(I ran this story as a short story titled ‘Count Your Blessings’ in February 2017. I am rewriting and expanding it into a novella)
Idris is dejected. Why is life so unfair to him? He has worked so hard on this thesis, but his supervisor has let him down. The lecturer has never been in a hurry, though Idris worked hard to meet all their agreed timelines. Now Idris is going to miss out on the promotion; Sheila will surely beat him to it. Idris and Sheila are both lawyers, but Idris is older and has more experience. But Sheila has a Masters degree, and that might work in her favor.
Idris is a Legal Officer at Sisi Wa Haki Confederation (SWHC), an NGO that champions for democracy and human rights. Recently, the Head of Legal, Smith Jones, resigned after getting a job with UNICEF. Idris, 34, is confident of getting the job; okay, he was confident until he got the news that he would not be graduating this year. He has been involved with the civil society for most of his adult life. He has participated in street demonstrations since his university days. While at the University, he did several internships with local NGOs and also participated in numerous legal aid clinics.
Idris was hired by Sisi Ni Raia Pia Initiative (SNRPI), a small NGO that champions the rights of the Muslim community in Kenya, immediately he completed his Bachelor’s degree, before he even graduated. Being a youthful, energetic, fiery, eloquent man, he quickly made his presence felt. He led numerous street protests and got arrested multiple times. In the two years that he stayed at SNRPI, his name became synonymous with the rights of Muslims.
Eight years ago, Idris’ profile as a brilliant and dedicated activist at Sisi Ni Raia Pia Initiative caught the attention of Sisi Wa Haki Confederation, and they offered him a job as a Legal Officer. He accepted, because SWHC, being a larger organization than SNRPI, would expose him to a wider scope of human rights and democracy issues beyond the rights of the Islamic community. In addition, they had offered him a better remuneration package and offered to pay his Kenya School of Law fee.
Idris loves his job. He sincerely believes in the cause that SWHC pursues. Beyond that, his current job comes with perks. He can afford a one bedroom apartment in a nice, quiet neighborhood in Nairobi; it may not be much, but it means a lot to a boy who grew up in a poor village in Shava. Idris was also able to afford a decent, though second hand, Toyota Axio. Through his job, he has also been able to travel to many African cities; he has attended human rights conferences in Addis Ababa, Arusha, Banjul, Casablanca, Dakar, Johannesburg and Tunis, just to name but a few. Over time, he has grown to become one of the finest Public Interest Litigation lawyers in the country.
In spite of all that, feelings of inadequacy have recently started gnawing at his soul. When he started off his career journey, he was way better than most of his peers. He had a well-paying job while at the Kenya School of Law, while most of his classmates were languishing as pupils in law firms, earning peanuts. But now the situation has changed. While his salary at SWHC has not increased, most of his classmates are now swimming in money. They are Senior Associates in top law firms and Junior Partners is middle law firms. They are driving SUVs and wearing tailored suits. What looked like a good salary then is comparatively small now.
That is the primary reason why he applied for the Masters degree in Law. He wanted to find a job as an adjunct lecturer and supplement his income. At the time he was making the application, he did not even know that a chance for promotion would come up at SWHC. The organization has a very low staff turnover rate. But then Smith resigned, and Idris was elated. He was sure he would be chosen to replace his boss. The board was clear from the start that they want someone with a Masters degree. That did not worry Idris because he was sure he would graduate this month. He brought that fact to Board’s attention during the first round of interviews last month, and they were clearly impressed because out of the thirteen shortlisted applicants, only he and Sheila were invited for the second round of interviews. The interviews will be conducted next week.
Idris feels that Sheila is not as qualified as he is. She is the legal officer at Uamuzi Wetu Foundation, a relatively smaller NGO. She does have a Masters degree in law from the University of Cape Town, but she lacks the experience Idris has in Civil Society. She has only been at Uamuzi Wetu for a year; before that worked as a corporate law associate in a large law firm. She lacks the pedigree of an activist. There is no way she can beat him in the interview.
But now Idris is not so sure. Without the Masters, the board might decide to take Sheila. Because the truth is, in that one year, she has earned her stripes at Uamuzi Wetu. Idris is walking dejectedly towards his car when he meets Peninah. Peninah is a jovial girl, and often lights up the mood of those she interacts with.
“Hey Penn. You look so happy. You must be on the graduation list.”
“No, I am not. But happiness is not pegged on some silly list, is it?”
“You have a point. But when you work so hard yet miss out, that can be depressing. Anyhow, why didn’t you make it? I thought you completed your thesis ages ago?”
“Yes I did. But I did not meet the threshold of class attendance. I am shy of the minimum by one class.”
“Yea, you like skipping classes. I am even surprised that you are shy with only one class.”
Peninah laughs again.
“I do not choose to skip classes, Idris. I am usually in hospital.”
“I am sorry. But those are a lot of days. What was ailing you?”
“I have sickle cell anaemia.”
“You are kidding.”
“No I am not. Why would I joke with something like that?”
“But I thought it is a genetic and lifelong disease?”
“Yes it is. I have lived with it all my life.”
“But you are always so happy!”
Peninah laughs again.
“Look Idris. Are you going to town?”
“Can I hitch a ride with you?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Please wait for me, if you do not mind. Let me drop these doctor’s reports at the dean’s office. Perhaps he will consider allowing me to graduate without that one class attendance.”
“I pray he does. No problem, I will be waiting in the car.”
As Peninah trots away, Idris walks to his car and heaves himself behind the steering wheel. He thinks about Peninah; such a jovial girl. Who could have thought? He still does not believe it, although she has no reason to lie to him.
A knock at the window breaks his reverie. He lowers the window, and motions Peninah to the passenger seat.
“How did it go?” he asks minutes later, as he pulls the car out of the parking lot.
“Not well. The dean has not even looked at the reports. He has told me that it doesn’t matter whether I was sick or dead (his words); the fact is that I did not attend the required classes and that I have to repeat the coursework. That will be the third time I am doing the coursework. Actually, I did the classes that I missed last year this year; the classes that I missed this year are classes that I did last year. But the dean wouldn’t listen. He even threatened to make me write another thesis next year.”
Tears start rolling down her cheeks.
“You know, if he has just told me to repeat the coursework and left it at that, that would have been fine. I mean, I repeated the coursework this year. It is no big deal, even though I don’t know whether my donors will sponsor me for the third year running; or whether next year I will be well enough to attend enough classes to graduate. I was born a survivor, so being told to repeat a third time wouldn’t have bothered me. But that man lectured me for fifteen minutes about my disease.”
“What do you mean?”
“He told me over and over again that he doesn’t understand why I am struggling so much with education, because, according to him, I have actually lived longer than I should. He mentioned some statistics that show people with sickle cell do not live beyond 24 years…”
“No! He didn’t say that!” Idris is aghast. Peninah’s voice breaks and she starts sobbing. Idris grabs the steering wheel tightly. It is the only way he can stop himself from screaming. Why are people so cruel?
“And you know what? I think he is right.”
“No, don’t say that Peninah. That man is just a mean person. We don’t even know whether there is a report like that, and if there is, whether it is accurate. The dean is a lawyer, not a doctor.”
“Let us be realistic Idris. What is the point of all this? I could go to hospital one day and not come back. So why am I wasting donor money that can be spent on people with more realistic chances at life?”
“None of us knows when we will die. I could get an accident and die. Or suffer a bout of meningitis. Life and death is in the hands of God. We shouldn’t focus on that because it is beyond our control.”
“That man is right Idris. And you know, as he spoke, I made a decision. I am going to put an end to all this. I cannot continue to live like this.”
“What do you mean?”
“I will put an end to this miserable life. I mean, I spend a huge chunk of my life in hospital. What is the point?”
Image by Jasmin Chew from Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/photos/woman-model-pose-sky-dress-casual-5440728/
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