Religion of Thursday, 31 January 2013
Source: Apostle Mawuetornam Dugbazah
Short Story Submission: The Slavers by Apostle Mawuetornam Dugbazah
Monday, January 28, 2013
“To the extent that he is aware of freedom, a man is free in his mind. Freedom not known to a great degree, this is a deceitful freedom: a freedom comparable to the worst forms of servitude.”
As Amelinam filtered the words through his mind, he could only think on just how true it was: “all freedom is relative,” he thought.
Eli continued, “Papa Agbota was right…there is no freedom in America. It’s just a great big illusion.”
Two years of trying to make ends meet in a strange land had made a cynic of Eli. In a place where everyone seemed nice enough to give you a menial job, but showed themselves unwilling to help you advance professionally, he couldn’t help but wonder why everyone seemed to be perpetually smiling. As there was little way to figure it out, he concluded, maybe the smiling frenzy was an indication of some hidden agenda.
The fact is, life didn’t always make you want to smile. This fact gave Eli enough reason to believe that someone was seriously bent on trying to play him “azan”. It was the kind of azan that comprised of bank advertisements and the like; they were laid out with broad smiling faces, even though everyone he knew that had a bank account, a car and used credit cards, seemed to forever be complaining about insufficient funds and debt. Likewise, the azan was of the caliber that had somehow managed to create a system where most citizens were religiously paying off a mortgage. They did this despite the fact that it would eventually leave them with no real claim to ownership of their home. That people paid these mortgages so religiously—for periods of up to twenty and even thirty years—made Eli again affirm that freedom is a relative term.
Back in Godomey where Eli’s parents lived, he remembered how life was relatively calm. Benin was a great country to live in. Sure, there were things that seemed like difficulties. But on the whole, they didn’t seem nearly as difficult as life in Cook County, Chicago. In Amelinam’s mind, Chicago had come to represent one of the many reasons why for him, white people were to be taken as two faced and hard-hearted, just like his father used to say. Despite this, Eli sometimes wondered at the “nice ones” he met. Perhaps his judgments were too harsh. But after three years in Cook County, he just didn’t know what else to think.
“Eli com this side and put soda in the dough…actually don’ do that. Com, put these pans in the oven…wait….I gonna send you to go grocery for me,” said Angelina.
Eli had seen many other things about America that lent credence to his “white people” hypothesis. For example, he noticed that there were many people like Angelina, who still saw Africans as no more than potential slaves. And people like Angelina, for Eli, showed no remorse in dishing out both the subtleties and extravagant expressions of racism.
Angelina never made Eli feel like more than what she thought he was: a nine-to-five work hand intended to be used, and as much as possible, subtly abused. This subtle abuse was to keep his mental state from ever erecting pillars of belief regarding the possibility, that he, Eli, could become a lawyer. Angelina’s treatment therefore made Eli very aware that if he was ever going to become a lawyer, it was going to take a full blast of willpower to first get out of working at Lugar de Mendoza.
At Lugar de Mendoza, Eli had learned many of the day-to-day routines associated with American life. There was work, work, and more work. His co-worker Lydia, a self-confessed workaholic put it this way: “I know I am a workaholic, but the bills won’t pay themselves.” She had formally introduced Amelinam to the term workaholic when he questioned her about why she worked seven days a week. More than her choice to overwork herself, Eli was taken aback by her explanation for why she did it. Her “bills won’t pay themselves” response reassured Eli that America really wasn’t a place in which to spend eternity. Rather, America was to be taken as a sojourner’s soliloquy about what it means to stoop to conquer, and as the cliché goes, “pay” one’s dues.
Of all the afternoon shifts that Eli had worked in his seven months at Lugar de Mendoza, one of Cook County’s premier restaurants, the afternoon of February 5th, 2001 made him sincerely question what the future would bring him in terms of life, love, and happiness. So far, life had brought him a significant amount of joy. By no means did Eli consider himself to be an unfortunate child. He had been born into a middle-class Ghanaian family. His father, a telecommunications engineer had earlier on accepted a job offer in Benin to work for the national telecom operator, Benin Telecoms. Papa Agbota’s posting to Benin meant that Eli and his sister Sroda would have the opportunity to officially live in their third West African country. They had already lived in Senegal and Togo. Eli’s traveling to America was supposed to be more gratifying than life spent in his other “houses”. Somehow though, Eli had begun to question how gratified he was after three years in Cook County. Hence, Eli found himself wondering more and more about his future.
He thought to himself, “I know that a man must work. But as for this place, I cannot understand why I am still working here. They don’t pay well. They are phony. And Angelina sees me like a slave. She has absolutely no respect for me!”
Although Eli wasn’t thinking aloud, when Ugo—a co-worker from Nigeria—looked up at him and saw Eli’s facial expression, he couldn’t help but immediately speak to what he perceived as the signs of a lingering, acute form of culture shock.
“Amelinam! Eli, Eli! How you dey, now? My friend, ebe like say some sadness don dey disturb you? Na wetin?” said Ugo.
Although Eli’s pidgin had become substantially less fluent due to his family’s three years in Benin, he could still understand the lingo with which Ugo tried to connect with his innermost thoughts. For a moment, Ugo reminded Eli of just how good it was to have an African connection.
Eli replied, “Hmmmm, my brother, ‘small, small’. There is some sadness. Or not really sadness but it is like sometimes, in this country, you feel lost and you almost don’t know where you are going. I think maybe after work we can talk more. I don’t want my supervisor Angelina to start talking down to me again. I am sure you understand, but what do you think? Will you eat some fish after work? I have jollof in my fridge too. I know if I say jollof you will be interested. After all, are you not a Naija man?”
Ugo joyously threw back his response, “My brotha, how I go refuse your invitation, now? When the mosquito lands and is given the chance to draw blood, does it refuse? But you know that I am no mosquito, eh? I am more like a cafeteria general. So I will come with my weapons of massive-Eba-destruction. And of course, when I come, I will eat my portion because you don offer am now. I go meet you for di parking lot at 4:40pm sharp. Abi?”
To be African in America had taken on a cliché meaning for foreign students like Ugo. Ugo had originally arrived in America five years ago as a student. He hadn’t stopped studying since. After obtaining his first degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, he chose to move to Chicago for a Master of architecture degree at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Against the odds of never seeming to have enough for tuition, books, or even rent, Ugo somehow managed to make progress. He had finished his first degree in Art with only a few outstanding debts. Ugo was unstoppable. No matter what, he was determined to have a Master’s. He would have his Master’s even if it meant a little more debt. After all, he would eventually pay it off over time.
“Eli! Eli! Eli!” shouted Angelina. “Eliiiii, I need you to start bringing the platters into the banquet hall. Be careful. I do not want any spills or messing up.”
Angelina had a strange way of weaving into, out of, and back again into her native Argentinian accent. She oozed what at times, clearly, was a refined ability in the English language. Why would she sometimes speak in a broken, disjointed vernacular, and at other times speak proper, fluidly phrased English? Eli wondered whether her speaking arrangement had anything to do with his being an African. For some reason Angelina seemed to only talk in that broken and disjointed way when she was giving him orders. Apart from this, Eli saw no other examples of Angelina talking to anyone the way she often talked to him. Although disturbed by her attitude towards him, no matter how it played on his mind, Eli settled on leaving the matter alone and focusing on his work.
“Angelina, I had already begun bringing the platters in when Chris said to do it. And I have finished the job already,” said Eli.
“Okay, then why don’t you find something else to do? You shouldn’t be standing around idle. I need you to start setting the buffet table and arranging the rest of the buffet room. I don’t think that is too difficult for you, is it?” said Angelina, in that all-too-familiar, disdainful tone.
When Eli heard the final words of her instruction, he heaved a sigh and proceeded to carry out the given duty without question. He remembered what his father used to tell him. Papa Agbota had often told Eli that “sometimes you must ‘respect’ in order to trap the guinea fowl.”
As Eli moved around the buffet table, he noticed food particles on the steel sides. They had hardened from the night before. The unsightly presence of the food particles presented him with two options. Either he could clean the food particles off, and end up spending a little more time in the buffet room than a certain someone would think necessary. Or, he could act like he didn’t see the food particles and finish the set up in record time.
The first option was likely to bring the wrath of Angelina, since she would ask him what took so long in the buffet room. The second option was also likely to elicit a show of Angelina’s destructively critical persona. This is because perhaps, she would somehow locate the food particles and give him a version of her subtle, verbal devaluations. Of course, this would only happen after not even commending his effective time management. As Eli thought it through, he recognised that the best approach to his situation was to follow his conscience. And so, he opted to clean the food particles off from the sides of the buffet table.
Just then, Angelina walked in and started, “What are you doing? Did you spill something? I told you to be careful…”
Stay concerned for Part 2 as Angelina goes to war “with Africa”…
© D-Comm Publications 2012
The Slavers (Short Story) by Apostle Mawuetornam Dugbazah
Originally written February 2010