You arrive at an office in ‘The’ University, with a quick errand and an impatient heart. You behold two secretaries and wonder for a fleeting moment what need one official has for two, but then you think: the better for me, at least I have two to serve me. All this while, you are only beginning to notice that they are engaged in deep conversation, with many a punctuating laugh and flashing of eyes.Your impatience creeps back over you and, as we say in the Common Speech, you ‘scratch your voice’, seeking their attention. Of course they don’t notice the first time you do this, and you have to repeat step one above at least three times before the conversation dies off with some sputters and impatient glances at you. You make your request after a hardly acknowledged greeting.
They look at you. You look at them. They look at each other. Then the one with fair skin and big eyes like a Tolkienian Elf turns to you and tells you the official isn’t in. And even if she were in, your issue still couldn’t have been attended to here. But, she suggests, you can see the other official, who presides over another office a kilometer and half away. Before you have time to seek clarification, the conversation has resumed as though it never stopped.
Begrudged, you look at the two damsels and anger flows through you. Suddenly, they seem the ugliest beings you ever saw, and you loth to behold them. You walk out and, though your errand was quick, you have others to attend to. So you decide to lay off the current and run it tomorrow, and instead take care of the others so you have a clean day tomorrow just for it.
But that is just the beginning. You wake up tomorrow with fire in your belly and determination in your brow. Your needs have to be attended to, or you will blow down the walls of the institution with your rage. Quick, you hurry to see the other official to whom you were referred. You arrive at his office earlier than him though, you suppose, he should have been there long before your footsteps drew close with your woes. After a few hopelessly hopeful knocks, you sit at the nice waiting chair outside the office and await his advent.
Of course, the wait lasts ‘some’ minutes. By this time, the fire in your belly is now stoked and fanned by the hunger you are beginning to feel. You despise your haste in the early morning, and the breakfast that sits in your room calls for you. But your determination wants only to be satiated before your body seeks its sustenance.
After the ‘some’ minutes are over, a middle-aged woman, kindly looking and in much contrast to the ladies you met yesterday, saunters towards you, pulls out a bunch of keys and unlocks the office. You are right behind her heels the moment she steps over the threshold. Yet, you become aware of the fact that the fire in your belly has died down, and you can only now feel emptiness in there. This form of your enemy you didn’t reckon you would meet.
The moment she is behind your desk, you, now motivated by your hunger, state your errand to her while she seems not to hear you. You wait. Then, when you are convinced she didn’t hear and want to repeat to her your seemingly rehearsed words, she turns and tells you how rude you are, not thinking even of hailing her and reminding her how good the morning is. Of course, your morning hasn’t started as ‘good’ as she tells you, but you try to mend fences by a hasty salutation. She looks like to your mother’s age, and you wouldn’t want to start lecturing her on how to judge the goodness of mornings.
A few more words. And then she tells you the official won’t be in the office the whole day. But, she conveniently adds, your issue can be dealt with by another official, back in the general area you were yesterday. You look at her, anger again stirring in your empty belly, but sense tells you her many years won’t bear well a verbal outpouring of your wrath. You walk out, loathing how weak you are, who never let a day pass without thought given to your might.
You force yourself to forget your hunger and saunter the kilometer and half back to where you were yesterday. You are mingled with the common folk, as it were, and the dignity of your might is trampled upon by their seeming indifference to your plight. Finally, you arrive at the other office, not the one you were at yesterday. You are now so hungry, you can’t breathe fire even if you wanted to.
Here again, you meet two secretaries, middle aged like the one you left at the other office. You approach one of them and, for once, you are treated with courtesy. She tells you to leave the matter you want attended to in the in-tray, sign your name in a certain book, and come back at four in the afternoon. Despite the haste you feel your matter should be dealt with, you realize that any effort on your part will be counter-productive. You acquiesce and walk out, sure that your issue will at least be dealt with.
You come back at four, and now only one secretary is in, the one you didn’t talk to in the morning. She tells you, in a curt fashion, to check the out the out-tray. Your heart tingling with long-delayed delight, you reach out, and your piece of paper is right at the top of the pile. Your fingers, excited, pull it out. You look at the space which required the signature and stamp. For a moment, you think you see the two there, then the space becomes blank again, just as it was when you delivered it in the morning.
Confused, you turn to the secretary and ask what that means. She asks you what time you left the sheet of paper there. You tell her. Then she refers you to the noticeboard, to a yellow notice which has all the markings (or lack of them) of being new. “(’The Official’) will not be around till this date (twelve days after today). See (another office).” Puzzled, you as what this means, since the notice wasn’t there when you came in the morning. Curtly, in her stride, she tells you that it means you have to go to another office. Further enquiry, which isn’t met with increasing tolerance, reveals that you have been to the said office before, in fact, yesterday.
Welcome to institutional bureaucracy at ‘The’ University. This, this is just the beginning. The matter will be dealt with after you have trod the cumulative of many miles. All for a signature.
By Mathew Odhiambo