresh graduate, before travelling.
Nkem promised to return to Nigeria after a few months, since it was to be only a short visit. We knew this was only a smokescreen and that she might not return home for some years. She made the promise only to win our hearts, especially that of her mother who was genuinely worried. We were reminded of the many others before her who had not returned. They gladly sit tight, prepared to do any kind of job to survive rather than go back to a place where nothing ever seems to work properly.
Therefore, it did not come as a surprise to me, nor to her mother, when Nkem called after some months to say she was staying in South Africa to look for a job.
However, after about two years of job-hunting in Pretoria, Nkem grew disillusioned and became desperate to return home. She had walked the streets of the South African capital in search of a job without any luck.
Initially, she went in hope to the government ministries, given that she had a university degree. She had dropped her CV off in almost all the government offices but none ever called her for an interview.
As time went by, she lowered her expectations and went to nursery schools and then to the shops for employment as a saleswoman, a cleaner or in any menial capacity – yet, no job. She searched every nook and cranny without any luck, to her dismay and disappointment.
As it was not possible to cover all the ground on foot, Nkem took buses much of time. Her partner got tired of spending so much money on her travel and told her he would go bankrupt should the present trend continue. She promised to try harder at securing a job by visiting more offices and searching the internet but that did not convince him.
Nkem was shocked and bewildered one morning when he went off without leaving money for food. She went after him before he took the elevator and told him about it, in case he had forgotten. He replied that he did not have any money to give her as they had already spent beyond the monthly budget.
Ultimately, he dropped a bombshell and told her to consider returning to Nigeria if she could not get a job. She knew he meant every word he said because he was a man of few words. He must have thought hard about her continued joblessness and arrived at that conclusion. Something must be done before he loses his temper and throws her out of his house.
Nkem walked back to their room with a sense of defeat, humiliated and, for the first time, she wished she had returned home before her visa had expired. The various offices she had approached for a job had no doubt noticed she didn’t have a valid work permit – hence the uniform rejection. She was at her wits’ end. She wept all morning with no-one to console her.
What will her mother and siblings say when they hear about her plight? They will blame her for her bad decision and ask her to return home even though she cannot afford the air ticket.
Nkem had been to Vero’s Hairdressing Salon in the neighbouring street a few times to get her hair done. She liked the service she received there despite its being overpriced, and the Ghanian owner was friendly. She decided to go there and ask for help. She was willing to work at the salon if only they would take her.
However, Nkem did not know how to braid hair or do any of the tasks involved in hairdressing. She had never thought it necessary to learn a craft as she felt such things should be left to those who did not have university degrees.
While still an undergraduate, Nkem had been sent by her mother to Aunty Chi’s place, where there were a hair salon and a tailoring shop in which she might have learned some skills. But she spent the whole time there without so much as going into those establishments. She insisted on spending her time instead on watching movies and visiting friends, because she was on holiday.
If only she had known that skills would one day be useful, she would have humbled herself to learn a craft despite also studying for a degree.
Nkem summoned up enough courage to visit Vero’s salon and, fortunately, he offered her a job as an apprentice stylist. She was overjoyed at the good news. She now had a place to go to every morning without having to spend money on the bus.
Still, she could not bring herself to tell her family about her new profession; it would surely break their hearts. She made me promise not to tell them about our conversations. Just as I was about to repeat “I promise”, the phone – which had been showing “battery low” – beeped one final time into my ear and went dead.
© 2014 Hope Nwosu
Image: Leslie Jacobs
Hope Nwosu is a writer, motivational speaker and activist. She believes the pen is mightier than the sword and that men and women should have equal rights irrespective of race or social standing. She champions the cause of the oppressed, particularly that of marginalized African women. Hope Nwosu also speaks on how to make the best out of difficult and bleak situations through faith in God, hard work and a positive disposition.