Andrew fans the fire and watches as the coals come to life. He places three fresh cobs on the gauze and watches as they slowly start turning golden brown. They are the last for the day. He casts a glance at the other roaster, where he has yams and arrow roots. Customers come and go. Some want to purchase full cobs, others want halves of cobs and others want quarters. He sells a full cob at forty shillings, half a cob at twenty and a quarter of a cob at ten shillings. Maize is probably the most beloved of all the things he sells. But maize is seasonal, and getting good, fresh maize in the off season is a tall order. That is why he had to get creative to make the arrowroots and yams sell. He bought a coffee urn and started selling coffee. This worked like magic, and both the arrow roots and yams now sell almost as fast as the maize.
Andrew is now thinking about expanding by adding a sausage cart. Of course he will have to tussle with the county government and public health officials, but that is normal in his line of business. Andrew is aware that not everyone is pleased with his success. Other hawkers and even his own neighbors are jealous. Already, he has been kicked out of prime spots twice, and he knows jealousy was the main reason behind it. His current location is not ideal, but he has already built a reputation, so customers follow him.
He is known for three things: the first is cleanliness. This is a particularly important to the office types, especially the women. Andrew always ensures that his work station is well swept. He made a makeshift cleaning point by fixing a tap to a bucket, and that is where he cleans his hands every time he handles charcoal. He himself is always smartly dressed, complete with a clean dust coat. The second thing his clients appreciate is that he goes out of his way to get the freshest and the most delicious maize, arrow roots and yams, even if it means paying more for them or travelling to look for them. He does not compromise on the quality of his goods, and the farmers who sell to him know that. The last thing that his clients appreciate is his friendliness. From construction workers to the business types, Andrew always has a kind word for everyone.
Andrew does not do this work full time. This is an evening gig. He comes here at 4 pm to set up the roasters and get ready for the masses as they start heading home from work. He often stays up until 8.30pm when the town starts getting deserted. He has always been fortunate to find someone in all the three locations he has worked to give him space to store his roasters, charcoal and his stock. His current benefactor is a lady called Nina. She runs a shop at the front side of her home, and her home happens to be at the edge of the town. She is actually the one who invited him to come and set up his stand in front of her shop, when she heard that he had been kicked out of his previous spot. She has been his regular customer for the three years he has been running this business. She also allows him to use one of the rooms in her residence as a storage room, and does not charge him for it. During the day, Andrew is usually riding his motorcycle, ferrying people from one place to another or running their errands.
When he could not get a job after graduating from campus, Andrew decided that he would not burden his impoverished parents as he waited for a white-collar job. He decided that he would do anything to survive. He started doing manual jobs in town and the surrounding villages. One day he would be loading trucks in a hardware, the next he would be tilling someone’s farm and the next he would be in a construction site. That was before he started the business of roasting maize.
He got the idea of roasting maize from his friends. He kept hearing people complaining that they really desired roasted maize but that they did not trust the hygiene of the local vendors. He decided to give it a try, and so far it has been a success. He fetches enough money to cater for his needs and to save. His father gave him his share of the ancestral land and he built a wooden house so that he could leave the one he shared with his brothers. Andrew is also a diligent farmer, and some of the green maize, arrow roots and yams that he sells come from his farm. They are not enough though, so he has to purchase more from other farmers.
At first he used to do the roasting and selling business full time. But the numbers during the day were very low. Most people purchase his products in the evening. It was Nina who advised him that he could find something more productive to do during the day. They discussed several ideas, and decided that riding was the most ideal. But Andrew did not have enough money to buy a motorcycle. Nina surprised him the following week with a brand new motorcycle. She also took him to driving school to get his license. Andrew now can both ride a motorcycle and drive saloon cars. That is how he started his transport business, which he runs till today.
Locals are now used to him, and people no longer whisper behind his back. People could not understand why someone with a degree would be selling roast maize at the local market. But with time, they accepted that he is part of the local economy.
In recent weeks, there has been one constant reminder that this was not what his life was meant to be. As a burgundy Toyota Vitz pulls up in front of his stand, Andrew for a moment imagines how his life would have panned out if he had gotten a well-paying white-collar job. That had always been the plan. Although his current hustles are successful by village standards, he still makes less than what lower cadre government employees make.
The owner of this car is called Florence. She was Andrew’s classmate in primary school. She was an average student, while he was the star of the class. When they did their KCPE, Andrew was at the top of his class 399 marks. He still agonizes over that one mark that denied him the coveted 400 marks. Still, he secured a spot in one of the top provincial schools in the region. The school has since been elevated to a national school. Florence only managed 276 marks and was admitted to a district school, now categorized as a sub-county school. At the end of their secondary school education, Andrew got an A- and went to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry. Florence got a C- and her father took her to college to pursue a certificate course in Secretarial Studies.
Now, almost a decade after doing KCSE, Andrew is roasting maize to eke out a living while Florence works in a large company that deals with herbal medicine. Her monthly salary is probably more than what he makes in a year.
But such is life, and Andrew has accepted his station in life.
Florence cuts the engine of the car and sighs. She knew that doing this would be difficult, but this is more difficult than she imagined. Recruitment is part of her job. Actually, it is a central part of the employment terms of everyone in the company she works for. She does not like it, but she has over the years managed to get impersonal about it. Most of the people she recruits are driven by their greed anyway, and they go on to love the job even when they get to know what it really entails.
Publicly, The Mirage Herbal Limited (or simply The Mirage, as it is popularly called) is a herbal medicine manufacturer. It has all the papers in place, and it actually does make herbal medicine. Whether they work is another question altogether, but it really doesn’t matter to the owners and their real clients because herbal medicine is only a cover for the real business. The company is probably the largest distributor of hard drugs in the wealthy suburbs of the city. It imports the drugs from South America and then repackages them and sells them to wealthy and middle class clients at a premium rate.
The company survives though the bribing of government officials and the murder of traitors. Employees are well paid, but once you are employed by the company you cannot leave. If you try to resign, you get killed. If you don’t meet your targets and the bosses feel you are a liability to the company, you don’t get fired; you disappear mysteriously or die in a freak accident. In other words, the company does not have any living former employees.
Florence came home specifically to recruit Andrew, although she tells everyone that she is on leave. She had been asked by her mother, who is Andrew’s mother’s friend, to find him a job that matches his qualifications. She knew that he was the perfect candidate for their company; he is poor and therefore vulnerable, but he is also well educated, brilliant, hardworking and self-motivated. What more, he has a degree in biochemistry, which means he would fit nicely in the herbal medicine cover. But even though she hadn’t seen him since their high school days, she did not want to drag him into this mess. Unfortunately, his mother also sought assistance from a distant relative, who happens to be a friend of her boss. When her boss realised that Andrew comes from the same area as she does, he was furious. He demanded to know why she had not told him about him (Andrew). Florence meekly pointed out that she hadn’t been home in five years and therefore didn’t know anything about Andrew’s employment status.
Her boss gave her three weeks off from the company to come and recruit Andrew. He made it clear that if she doesn’t return to the city with Andrew in tow, then she can consider herself jobless, which Florence knows means death. She did not come alone. She was accompanied by a supervisor who watches her every move. He stays in the shadows though, so nobody would associate him with her. But she knows he is watching. If she fails to do get Andrew on board, she will get killed and the company will find other means of recruiting him.
The reason Florence is finding it particularly difficult to recruit Andrew today is because she has become very fond of him in the three weeks she has been around. He is still the same sweet Andrew she knew in primary school. She comes to his stand every evening at about eight when he has few or no clients, and they chat until he closes. She certainly wants him to succeed, but not by joining the death trap that is The Mirage Herbal Limited. But her bosses have instructed her to make a formal approach to Andrew today, and give him the job offer.
She is still in her car when a large motorcycle roars past. She knows that it is her supervisor reminding her that he is watching. She steps out of the car, locks it and walks towards the smiling Andrew.
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/photos/guy-man-fashion-clothing-backpack-2590795/
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