Pius Adesanmi: The dignity of an honest job

by Pius Adesanmi.

(excerpt from my Canada memoir in progress. Hint: Ayesha Pande)

After completing my doctoral comprehensives and having my dissertation proposal accepted and approved by my committee in 1999, I decided I needed a break from Vancouver. I needed to go somewhere to recharge my batteries and, if possible, write the first draft of my dissertation.

That needed break came in the form of a research fellowship offer from the Institut Francais d’Afrique du Sud in Johannesburg. The French Institute of South Africa offered me a six-month research stay in Johannesburg, complete with speaking and networking opportunities at Wits.

My friend, Bayo Emm, and I were sharing the same flat in Vancouver. Bayo and few friends drove me to the airport. Six months later, Bayo was at the Vancouver airport to welcome me back. Then, a day after my arrival from Johannesburg, I needed to send money urgently to Nigeria to help out a distant relative who was an undergraduate.

Across the road from our apartment, there was a Money Mart outlet we used for Western Union transactions. Bayo and I strolled there. As soon as they saw me walk in, the ladies behind the counter grinned warmly. One of them exclaimed: “hey mister, long time no see! Did you travel or something?” I confirmed that, indeed, I had been “away in Africa” for six months. We did more small talk and I completed my transaction.

Bayo hadn’t said a word. As we strolled back to our apartment, he was morose and thoughtful.

Ol’boy, wetin dey worry you? I finally asked him.

Pius, those girls missed you. They actually noticed that you weren’t around.

Which girls?

The Western Union girls.

Why won’t they notice? We are regular customers. We have used that Money Mart almost weekly now in the last two years.

Yes, Pius, that is the problem. You and I go there almost once a week. The money you go there to send home, is it to buy land, build a house, or start a business back home?

No, Bayo, it’s just the usual runs to help family, relatives, and friends.

Well, Pius, that is why those girls in Western Union got me thinking about our lives here. If you send money to help people out in Nigeria to the point that Western Union notices your absence, wahala wa o. Pius, when Western Union begins to tell us that “o ma t’ojo meta”, when Western Union begins to tell you long time no see, and what turned you to a valued family member of Western Union is not money you are spending on yourself, it is time to start thinking. It is time to start putting some of that money we are sending into projects back home. Don’t just be subsidizing people back home. After a few years, our culture will make the same people ask: after all the years abroad, what has he done for himself?

Bayo’s opinion affected me deeply. For the first time, I realized that I had made weekly trips to Western Union without a break for nearly two years and none of those trips had been for myself. I thought about how I was scrapping together the crumbs I was sending home from Vancouver…

…life in Canada, in Vancouver precisely, had taught me a few rude and crude lessons about the dignity of labour and of all jobs. I was coming from Nigeria and from a sociology in which the first day of your University admission automatically separates you from certain spheres of life and certain socialities. Nigeria tells you that once you have anything to do with a University, certain jobs are beneath you, certain situations are beneath you and the people who do such jobs are inferior to you. The social apartheid between those who have been to the University and those have not been in Nigeria is the worst there is in Africa.

I had arrived in Vancouver as a fully-funded PhD student. I had a doctoral Fellowship. I also had a teaching assistantship. I had a first and second degree, obviously, from Ilorin and Ibadan. And I already had minimal recognition as a writer. I was a big man of some sorts in Nigeria.

My first pay check was a rude shock! I ran to financial services at UBC to complain that there had been an error with my pay. They laughed and explained all the deductions to me. After all the deductions, I still had to contend with rent and bills and feeding.

I did the math and discovered to my horror that after all the taxes and deductions and the bills, I was lucky to be left with even $20 of spare change every month.

And there was all that crowd in Nigeria waiting…

Waiting for Western Union to start to make deliveries from Canada…

It was at this point that other members of the Nigerian graduate student community, who had arrived years before me, had gone through the same eye-openers and were waiting for the Canadian system to introduce herself to me, stepped in with a dire verdict:

Pius, na so this system be o. There is no big man here. If you won’t say that you are too big, I will talk to my supervisor where I work. There is vacancy for one more cleaner. There is vacancy for one more dish washer. There is vacancy for one more delivery boy. The cleaning job involves toilets o.

Jeez! Cleaner? Cleaning toilets? A whole Pius Adesanmi? With my first class degree from Ilorin? With my masters with distinction from Ibadan? Haba! And with my doctoral fellowship at UBC? I cursed and abused the Nigerians who were telling me such nonsense.

A few weeks later, I put one leg on top of another leg and went back to the same Nigerians: em, bros, please, is that cleaning job still available?

My first job was in a basement in the science faculty. It was a huge basement where the University kept thousands of live rats for science experiments. The rats were kept in cages and their cages were filled with bedding made of ground and dried and crushed corn cobs. This is where they shit and piss. It was our job to change the soiled bedding and wash the cages twice a day for the environment of the rats must always be airy and dry and fresh. The industrial washing machines we fed the cages to were like stuff you found in a bottling company. They emitted heat worse than hell.

I spent two years of my life in that hell hole in order to be able to afford just an extra hundred or two hundred dollars to send home. At the other end of the telephone line, when you called to announce how much you had sent, it wasn’t uncommon to hear, “Uncle, just hundred dollars?”. I would hang up in anger, cursing and yelling.

Just hundred dollars? That one extra job wasn’t enough. That is how Bayo and I juggled jobs, cleaning, working in a bakery…

For my first floor cleaning job, they asked if I had previous cleaning experience. Previous cleaning experience? I had to phone one of my Professors in Ibadan. Prof, there is an emergency here o. I am looking for work and I gave them your email. Please, if you receive an email asking if I had cleaning experience, please say that I was a part time cleaner in Ibadan o.

Ha, Payooosi, cleaner bi ti bo ooo?

Prof, e fi yen nle sir. Just confirm my experience as a cleaner in Ibadan!

I got that second cleaning job. I cleaned rat piss and shit in the morning and cleaned floors and toilets in between.

On a trip home, I discovered that many of the recipients of the proceeds of my cleaning jobs were able to afford things I couldn’t dream of in Canada.

Yet, there was no time I really needed to do any of that. I started out with a University Graduate Fellowship and by my second year, I had won the Killam Doctoral Fellowship, the most prestigious doctoral fellowship in Canada. My scholarships would have been enough for me if I didn’t have to carry communal and community load under cultural obligations back home. But I am grateful for that humbling experience. For that practical lesson in life that Canadian culture and Western culture taught me that every job has dignity if it is honest and there is nobody above any job.

Undergraduates in Canada and the United States juggle three or four menial jobs just to survive. Sometimes, in Nigeria, I see oyinbo undergraduate students doing study abroad in our Universities.

And some of our foolish boys will be running after the Canadian and the American kids with marriage proposals. And I would tell such foolish boys: you think she can sponsor you to America or Canada abi? Kontinuu. Do you have any idea how many menial jobs – cleaning in Walmart and McDondald’s – she combined to be able to save up and come here? These are jobs you will consider beneath you as an undergraduate in Nigeria.

Can you take a part time job as a cleaner in Chicken Republic to supplement whatever your parents and Uncles are giving you for your undergraduate studies? Well, that is what your oyinbo undergraduate peers do in Canada and America. I agree it is easier for them because nobody looks down on them: every job has dignity.

Today, the Governor of Lagos State is having trouble convincing graduates to believe in the dignity of certain kinds of honest jobs. Do not blame those kids. Blame the society which raised them to believe that they must start out in life as Dangote otherwise they are failures. Blame the society which trained them to look down on certain kinds of jobs as graduates.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

Pius Adesanmi, a professor of English, is Director of the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Canada

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