If there are folks who are overworked and underappreciated, it’s got to be manual laborers. Everyone complains of being overworked and underpaid; from teachers to nurses, bank tellers to janitors. Nonetheless, laborers bear the brunt on a more grandiose scale.
Sometime back, a buddy of mine tipped me of an opening in Kisii Bottlers. The management at the Coca-Cola bottler was offering an opportunity for university students to make a coin alongside getting vital skills in a real-life business environment. Being the opportunist I am, I joined the group, along with my close friends Hassan and Mark, who I call Mnyitanga for his Luhya blood ties, physique and appetite to match. He calls me the same because of the jokes we make in Luhya accent.
On day one we had to get around the usual red tape characteristic of third-world corporate setups. At the gate, mean-looking ‘soldiers’ inquired why we were there, did we have an appointment bla bla fishcake. I lied that the HR manager was aware we were coming, if he could just give him a ring to confirm. Isn’t it amazing how mentioning a firm’s senior person’s name open doors for you? Just be sure to be confident about it though. I prayed that the damn guard wouldn’t go ahead and make the call. Hassan’s sharp dressing also made matters easier. Dude was dressed to the nines, must have thought we were reporting for an office job or something.
Hurdle one was cleared and we were led to the reception, where we were received by a middle aged lady who didn’t want to let go of her younger years. Thankfully, she was very kind and ready to assist. I explained we were there to join our colleagues from the university who had been recruited the previous week.
“Oh, the university students. Hold on a sec.” She said picking up a desk phone and punching some numbers.
After a few ‘ahs’ ’ohs’ and ‘oks’, she asked if we had the contact of the student who had been appointed group leader. Another stumbling block because the only student I knew was Milly, my cousin. I told her nay. She contemplated for a while then asked who else we knew. I told her there was a lady in the group called Milly. She was called and once she expressed familiarity we were let off the hook. Next we had to see some supervisor who would then assign us work. The old mzee, obviously working past retirement, told us to join some group that was in a different section. We promptly headed there and found some familiar and unfamiliar faces. Most of the guys were not happy to see us and made a poor job of trying to hide their true dispositions. They were cleaning a warehouse floor, we looked at each other, grabbed moppers and joined them.
“So how do you guys work here and how are you remunerated?” Hassan asked no one in particular.
“Well, depends on what work is available. For instance we load sodas to trucks. Payment is calculated in accordance with the total number of packs loaded times 85 cents divided by the number of people.” Atuya volunteered.
People are still paid in cents in this century? I wondered.
“You guys will need to be in a reflector jackets though, get some gloves too” Willis, the group leader told us.
“Where do we get those?” I asked him.
“Go to Jane’s office, she’s a clerk in the HR’s office.” He replied.
“I think you should go get them the gear, given you are the leader.” Atuya was proving to be friendlier than the rest of the lot.
Willis agreed grudgingly but never went for them, giving this or that excuse. Atuya later confided to us that the reason for the cold shoulder treatment we were receiving is because we were increasing the group’s number, therefore decreasing the amount of money each individual would make. They tried several tactics to exclude us but we hanged on tight until a supervisor from another section of the plant came and asked for some guys. We happily left the group to form a new one.
In the course of the next few days we were tasked with various menial jobs, like breaking scuffed bottles into cullets, crating (getting new bottles from bales and placing them into crates) among others. Eventually we got used to other members of the casual workforce and life normalized.
One day, while seated under a shade waiting for an assignment, Mrefu, or Mgenge, as we used to refer to him, came over to us, all sweaty and panting.
“Hey guys, seems you don’t have any job today.” He remarked panting.
“Not yet, we are waiting for some trailers to bring some bottles for crating.” Hassan told him.
“Great, there’s a trailer that has just come in with some products and it needs to be offloaded. We are a bit short in manpower, mind lending a hand?”
“Not at all, we came here to work bwana.” Hassan said as he rose up and I followed suit.
We got to Sansora, the section of the plant where plastic bottle soft drinks and bottled water are kept. Indeed the trailer was already parked along the entrance of one of the warehouses and the guys were standing there clueless on how to proceed. They beamed on seeing us, especially Hassan, because he was stronger and bigger. We organized ourselves into a human chain and got ready to start offloading. I looked at Milly and wondered whether she would manage.
“Nini Edu?” She had obviously caught my eye.
“Hakuna, na si hii umaskini itatumaliza?” I joked.
“Wacha tu.” She remarked.
“Are you guys over there ready!?” Mnyitanga asked, to which we responded affirmatively.
Charles, a.k.a ‘ the User’ (the story of how he got the nickname is as hilarious as it can get but I’d have to bribe him to tell it) had already peeled the tarpaulin from the trailer’s body. The amount of packs in the trailer was daunting. 2-liter packs were the most. I swallowed hard and told myself ‘mwanaume ni effort.’ Within no time User had thrown the first pack to Mnyitanga. The ease with which he did it only encouraged me; you see, User was the slender, bony type. Mark threw the pack to the next in line and in no time it was sent flying my way. I hadn’t anticipated how heavy it would be and the weight nearly knocked me off balance. Not that am weak but this is a six-pack of 2-liter bottles of Coca-Cola we are talking about. I heaved it and threw it over to the next guy in line who nearly dropped it; protesting that I hadn’t thrown it properly.
“Mnyitanga, hii kitu unashikeko hifi, alafu unarusheko namna hifi.” Mnyitanga demonstrated as he sent the pack flying with deceiving ease. Soon I got the ropes of the game and we continued without incident. People started getting tired after a while of catching and sending the packs flying.
“Stop throwing that pack like a woman bwana!” Hassan growled, going after a pack that had slipped from his grasp while dodging another that almost bashed his skull.
“Hey, hey! Stop right there! Don’t’ ruin the product or you will pay for it.” The old man supervising us shouted from his high stool.
Rawson took advantage of the momentary lapse, dodged behind a pallet full of Fanta Orange crates. Psssst! Went the sound of escaping gas and in about 10 seconds he tossed an empty 500ml bottle back into a crate and was back in line, wiping his mouth and looking around innocently.
“Leteni maji bwana!” He shouted, obviously replenished. I waited for an opportunity to quench my thirst as well but none forth came. The hawk-eyed old man was now observing us more keenly, perhaps suspecting some truancy.
I looked over at the trailer to see if we had made any progress; we were not even a quarter way and my chest was already burning. I cursed and got back into line. We continued working like an old machine that needed service; occasional drops here, a click or curse there. Someone farted and sent us all laughing derisively. Some packs were dropped, someone shrieked in pain after being hit with an oncoming missile. Paying attention in this setup was mandatory. I took advantage of the momentary lapse and tried to look around for water; I found none. What an irony, I wondered as I licked my dry lips. My stomach growled from the sight of thousands of stacks of bottled water.
“Wewe, ebu rudini line, nobody wants to sleep here.” Willis remarked.
It was now 3pm, 1hour 30 minutes since we started offloading the trailer, and we were only approaching the half mark. I sighed and got back in line. Another episode of rocking back and forth, catching and throwing and panting like tired asses. Douglas, the guy before me, sent a pack the wrong way and it painfully hit my chest.
“Dougy bana!” I growled at him, red-eyed and spitting venom. He mumbled a barely audible ‘sorry’ as he wiped sweat from his brow. Milly was tired beyond redemption and had switched positions. She was now arranging the packs, another demanding task but which she managed nonetheless. It got to a point where I could no longer work with Douglas, so positions were switched and someone else assumed his place.
Guys were now so tired that everyone had gone silent. With a quarter of the load to go, my chest was burning. My saliva was thick and tasted of blood and I would get occasional cramps in my stomach. My biceps were sore and my legs were threatening not to support my weight any more. User kept going like he had just started, I wondered where he got the strength. Willis now had a blank, haunted stare. Mnyitanga got so tired that he dropped off the line, sat on a crate and hang his head resignedly. Milly was nowhere to be seen. Hassan was all drenched in sweat but kept going, am sure he felt like giving up but couldn’t because it would be embarrassing given his size and apparent strength. I wanted to drop off too but hanged on stubbornly, against my tired bones’ will. I wanted to prove wrong those who thought I was too weak for the job.
“Bichana chikaseni bwana, mko karibu kumarisa.” The old man encouraged.
We toiled along. I was now working on auto-pilot; arms swinging back and forth mechanically. We were now offloading half-liter packs of Dasani but the fatigue made them heavy nonetheless. I silently thanked User for starting with the 2 liters because I would have bowed out were they still in line to be offloaded. The last pack was thrown and placed in the stack meticulously. Everyone picked their belongings and made for the exit. It was now 5pm.
“An invoice has just come in, there is a truck to be loaded. Will you guys manage? The supervisor asked.
I looked at him with murderous eyes, luckily the question wasn’t directed at me.
“Sure, give us five minutes to catch a breath.” User replied.
I dragged my feet to a nearby tap, put my skull under the jet of cold water and got myself properly drenched. Hassan caught up with me.
“We were looking for work, we have now found it.” He joked.
I smiled at him sickly, too weak to even laugh.
“Are you going to load that truck?” I asked him.
“Sure, I’ll just pick my bag and head back” He said sarcastically.
We made our way towards the gate but the old man spotted us.
“Hey, you two. Where are you headed? Get back here, it’s not yet time.” He commanded
“The HR manager wants to see us, we’ll be back in a moment.” I told him with a straight face.
I winked at a guard whom we had befriended earlier and he corroborated the story. The old man told us to get back quick and we headed down to the main section of the plant. We wanted to leave immediately but could not sign out because it was about an hour too early. We made our way to the main production factory which also doubled as a warehouse. We dodged the CCTV cameras and made our way to a secluded spot among stacks of pallets loaded with crates of empty bottles. Hassan pulled two bottles of soda from a dark recess where we had hidden them earlier. I cleared the contents in my bottle in an instant and lied back to regain some energy. Hassan was barely halfway with his.
“Stop drinking that soda as if you are in a kiosk, we may get caught.” I told Hassan. He laughed uncontrollably then tried to gulp quickly; almost getting choked. You see, it was illegal to take soda within the factory premises. If you thirsted for some you had to go to the discounted canteen. Willis tried to call us later on but we lied that we had been assigned some task. There was no way I was going to do any more work that day.
I calculated the amount each of us had made offloading those 4,000 packs from the trailer (we were ten). Going by Atuya’s information, each would pocket about 340 shillings. 340 from all that back-breaking work. I sighed in exasperation. We lay in that hiding spot until it was six. Getting up to leave was a mountainous task. All muscles were now sore and any movement hurt like hell. We laboriously headed for the gate, picked our ID cards, signed out and trudged off the plant premises. We barely spoke on the way, just occasional observations and one-word replies or grunts. We got to the junction on the main road and said our byes. Hassan boarded a matatu and I took a boda boda as I lived nearby. Once in my crib, I only took my jacket off and sank into bed, socks and shoes still on. This is one of the moments I wished I could employ the services of a masseuse. I cursed my forefathers.
I will live to fight another day, I encouraged myself and drifted off to sleep. Supper will be taken care of at whatever hour I wake.