…Growing up poor in Nigeria also meant sometimes taking up odd jobs like serving as an ad-hoc staff for the government during an outstanding program. Like....the national identity card registration exercise...instead of opting for prostitution or arm robbery [being broke will make you think of the unthinkable].
Getting the ad-hoc position itself took a process. You either had to know somebody who knows somebody that works at the local government to secure a place or depend on God.
After the application and selection process, a rigorous speed-date like training followed. We had to learn how to fill the forms accurately and operate the machine used for headshots. Then we were divided into different groups of three. My team had two fine and level headed guys. The year was 2003, and I faintly remember the days that followed after we were all posted to different stations across the state.
Our station was at the Millennium school compound in Ojodu. I “grew up” in that neighborhood so you can tell the amount of pressure I was put under when “familiar strangers” came around with a sense of entitlement to be attended to first instead of joining the queue like other well meaning Nigerians. Well, there were times we had to bend the rules and “keep space” for these strange neighbors. Talk about corruption in quiet places. We didn’t get away with it much and soon decided to stick to the rule of first-come-first-serve. The people fell in love with us and would sometimes sing our praises out loud while comparing our stations to the others around us.
There were the egocentric big men and women who would not want to join the long queue of ordinary people. We treated them with respect and showed them where the line ended. I sometimes did that while looking away because I could sometimes feel their glare burning through my skinny frame.
I think the part I enjoyed most was learning the dynamics of how a society work just by watching the people who trudged into the center day in day out.
The experience also exposed me to how angry citizens can be when they feel that the system is not being fair to them. There were times we would “open for business, ” and midway through the registration process, the batteries of our machines would run out without warning. Those days were not funny. We would spend the rest of the day apologizing to the crowd for the unexpected interruption and broken promises. Sometimes they openly expressed their suspicion and wondered aloud if we did it on purpose to escape the overwhelming number of people waiting in line.
The following day, when we resumed fully charged, we would meet a more lively crowd. Like the fault in yesterday never happened. Some people even get there as early as 6.00am - way before the resumption time. And they made it a point to announce it :-) to our hearing. The kind ones among them go out of their way to make us comfortable. Sometimes they brought us cold drinks, snacks and left tips with the comrade who took the headshots. Those days were the best. We didn’t mind working overtime.
When the people were not cheerful, they were furious, especially the days when it felt like we were operating right inside the sun. The hot weather also messed up the mood of the exercise. The people waiting for their turns under the hot sun grumbled the loudest. The queue suddenly appeared slow. And the registration process and team? Too clumsy for their liking.
On one of those scorching and angry days, one petite woman stood out in the crowd. She nagged about almost everything under the sun. Then...if I remember clearly, she went on to blame the government and us for the broken system in Nigeria. I can’t remember what my response to her was, but all I remember was that a hot slap landed on my right cheek. I saw stars. Before I could react, the crowd intervened and would not let me return the slap.
I got up, shut my registration book and told them I was done for the day. As calmly as I could muster, I told the crowd that the woman had abused my office...and they tried to change my mind:
“But you are serving the public...”
“It is part of it....”
“I beg na, don’t leave....”
The helpless crowd called out as I left my desk, blinded by hurt pride and anger. But the following day, we resumed again. This time, I perused the crowd more carefully because I understood that each person brought with them questions and stories I had no answer. My business was to register and pass them on to my colleagues who took the thumbprint and headshots. I minded my business carefully.
I can’t remember if anything more dramatic happened after that hot slap except that for that particular assignment we rendered to the government and the people, we still had to spend days protesting on the streets of Alausa [an area where state officials work] before we got paid. Rumors had it that someone embezzled the funds allocated for our salary, but somehow the good Lord touched the heart of those in power. The funds were later disbursed.
Serving the public is no small feat.