Chapter 1: AGAINST THE TIDE
“Morning, Sir. Please, I can’t come in today. I—”
“You have to come in! You must! You cannot miss this meeting. The Permanent Secretary will be in attendance. Who will take notes? What is wrong with you this time, Biba?”
The man speaks too, too much. “Cramps, Sir.”
“Again? It’s too often! Wasn’t it just last month…”
“Sir, it’s once a month,” Biba drawled.
“So you are menstruating again eh, Biba?” he snapped like a stone hurled off a sling.
Good grief! Biba muttered to herself. As if she needed a vocal alarm! What was wrong this man? When did her personal space get this infiltrated?
“Another thirty-eight days has gone round the moon again?” the boss quipped.
Biba sighed. “Twenty-eight, Sir.”
“Do you have this menstruation habit because you work for the government?” he hissed like an angry mamba.
Biba rolled her eyes even though she was reeling in pain that defied medication and description. She had no idea where or what exactly ached. All she was certain of was a sweaty face regardless of the room’s ambience.
“Biba!” she heard the coarse voice bark from the earpiece, startling her.
She needed a change of name, too, she thought. “My liege,” she mumbled. “Sir!”
“I said do you have–”
She considered it a shame that she couldn’t flower in peace, simply because he wanted her at his precious meeting. “No, Sir.”
“Explain,” he insisted.
Biba would have sat up if she could. She blinked twice. Why did they always have to hold a monthly discourse on the subject of menstrual cramps?
“Sir, even if I worked for the FBI, CIA or NSA, I would still need to menstruate because I’m at that phase in my life,” she feigned politeness. The man was making her lower region sore. Why couldn’t he just let her be today of all days?
“So if you were outside in another office, you would menstruate on duty?”
He was a troll, considering the number of lady-friends who visited him during and after work hours. Biba imagined the man’s wife and daughters must certainly have noncombustible uteruses.
“Are you there, Biba?” he demanded again.
“Yes, Sir,” she made a futile effort to stifle a yawn.
“You do know we have an important meeting today?”
“Why is it today you are menstruating? Is it because it is government work?” he lashed out for the umpteenth time.
She was not sure about the number of ways in which he was going to ask the same question. She chose to ignore the first one posed. “No, Sir; women globally and in all jobs suffer the same fate.”
“But they don’t take a holiday on day one,” he pounced like a tomcat snaring an unlucky mouse.
Today was definitely one of his bad days. He might as well put a thumb in his mouth, as she was out of pacifiers. Did he think she enjoyed the immobility every month as though she didn’t have better things to do with her feet? What kind of office had she been posted to?
“People have various thresholds for pain, Sir,” she added softly.
“And your own is too low,” he cut in accusingly.
“Yes Sir!” Was she meant to apologise for something outside her circle of control? she wondered. He spoke like one about to metamorphose. Perhaps a little apology would suffice to get him off her phone? “Sir–”
“Bibaaaa,” he whined.
Biba knew she was in for more than she had anticipated. Why was the man so insensitive? What exactly did he want? “Sir...,” she attempted again, her mouth beginning to ache from overuse.
“Why is it low?”
Biba was quite stunned. She examined the phone for a moment. Was he kidding? Even Muman, her on-and-off boyfriend of over four years, didn’t know this much detail. What kind of man was this? Who would believe this story? How could they even be discussing her periods as if he were her gynecologist?
“Bi-ba,” he prompted impatiently.
How was she to respond? Surely, this was harassment! He might as well ask for ovulation details. Today was not her day with ‘Mr Boss.’ “I missed out on fruits and vegetables when I was a child. I am trying to make up for it in adulthood. I promise to do my best,” she answered flatly, managing to keep her feelings under control.
“So you truly cannot come?” he asked hopefully.
Biba nodded at her end without any verbal backup.
“Ok oh, sorry oh. Shey you will menstruate again same time next month?” he asked in response to the non-verbal reply from Biba.
He just had to rub it in. “Unsure, Sir; it comes and goes,” she returned as smoothly and as non-commitally as possible.
“But definitely,” he assured her, or so it seemed. “Ok, see you tomorrow. Be strong. Happy menstruation!” The line went dead as he hung up. Biba could imagine him moaning loudly to every staff around about why she was on holiday again.
“Same to your female relatives, and hope you imbibe the grace to veer from these monthly verbal harassment you apportion,” she retorted to herself, wishing the nasty boss were standing right in front of her.
Biba had been working at the Ministry of Wonderful Affairs for over three years now, yet she felt she had not come to terms with the tradition being rammed down her throat.
She found their menstruation-oriented discussions bizarre and awkward from the very outset but just did not know how to inform her boss that her muscles abandoned her on the first day, so she stuck to the truth. She cringed in reminiscence at the rich, two-hour debate they established whenever she broached what should otherwise have remained classified, personal information. As usual, Biba let him do most of the talking, as he deemed himself an encyclopedia of some sort. Lying idly in bed now, her mind bolted to the lovely conversation they had shared in the preceding month.
“Yes, yes, where are you? he had demanded emphatically and impatiently as usual, with the uncut manners of a trader at a bus stop.” It was then that she remembered they were working on the Annual General Report for the office.
“Good morning, Sir. I’m sorry I am–”
“No, you are not! You are not!! You are menstruating as usual!” he said accusingly, as if she had committed a capital crime. You like menstruating on wrong days!! Why do you choose to menstruate today BI-BAAAAAA? Whyyy? The Annual Report has to be sent to the Director-General today. You know that!”
“Converse with my stomach walls, Assistant Husband,” Biba whispered, trying but failing to control the aches building in her core. There was never a dull moment with this man. She supposed she should remain grateful for his unwavering commitment to monitoring her superfluous body fluids ever so closely.
“Where are you? Why aren’t you at work? If everyone menstruated like you, what would happen at work? Who would come? Where are you? Confirm your location, Biba.”
“We’re not in space,” she wanted to respond. He had forgotten to include the ‘copy’ word the way it is done in military circles, she thought sarcastically. She was sure he would continue his tirade as usual, for he was never one to be outdone in the talking game.
“What is going on with you? You asked for projects to key into since you didn’t want to be redundant. I perform, do my best and provide a few, yet you choose to stay at home today of all days? If you knew you were not going to come today, why didn’t you complete the work yesterday, Biba?′ he queried.
She kept mute. Here was the appreciation she received for bringing her laptop to work daily and dutifully for the last God-knows-how many days. Hard work certainly did not pay. The next person who spoke otherwise was going to give a detailed explanation upside down, legs in the air! That was one of several positive attributes of tai chi and kungfu; you never saw the whacks arriving until they landed. She had been leaving the office at almost half past seven in the evening for the last two weeks, thanks to the Annual General Report. She had also remained longsuffering even though her Ministry of Wonderful Affairs had failed to provide a functional desktop or laptop, bottled water or any form of refreshment, overtime allowances and/or basic appreciation. They chose rather to dispense more work, more work and much more work on her high-priced laptop. And as if she had not stomached enough at the office, her dear boy, Muman, had the effrontery to suggest that she loved the job more than him, much to her chagrin when she arrived for dinner almost two hours late for the third time in a row.
“Couldn’t it wait till this or tomorrow evening?” her boss had prodded.
“Cramps roused me at 4:00 a.m. Sir.”
“That is correct, Sir,” she concurred.
“Why are you so weak? You are not the only woman in this department!” Yeah, right; the Department of Awesome Affairs! Biba barely heard his subsequent tirade though, as the painful claws gaining grounds in her innards necessitated another deep-breathing session yet again. She had to defend womanhood, though.
“Not weak, Sir; just temporarily indis-”
“I’m not referring to your mouth; we all know that is a cutting-edge technology. I speak of other areas lower below. Do you eat swallow at all? Maybe your stomach needs to be levelled.”
And your mouth needs to be zipped up, not minding that paunch of yours, she thought. He reminded her of a tornado with his penchant for never allowing her complete any statement. Biba stopped paying attention though, as she sipped from a glass of water in her hand. Levelled indeed! He truly was beyond redemption, Biba concluded, so she let him run the unzipped cavity as much as he wanted to. Not that she could have stopped him, anyway. Unfortunately for her, Muman had inconveniently stopped by on his way to Sokoto.
“Biba!” her boss ground out after a while.
“Sir, I don’t indulge in–”
“That is the issue! Your tummy needs something solid!” her nutrition compass-that was what the man had turned himself into-stated, thumping his desk emphatically.
“Will try my best,” she said lamely, too exhausted to say more. He was just wearing her out and she needed to get him off the phone. Was she the only staff in the department? Folks were pretty amazing. At least someone had fun, she thought as she turned to find Muman’s head buried under a pillow in muffled laughter. She could not recall hearing or seeing him laugh that hard in a while. He was wiping his face when she finally got her boss off the phone. Not that she blamed him; she had no clue where her hands-free device lay, and simply could not spare the energy to clutch a handset. Moreover, her boss screamed ever so often, so the phone was best left on speaker. Biba was tired. After her bath, she lay on the bed like someone without legs. She found the experience so horrible.
Muman regaled her with stories of the tasty fish he had consumed on his last trip to Rivers state, graphically describing how the cook wielded a stick and hammer to open up armour-clad fish that knives could not navigate. She smiled indulgently as she summoned strength from somewhere she did not know, to stroke his head as he went on and on about how tasty the fish was, asking if she knew why. Although she wondered if he had forgotten that her tummy was ablaze, she remarked that the taste was as a result of the waters’ high salinity. He disputed, arguing that it was due to mermaids lurking in the zone. She would have flung something at him. Rather, she tickled his chin and stroked his head again, praying for wisdom to engulf it someday as she flooded her system with more warm water until she slept off, thanks to the massage Muman gave her feet. She woke up to find him gone, and smirked as she read the note he left in her hair. She indulged in water therapy some more and felt better by dusk, so much so that she could have denied that her tummy had been attempting to tie itself in knots.
Biba had a number of things that needed urgent attention. She had tried unsuccessfully to reach the Commissioner representing her borough over the phone so she reckoned he might have taken a trip to his village to visit his parents as he usually did. His staff were giving her a hard time because they were perpetually hungry. The three beggars with jobs on regular pay demanded a different meal every week as if she ran a mobile restaurant or worked at the zoo.
“Are you back? Hope you brought something for us?” the Commissioner’s Secretary asked, running an assessing eye over Biba’s frame as she stepped into the office.
Biba dreaded a repeat of what had become a pattern. “Good afternoon, Ma,” she responded, ignoring her lack of etiquette.
“Did you bring anything for us?” she asked again, pulling her lips and throwing her neck forward.
“Like what, Ma?” Biba enquired coolly.
“Anything, gift, gifts, anything small; you know we are working for you.”
“I work conscientiously too, Ma,” Biba answered, completely unperturbed.
“I know. That is why you will give us something,” the secretary replied caustically, refusing to be dissuaded.
“I don’t have anything for you, Ma,” Biba answered without rancour.
“In that big, fine bag? I’m sure you can find something for me if you check,” she insisted, sticking her neck further out.
Biba had no time for such foolishness. She saw no sense in people making vain pursuits. “There is nothing for you in there, Ma,” she returned, not bothering to lighten the gravity of her statement.
“Are you sure?”
“What’s your name?” the Secretary asked, wondering who the cheeky girl was.
“Biba,” she replied without hesitating.
“Which of the states are you from?”
“Leave her alone,” her colleague responded with a laugh, sizing Biba up and studying her warily.
“You can’t keep coming here with nothing, Bi-ba; we are not working for free. Do you think it is easy to look for files or type letters? Daily, daily you say the same thing. Today, you must find something for us even if it’s a recharge card,” she bit out in a clipped voice.
They wanted to make private calls on government time, Biba thought. How interesting. “I don’t have money for recharge cards, Ma,” she said, stifling a yawn. She found this so tiring.
“What of drinks?”
Oh yeah, for that corridor called throats. She had almost forgotten about the assemblies needs for strength and vitality OR She had almost forgotten their needs for strength and vitality. They did not even consider the possibility of food-drink poisoning. Anyone would think she had planned a trip to the zoo. Even monkeys did not beg for bananas and giving remained a voluntary activity. So why were monkeys better behaved? Someone wake up Charles Darwin!
“That can’t be true,” the Secretary replied, shaking her head in denial. “My dear, I know you are a smart girl so play smart, ok? I’m sure you know what to do.”
She dismissed Biba with a wave of the hand and turned away in disgust to attend to other customers willing to make payments in exchange for services they were duly entitled to.
Biba recalled how much fuel she had burnt in the last few weeks, especially with the gasoline scarcity in rage. Almost at her wits’ end, she went back the seventh time in eight months and bumped into the Commissioner representing her borough on the staircase on her way to his Office. She complained bitterly to his utter surprise and felt no iota of guilt about taking over thirty minutes of his time, relaying odd requests his staff had made in the last couple of months just to effect a ‘Regularization’. She felt really good when he had them execute the deed in under six minutes. The thought of having to initiate the whole process to confirm her appointment filled her with dread. Nevertheless, she knew it had to be done.
Biba Khadija Bala stepped carefully out of the taxi completely irritated about her rather poor choice of a grey, Fenn Wright Manson Titania dress and hazy blue Gucci slip-ons in the rainy season. Head down, she watched her steps, holding an umbrella, a conversation and a handbag whilst avoiding caked mud, puddles and slippery, uneven ground on her way into the Commission’s headquarters. It was cold in Wuse but the prolonged drizzle had left the ground extremely messy and heel-unfriendly. Biba, approaching twenty-nine, was a Kanuri beauty with very unusual eyes, a small, pointed nose, high cheekbones, full lips and long, partially full, soft charcoal hair. She had returned home from the States almost mid-career to a disappointing mess back home. Tired of asking herself why she had bothered returning, she was determined to make the best of her current situation regardless.
“Where is your ID card, baby?” one of the guards at the security post asked.
“Will ring you back, Tis. Pardon?” Biba demanded, after ending the call to her best friend.
“Your ID card!” he shrieked.
Pulling a face, Biba opened her bag to reveal it. “Do not use that word on females not strapped with diapers,” Biba responded crisply whilst making her way through the gates.
“How am I to know that baby; why not come over so I have a feel to verify?” he asked.
“Not my style,” Biba returned softly, navigating around a large puddle.
“You smell nice, baby.”
“Get lost,” she replied, running a stern look over him before venturing further into the Commission.
She couldn’t believe this new type of harassment. Apparently, nothing had changed in that regard: unskilled staff were still in dire need of enrolment in a Protocol and Decorum Academy. Moving up the stairs to the Commissioner’s office, she was pleased but also surprised at the current crop of pleasant-looking faces sitting behind desks. A breath of fresh air finally! How nice! She exchanged pleasantries and explained that she had come to collect the letter and collect her Confirmation of Appointment letter.
“You will buy malt for us,” a pleasant-looking lady with the poor wig said.
Biba raised an eyebrow in disbelief.
“Yes. Amstel malt for us three here,” she continued. “Next time when returning for follow up, you can bring chicken pies from Drumsticks.”
“This is unbelievable,” Biba muttered. Well, nobody ever said the staff working in the Commission didn’t have the nerve, she told herself.
“Ma,” she said, deliberately pacing her words whilst watching the lady’s face as she spoke. “This is an official visit to collect my letter I was informed was ready. I was not notified collection would be based on production of food.” She basked in a moment of pure satisfaction at the shock registered on the lady’s face.
“I can see you are new. Do not worry, you will get used to the system; you know we have your file,” she sneered.
“Fair and good, Ma. Where can I collect my letter – Confirmation of Appointment?”
“Come back next week,” the lady replied with a wider smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
Biba returned her smile. “When precisely?”
“Thursday,” the lady returned after a pretentious, thoughtful frown.
Biba was prepared for the woman. “Thursday is Eid-el-Kabir, which is a holiday, Ma.”
“Come back upper Monday then,” she shrugged dismissively.
“Is the Commissioner indoors, Ma?” Biba asked, looking towards his shut door.
“Why are you asking; do you want to report me?” the lady’s voice became shriller with each word.
“Yes, Ma,” Biba confessed, nodding once in affirmation.
“What is that your name again?” she asked incredulously, ignoring deep-throated chuckles from colleagues.
“Biba what?” she asked, her voice rising an octave.
“Biba K. Bala,” she responded smoothly.
“OK, Madam K. B. Baba, the Commissioner is not around, indoors but outdoors. You may take your leave,” she snapped, gesturing with her head in the direction of the main door.
“It’s Miss K.B. Bala, Ma,” Biba corrected politely. “Can I book an appointment to see him?” Biba asked.
“And when would that be, as I do not keep his car keys?” she returned icily, dismissing Biba with a flick.
“No worries, Ma; I shall ring him to enquire. Thank you for your kind assistance,” Biba responded calmly. Pausing at the door, she enjoyed the grim look on their faces.