Short Fiction by Anietie Isong
I see the advert in the Birmingham Mail: “Seeking fundraiser planner to oversee and co-ordinate all funding for Bamboo Trust Foundation — a charity that saves lives in Africa. The ideal candidate will collaborate with colleagues to identify and shape new cross-discipline fundraising opportunities both formally and informally. This role will suit someone with demonstrable experience in setting, managing, and analysing income budgets. We encourage Africans with a right to work in the UK to apply for this position.”
“This is my job,” I tell myself, as I begin to prepare the application. “Nobody will take this one away from me.”
And then I pray. “Lord, I thank you for this job. Please bless me . . .”
Later the same evening, after a prayer meeting at my church, I ask my pastor to pray that God’s favour falls upon my application. He obliges, and asks me to kneel by the pulpit as he calls upon the God of Abraham to hearken to our prayers.
God is good. Three weeks later, a letter of interview arrives in the post. The letter has come at a time of great financial need; my rent is due in a few days, and there’s no money in my bank account. The income of my current job is insufficient for my needs.
Dave, the interviewer, is a white male with a Birmingham accent.
“Solomon, we were so impressed by your CV,” he says. “It was clearly one of the best we received.”
We? Apart from the lady at the reception, I have not seen anyone else in the stylish office. Perhaps they were on holiday?
Dave smiles. “When you join this organization, you will belong to a league of great people who contribute for the sake of the poor.”
Something seems odd about Dave and his charity. But I cannot place my finger on it. The man leans forward.
“Solomon, could you tell me more about yourself?”
I had prayed for favour. Had prayed that the Holy Spirit would guide my tongue so I could say just the right things to show that I was perfect for the job. Certainly not to talk about the hours I spent daily at my current employer, a sandwich factory in Quinton. That would not impress him. I tell him instead about my previous experience managing teams and projects in Africa, about building strong relationships with key stakeholders. I tell him about my expertise in helping to tackle real challenges in remote villages.
Dave nods. “When you walked in here, I knew there was something about you. I have interviewed three other candidates, but no one has impressed me as much as you. “
He stops talking for a while, and my eyes spot a book on his desk — a slim volume, on running a business. I immediately begin to talk about my degree programme in business administration, where I learnt to analyse management issues and make decisive problem-solving contributions.
Dave’s mobile phone rings, but he doesn’t answer it. He keeps staring at me, his eyes roaming my face as if in search of something.
“I feel I can work with you, so I am going to tell you how the Bamboo Trust Foundation works, how our funds are sourced,” Dave continues. “We write letters to greedy bastards and trick them into parting with their money.”
I sit up. And then the man explains further. He scams people. My body is trembling. Of course, I know about internet scams, especially the advance fee fraud — “419” as it is called back home. Several so-called “businessmen” in my hometown had made fortunes through such dubious means. But it never crossed my mind that these criminal practices were no longer reserved for desperate folks in third world countries.
“But I am not a criminal,” Dave affirms. “I only scam the scumbags. If society wants to brand me as one, that is their business. I run a charity that fights poverty, injustice, and all the ills of third world countries.”
I begin to sweat. It is difficult to digest the man’s words. Perhaps he is joking. Perhaps it is all part of the interview process. Employers are known to make use of various tactics to extract information from candidates or test their IQ level. Maybe it’s an ethics test of some sort.
“I believe that we Europeans helped destroy Africa,” Dave says. “So it is our duty to end African poverty. If we had let Africans be, without meddling in their affairs, things might not have turned out so terrible on that continent. So now we have to make things right. By any means necessary.”
He runs his hands through his ginger hair, then he adjusts his chair. I cannot meet his gaze. This is a joke gone too far. I want to run away. Run very far away from him.
“I want you to come and work for me,” Dave says. “Together we can change lives in Africa.”
He offers me three times my current salary.
And some other perks too: generous holidays, flexible working hours. A very tempting offer. He tells me to think about it.
I leave the office with a heavy heart. I had been so happy about the job. Had been so sure God had answered my fervent prayers. Had been certain it was because of God’s favour that I was shortlisted in the first place. But surely, God would not want me to get involved in criminal activity, even in the name of changing lives.
For two nights, sleep eludes me. On the third day, when a letter arrives threatening to take legal action over my unpaid debts, I go back to see Dave. I am sure God would understand.
“I knew you would be back,” Dave says, as he shakes my hand.
He makes me sign a non-disclosure agreement. I must never divulge company information to anyone. Not even to close family members, although I don’t have any family in the UK. My closest relative, my brother, lives in Nigeria. And I would never want to tell anyone about this job anyway.
Dave says I must dress smartly at all times. That means changing my entire wardrobe. Since I arrived in the UK, I have never bought anything from high street shops. My low income forbade me. But Dave buys me suits from Marks and Spencer, three pairs of shoes from Clarks and some smart trousers from Debenhams.
Dave insists that I must stay in a nice apartment. My current landlady is hysterical about me moving out of her old Victorian house in Selly Oak, which I share with three other African immigrants. She wants to know why I cannot stay there any longer, especially as she has just bought a brand-new bed for my room. But I do not owe her any explanation, just back rent, which I pay with an advance from my new job. Dave gets me a flat in Edgbaston. A one bedroom furnished flat.
On my first day at work, Dave explains the intricacies of the business. He also confirms my initial suspicion: it’s only Dave (and now me) in the charity. No other staff. The receptionist was only brought in to help with the interviews.
As we prepare our “fundraising” letters, Dave tells me that the average human being is greedy, which is why it is so easy to find victims. Everything we need is inside of telephone directories, in the yellow pages, or on the internet.
“In the letters,” he explains, “one must always make reference to a large sum of money, and other benefits.”
He shows me a copy of a recent letter, something along the lines of some money being stuck in a Swiss account and requiring some part payment before the funds are released.
I let the content of the letter sink in. Then look up at my new boss.
“You wrote this?”
Dave shrugs. “Of course I wrote it. I have a first-class degree in psychology. Do you know how much I made from this letter?”
“Enough money to build three hospitals in Kenya.”
I say nothing for a long while. I haven’t been to church since the job offer. How would my pastor react to the “good news” of my employment at Bamboo Trust Foundation?
“The world might brand me a criminal,” Dave carries on, “But I am not. I’m more of a twenty-first-century Robin Hood. I only take from those who have, to give those who have not.”
I stare at him with a curious, cold respect as he rambles on, spouting a clearly practiced moral essay.
“I used to think that the world was such a cruel place. It is not. It is a wonderful place. I have learnt a lot in life. I have learnt that the poor are poor because the rich are rich. I was born into a poor family. My grandfather died poor. They couldn’t even afford a decent burial. And my father continued in that line of poverty. But it wasn’t like the poverty of Africa. No, nothing like that at all.”
I know what he means. The real poverty of Africa. What I witnessed on the streets of Uyo. The sort of poverty that forces a mother to send her five-year-old daughter to work as a maid in a rich man’s household.
“I refuse to be poor,” Dave screams. “I do not wish to marry, lest I bear children that carry the load of poverty. It is freeing to be without a partner, without a family. Poverty will not be my lot. It should not be anyone’s lot. We should all enjoy the good things of life.”
I stare hard at the man. If his parents were still alive, what would they have said of their psychologist now turned fraudster son?
At the Bamboo Trust Foundation, I hit the ground running. I put my knowledge of Africa to good use, helping Dave identify cities and communities that would benefit from donations. I draw up strategic papers highlighting short and long-term plans for growth. I even manage to employ my brother back home to help manage some projects on the ground.
A few weeks after my start date, I tell Dave that I need a new car. The man sits up, and a Time magazine falls from his hands to the floor.
“You need a new car?” my boss asks.
“But your current car drives well.”
I clasp my hands. “I know. But my present car lacks prestige. That is why police stop me all the time. If I were driving a nice car, I will be treated with more respect.”
Truth is, I was tired of driving an old banger when the firm could afford to get me a nice car. Every day, I painstakingly researched African communities in need, in order to send them aid. Why couldn’t I use a tiny bit of our funds to buy a nicer car for myself?
Dave pats my back. “You have reasoned well, Solomon. Someday, I will put up a sign on my car that reads: ‘Show me your car and I will know who you are.’”
I visit a well-known auto dealer in the city centre. A bored salesman walks up to me and whispers, “Can I help?”
“Yes, you can help. I need a very good car.”
The confidence in my voice drives away the disinterest from the salesman. He adjusts his tie.
“Oh, certainly, we have the best cars you can find in the West Midlands.”
He takes me round the showroom and describes the features of some lower-end cars. But one sleek sedan catches my fancy.
“This is the one I like.”
The man seems confused and steers me towards another brand, a cheaper one. But I have made my decision.
“This is my car.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well, we have several financing options,” the salesman says. “You can pay in 48 monthly instalments—”
“I want to pay everything now.”
The man is stunned. “Pardon?”
“I do not wish to owe,” I say slowly. “Before I drive away in this car, I want to pay everything off.”
“But that would be too much—”
I bring out my wallet.
“I have my debit card here. Can we go inside and sort out the paperwork, please?”
A few days later, I drive my new car to my pastor’s house. I want him to bless the vehicle. I have seen other church members do this. Also, I hope in this way to placate the preacher, since I haven’t been to church in a while.
“I had a dream,” Rev. Simon says when he sees the car. “I saw a beautiful bird perched on my windowsill. As I woke, the Lord told me: My son, I will bless your flock. I will embarrass my people with wealth!”
I smile. “Pastor, the Lord has blessed me abundantly.”
“Just look at this car. Look at this beautiful object. It can perform wonders on the road. Is God not beautiful?”
“He is, sir.”
“He is excellent. Brother Solomon, you must bring this car to church on Sunday.”
In the Sunday church service, the pastor preaches about long-suffering, about the mercies of God and His riches. “Our God is great. He will bless us and bless us abundantly. Though the road might seem rough, don’t despair, our God is alive and well.”
After the choir renders a beautiful version of “The Lord is My Hope,” the pastor invites me to the altar, to give my testimony.
“Our God is great,” I shout.
“All the time,” someone shouts back.
“Many months ago,” I continue, “I had lost all hope. I was in a terrible financial mess. But my God was not sleeping. I cried out to him and he heard my cries. He brought me from the dens of poverty and exalted me to the throne of riches. He gave me a good job and today I drive a new car!”
I wipe sweat from my forehead.
“I am thankful that I am alive today to declare God’s goodness in my life. I am thankful that I can pay my tithes in thousands of pounds!”
When the pastor appears at the pulpit again, he asks the congregation to stretch forth their hands and pray for me.
“Pray that God will continue to bless him, that he will continue to pay his tithes faithfully. Pray . . .”
“If I had not rescued you, you would still be combing the streets in search of a living wage,” Dave says, his voice rising.
I had merely suggested to him that, perhaps, we should pause the fundraising drive. After all, we already had over two hundred thousand pounds in the pot. The church sermon had pricked my conscience.
“It is for the good of Africa that I am doing this,” Dave says slowly this time. “You should not care about how many people we take money from. They have the money to give, that is why they are giving. You should think more about how this money will help make a difference in the lives of poor Africans.”
Perhaps he is right, I tell myself. Divorce my thoughts from the source of the money and all will be well. Of course, I am not the one writing the letters. God would understand that I am only trying to do a job.
“Now, how is the project going in Lagos?” Dave asks.
I sit back and brief him.
“Everything is going well. I have been in touch with some community leaders in Lagos, and they are excited that Bamboo Trust Foundation has chosen to donate equipment and drugs to their community.”
“Very good. Tell them, this is just the beginning. The good times are here.”
Bamboo Trust Foundation Rebuilds Life in Africa
Birmingham, UK-based aid agency Bamboo Trust Foundation has awarded £100,000 towards charitable causes in Africa. The money will be used for various projects in Nigeria, including a recreation centre in the southern part of the country. This centre, the first of its kind in the region, comprises a school, a modern library with internet facilities, a hospital and a mini stadium. The project is an initiative of Dave Brown, who says he was moved by the plight of the poor.
“So many families in Nigeria cannot afford to send their children to good schools,” said Brown. “I wanted to give some respite to the needy. This foundation is only for the poor. They do not have to pay anything to study here.”
Dave is like a hungry dog that has been offered a succulent meal. He takes me to lunch in Broad Street.
“All I am doing is taking from the rich to give to the poor. If that is a sin, then I am happy to be a sinner. I am the true poverty eradicator. Never mind the G8 leaders and their farcical coalition that promises to make poverty history. You should go to Nigeria and monitor how the work is progressing.”
My trip to Nigeria is handled by ABC Travels. The travel advisor, a young lady from east Africa, offers a small discount for paying with a debit card.
“Thank you,” I tell her, fighting the urge to laugh at her generosity.
“Are you going for a celebration?”
Her smile is infectious. “Is there some kind of celebration going on in Nigeria now? I have sold ten Nigerian tickets in two days.”
I smile while signing her documents. “Maybe.”
“Why can’t they serve us eba on this plane?” the man sitting beside me says.
I stare at him, as though he had just announced that he is pregnant. The man has extensive tribal marks on his cheeks, and I immediately guess his tribe.
“Well . . .”
“I mean, this is a Nigeria-bound flight,” the man says. “Almost everyone here is Nigerian. Why can’t they treat us nicely, for once? What is wrong in serving our local delicacies on board?”
In theory, it sounded like a good idea. In practical terms, it was not. The aroma of eba and egusi might be too much for some passengers to bear. And it was a heavy meal too.
“Not everyone will like eba,” I explain to him.
“Who said so?”
“Well . . .”
“They have never considered it. You know what this is?”
I shake my head, trying not to stare too hard at the man’s tribal marks.
“This is colonialism,” the man spits. “Cultural imperialism. This Lagos-to-London route is busy and lucrative. I paid £500. Is that small money?”
Who is this man? What business brought him to the United Kingdom? I want to ask, but I don’t. Instead, I am pleased he doesn’t say much else during the flight. Although his snoring causes much discomfort to other passengers around us.
I cock my head to one side and reach into my trouser pocket for a handkerchief to mop sweat from my forehead. I touch the knot of my tie and shake my head reflectively. My brother arranged this office space for me to use while I am in the country, since Bamboo Trust Foundation doesn’t have a physical office in Africa. Otu has good organisational skills, but he is deficient in many areas.
The electronic clock on the desk beeps. I snatch the phone and dial a number. It rings five times, but no one answers. I replace the receiver, walk into the washroom and turn the tap. Cold water sprays on my starched shirt. I wash my hands and splash water into my face. I am less tense when I return back to my seat and scan the documents. But I still find them preposterous.
The phone buzzes, and I answer it immediately.
“Your brother is here, sir,” the receptionist says.
“Send him in.”
Otu walks in and we greet each other warmly. I notice quickly how much weight he has gained. He is my only brother, and ever since our parents died, I have taken it upon myself to look after him. Otu rolls his sleeves, slowly.
“I’ve been planning to write a report on our projects.”
“So why didn’t you?”
He tries to laugh. But it ends in a foolish grin.
“There’s so much work these days.”
I am weary of the small talk. I rise from my seat and go over to the window. I draw the blinds apart. The material slips from my sweaty hands.
“Otu.” I say his name without turning from the window.
“Do you like your job?”
“Solomon, I’m wonderfully paid. I’m not complaining. I’m—”
“Do you like your job?” I ask, swinging round.
My brother gulps. “I do.”
I hand him the documents. “Then why this?”
Otu’s oily face falls when he sees the papers. His breathing is even more laboured now.
“Ah, Solomon, I can explain—”
“Of course, that’s what you would say.”
I clench my fist. “I trusted you. I thought you could do this job.”
“But— my brother—”
“Company money!” I spit. “You helped yourself to funds meant for the development of this country!”
“Let me explain.”
“I took you out of unemployment and gave you this job. But you have shown me that I was foolish.”
Otu goes down on his knees.
“I’m sorry, my brother. I needed the money so urgently.”
“And you felt the best place to take it from was my charity?”
“I’m sorry I meant to return it. Like a loan.”
“You have failed me.”
“Please, do not take it like that. You know you are my brother.”
“Oh, shut up. You covered the fraud, thinking nobody would discover it. You lied to me. I’ve not yet decided what to do with you. But I’ll let you know later. Just leave.”
Bad news travels fast in these climes. Thirty minutes after Otu leaves, my uncle calls to say that I cannot fire my brother.
“You must let him be, Solomon.”
“Uncle, he was taking money meant for the community.”
“And who doesn’t take other people’s money in this country?”
“These things are normal. A local chairman takes money meant for repairs of roads. A college principal helps himself to students’ tuition fees. Even a pastor must sometimes take money from the church.”
“It cannot be done, Solomon. Your brother cannot be fired for doing what we all do.”
“It is stealing.”
My uncle laughs. “What will people say, eh? Ah, they will laugh at us. They will mock our family. You cannot sack your brother.”
For several minutes after he hangs up, my mind is in turmoil. If I fire Otu, what message am I sending to Dave? It would be embarrassing to tell him that the brother I swore was the perfect man for the job is a thief. What a shame! In the end, I realise my uncle is right. My brother cannot be fired.
Apart from the little incident with my brother, everything else goes well during my trip. I hold series of meetings with various stakeholders and appraise the projects Bamboo Trust Foundation is sponsoring. Dave would be pleased. But then a day before I travel back to the UK, Sule, an old classmate who is now a police officer comes to talk to me about Bamboo Trust Foundation.
“I have watched how you guys are building libraries, roads, hospitals and leisure centres. Have you forgotten us? We are the law keepers, the ones that look after all these places that you are building. It would be sad if you have forgotten us.”
I brush imaginary dirt off my trousers with my right palm.
“The United Nations we know. But who is Bamboo? Who are the people behind it?” Sule’s mobile phone rings. He mutters rapidly in Pidgin English , hangs up and then turns to me.
“Yes, tell me, what sort of organization spends so much money on local people? Who funds you?”
But I say nothing. A strange, trembling triumph sustains me as I stare at the police officer.
“I guess it is none of my business to bother about the source of the funds,” Sule concludes. “But I want a part of it. I want the Bamboo Foundation to rebuild our police station, so we can carry on with our great duties of keeping this town safe. Let your organization provide us with money to buy guns and other equipment. Do you know that we do not have a police car in this zone? Yesterday, we had to arrest a criminal, using a motorbike. We don’t have police vans in the entire local government.”
I promise to look into it. But this will require deep thoughts. Bamboo Trust Foundation was not founded to provide funds for the police, although a little donation to law enforcement agents might not hurt.
At Heathrow Airport, the immigration officer looks up sharply.
Something appears in the man’s face, and then he picks up a phone. I am too tired to wonder what the fuss is all about. Another officer, in mufti, appears beside me.
“Mr. Solomon, would you follow me please?” the new officer asks.
I am led into a windowless room and offered a seat. When my buttocks hit the chair, I realise, with trepidation, that I am about to be interrogated.
“Mr. Solomon, do you have a luggage?” he asks.
The man smiles. “We will get someone to collect it for you.”
“May I know why I am here?” I ask.
“Of course, Mr. Solomon. I will tell you everything. But first, could I check the contents of your bag?”
He rummages through the bag. There are some beads and a few books I had bought at the Murtala Mohammed Airport. The officer looks at the beads.
“It’s not juju, is it?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You Africans believe in a lot of fetish things, don’t you? Last week, a guy from Nigeria that had no visa in his passport thought he could enter the UK with the help of juju.”
“I do not see what that has to do with me.”
“Mr. Solomon, I am afraid we have to arrest you for fraud.”
My breathing halts. Perhaps I did not hear clearly. Perhaps, this is all a joke.
“Mr. Solomon, we have evidence that you are involved in fraud.”
“I do not know what you are talking about, officer.”
The man smiles. “You should co-operate with me, Mr. Solomon. It will be in your best interests.”
“This is an abuse of my human rights.”
The smile never leaves his face.
“I love this job. It amazes me when I hear foreigners talk about rights. What rights should you have in this country after all the terrible things that you have done here?”
The officer opens his notepad and begins to scribble. I cannot see what he is writing.
“Mr. Solomon,” the man says, “we have been watching you for some time now.”
He continues writing and I can’t believe what he’s saying. He seems quite young.
The officer looks up. “Mr. Solomon, the United Kingdom is a land of opportunity. We encourage skilled immigrants to come here and offer their services. But we don’t want criminals. We don’t want people who come here to defraud us. We want law-abiding immigrants. Do you understand?”
“I need a lawyer.”
The smile still dances on his face. “You will get a lawyer. Soon.”
The man looks at what he has written, and I wonder what is contained in that damned notebook.
“I suppose you don’t know,” the officer says, “That law enforcement agents in this country have informants everywhere. We plant our people all over. We have already arrested Dave.”
My mouth hangs open. “Dave?”
“Yes, he is cooling off behind bars right now.”
My vision suddenly blurs. My heart thumps. What has Dave told the police?
“If you co-operate with us,” the officer says, “To help us apprehend other fraudsters, the judge might lighten your sentence.”
The man goes back to his notebook. I can barely breathe. The room seems without air.
“I do not understand why you people do it,” the officer continues. “This country has been fair to immigrants. We even turn a blind eye to those who don’t have valid visas, yet you still hurt us terribly. Solomon, will you cooperate with us?”
I think of my church, of Rev. Simon. Would he pray for me? I think of my brother, and the projects he is managing back home. I think of prison.
I sigh. “How do you want me to cooperate with you? What do you want me to do?”
The officer’s smile widens.