The Nightmare of working in Indian Shops
By Warris Kimathi
If you randomly approach ten Kenyans in the streets of Nairobi, there’s a chance that one or two of them have worked in an Indian shop somewhere in the Country.
I have. My short stint as a shop attendant for a man named Ganesh is one for the books. This is the whole story.
The day I quit my first job at Mr. Ganesh’s shop did not come unexpectedly at all. But let us first look at the day I started at the infamous Indian duka.
After form four I was idle and like any other person on that stage I felt the need to act like someone who had a National ID card in his otherwise empty back pocket —now that I finally had one.
So in that spirit, my very enterprising shosh talked to a friend of hers who ‘recruited’ labour for Indian shops in town. Cheap labour, as I came to learn — at a rather high cost to the recruits.
Therefore, this gentleman calls me to see him at home and when I get there he looks rather serious. As if it is serious business.
Although, looking back I think he was just guilty for what he was about to put me through. He grilled me for thirty painful minutes about my school grades, religious affiliations, drugs, work experience and all.
I thought that I was finally going to be rich. Who needs college? At the end he told me to meet him in town the following day at 4 PM pronto.
The next day I gave myself a good wash, trimmed my four month-long hair and completely cut it in my white cotton shirt and shoes with white stripes that made them look like socks. I was there at four on the clock, but my connect showed up an hour later.
As I stood there, waiting, I read through an application letter I had been asked to write.
I had summoned my best prose and penned a beautiful narration of my capabilities, real and imagined.
The only thing that missed from the document was my job description. I didn’t know what job I was dressing up for. But I followed with a spring in my feet.
Plenty of Indian shops in Meru. They sell everything you can’t find in other shops.
I can’t exactly tell you how they know, but the Indians have it.
Even fireworks, in Meru. Ganesh Shop is located on a busy street in the business district.
The whole street is lined with Indian shops with wares enough to build a house and fill it with everything – from the kitchen to the toilet.
When we stopped infront of Ganesh Shop I was sure we were just getting something on the way.
We were not. As we walked in my dream of a good job straight out of high school evaporated around me.
There were forks and hoes big enough to burry you hanging on the swing doors as you enter. Inside the building, all sorts of utility tools, plastics and crockery of all types covered the walls and everywhere you looked.
It was a chaotic attempt to have a full-blown Walmart in a small room.
There was a thin Indian woman perched on one end of a long counter, her chair high, and she was screaming. The kind of screaming that makes someone’s voice shrill and harsh to the ear.
She was barking orders to an army of terrified attendants and shrieking prices of items to confused customers.
On the other end of the counter there were two equally terrified ladies, they seemed to engage the customers amidst the screams and hisses of the hellish Indian Madonna on the high chair.
A calm and subdued looking Indian man welcomed my companion in very broken Kiswahili. Their Kiswahili was despicable.
He then turned to me like I was a slave for sale. In the same abominable Kiswahili he said to me that I was going to be hired on ‘probation’ so that ‘they see if I can do the job’. So I was going to be a paid intern here? No I wasn’t. wait.
He continued to say that I was going to be ‘helping’ in the shop.
It hit me, like a brick, that I was with the scared attendants.
With my crisp shirt and socks shoes, I almost laughed out loud. Most of those gentlemen wear soiled aprons.
Then the room went silent, at least by it’s standard. Mrs. Ganesh had now turned from directing her orchestra of chaos and she was staring at me coldly.
“wewe itaweza kazi kweli?”
She further warned me that I would be expected to work for six days a week and put in ‘overtime’ on sundays.
The shifts began at seven and ended at six. My face fell, but maybe there was a worthy pay. There was Ksh. 1200 per week, a take or leave offer.
If you don’t skip days, laze around or break any of her fine China.
At that moment I wished I was back in school, but I was determined to make some money so I just nodded.
As I handed them my British Grammar School application letter and ID copy I felt stupid about my whole existence.
I reported to work the following day at Seven, keen to wear no white shirt this time.
On arrival I was ushered into a room full of boxes filled with cups, Thermos flasks, and a ton of other chinese ceramic utensils you can think of.
My work was to sort out the china by type and patterns drawn in the cups and plates and a lot else and arrange them without breaking a single one, lest my 1200 bob suffers an immediate blow to the head.
You could argue that I was in slavery in my hometown, albeit willingly.
This took me two days, but it was in a back room away from the Shakespearean stage that was the front shop.
I made friends with the other attendants (all of whom were older than I was – and much stronger) and learnt the ways of the house.
One older fellow found me struggling with a full carton of Tea cups and stood at the door staring at me, not unkindly.
He then loudly declared that I would have quit in a week and left me to my box of china. It still bothers me how I, with all my clumsiness, never broke a cup in that shop of agony.
When I got home on the third day of my new job at Ganesh shop, my whole body was a temple of searing pain. You were only allowed fifteen minutes for lunch and dare you be late coming back.
The whole place was ridden with a gazillion surveillance cameras and Mrs. Ganesh was always staring at the monitor with her all-seeing fisheye.
That was all she did beside screaming her guts out and counting wands of money.
You were never allowed to sit or seem inactive. Every minute counted.
If a customer asked you for something and you did not know where it was (or what it was) you had to pretend to go look for it and in the process pull a more experienced colleague to the side ask them what the hell that was.
That is exactly what I did when a customer asked me for a size 2 Ratli.
I stared right back, and Mr. Ganesh, calm and subdued, shouted at me in his Punjabi drawl.
“Letea yeye Ratli!”
I fled the scene and found a lady colleague who just laughed and walked to a backroom shelf filled with a type of weighing scales we call ‘ratiri’ in our nyumbani language.
The ones with some pieces of mini weights. I felt stupid again, but that was one of the many times that feeling overwhelmed me during my short time there.
By the end of the week I was exhausted, I had come this close to breaking some something four times that week, I had gone blank in front of a customer twice and the high chair Mendusa had dressed me down for being ‘too slow’ that previous day.
My body felt like quitting, but as I received my meagre wages on Saturday with a ‘request’ to report for half a day on Sunday, I knew I was not done with these Indians yet.
I made a mistake of going for the ‘Mandatory Voluntary Overtime’ and I regretted it. We were transported to a warehouse full of mattresses, it all got really steep from there.
The following week proved harder, it reached a point where I knew that I was going to quit. It was now a matter of pulling it together to Saturday for the 1200 bob.
That I did, but having sacrificed unhealthy amounts of self-worth and upper body strength.
The day I left it was like God told Lot, without looking back. The older-timer who had conscripted me sought me out to try and convince me to return, but I was once bitten already.