Different Realities

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                                       You broke the ocean in

                                                half to be here.

                          Only to meet nothing that wants you.

                                                                                                  -Nayyirah Waheed.

Muna was very excited. He couldn’t believe that he had actually been there, but the document folded in his jeans pocket reminded him that it was reality indeed. The building had not looked like what he had imagined, and then he quickly remembered that he was still in Lagos after all. Surely he hadn’t been expecting to see the sort of skyscrapers he had seen in the movies, his younger brother had teased later that evening when he narrated his experience.

He had been ushered in by an old security guard who he believed had been employed to maintain order in what could have easily turned into a chaotic scene, given that Lagosians had a lack of interest in a queuing system. He remembered when he had been at the passport office to get his ECOWAS passport, no sooner had the officer shouted “next!” for the next person in line to advance, did someone else who had been right at the back run forward with fierce determination that he got in before the rightful individual waiting to be served. Such was the chaos that was now a norm in Lagos. No one really cared for orderly queues, and those who did had learnt to join in the madness, otherwise they would always be the last to be attended to.

However, that day had been different. Muna had been given a ticket and told to only walk up to the interview room when his number was called. He had been so awed by the poise of the attendants that he began to dream about the experiences he would have with the White man once he got to his destination. He had looked around him at other people in the waiting hall and smiled politely. They all seemed to have been in the same head space- wondering what their experiences would be like once yonder and at the same time praying that their visas weren’t going to be rejected. Theirs weren’t like the standard visas where only an application via the Visa Application Centre was necessary. For Muna and the lot in the waiting hall, they had to attend an interview in order to ascertain their credibility in wanting to travel to the UK for whatever reasons they had stipulated. It was both an exciting and daunting process. He was happy that he had reached that stage of the application process, but nervous that with the slightest hesitation on his part in providing the correct answers, he could be refused the visa. Muna’s angst was almost palpable.

When he got to the interview room, he was shocked to see a white man staring back at him. He had imagined seeing a fellow Nigerian like himself. He had prepared to go as far as begging the interviewer if he was refused, but now, staring at the man whom he perceived to be haughty, he believed that begging would prove futile. So he sat down, cleared his throat and readied for the onslaught of questions. He knew that such opportunity would be hard to come by again. This was his last chance at becoming someone.

Muna believed that God had thrown him this last rope of salvation.

It was now or never.

…………………….

Alex could barely walk on the five inch stilettos that she had worn that evening. She was highly intoxicated and blabbering all the way to her towering block of flats. Her friend Sophie laughed as the Pakistani taxi driver took them back to East London. They had been best friends since secondary school and were always there for each other. Sophie had persuaded Alex to go clubbing with her at the West end. She believed that a night out dancing would cheer her up after being made redundant at the high street retailer that she had worked at for the past five years since leaving college. The night had been successful as they had been bought drinks and had also exchanged numbers with guys that they had flirted with. Sophie knew that her friend still had a long way to feeling better and getting a new job, but she hoped that night’s activities had cheered her up a bit.

Alex had spent the next two days in doors, catching up on the soaps that she had missed and cooking whole foods which she hadn’t been able to do for some time. Although she enjoyed these activities, she also felt lonely and sad. She had worked her way up to a supervisory position and imagined that it was only a matter of time before she would be promoted but those dreams came crashing down the day she had been called into the Branch Manager’s office. It hadn’t been the news that she had expected or felt was deserved. She had been as hard working, if not more, than her colleagues and thus hated her present predicament. Her best friend Sophie had gone to University and was in a better paying job, and saving up to move into her own flat while she had joined the land of the unemployed. Life really was a roller coaster and its dips were tragic and unexpected compared to what would have been imagined.

Alex had cried to sleep those two nights, but on the third, decided that it was enough. She couldn’t cry till eternity. She had to stop her pity party and take hold of the situation. She was an action taker after all. She decided to visit her local job centre the next day.

Life had served her lemons and it was time to make lemonade.

…………………………

“Yes, Mark come in and take a sit” The CEO boomed.

Although he had welcomed Mark in, he showed no other signs of acknowledgement and continued to read through the latest financial analysis on his company.

Mark sat opposite, at the other end of the mahogany table that glimmered from its last shine; and although his leather chair was cushioned with sewn in goose feather, he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, silently waiting for his Boss to proceed with the impromptu meeting. Mark disliked such summons and sought to avoid it at all cost. He made sure everything was done just as the CEO liked, but the man was often unpredictable. He had felt like a deviant schoolboy called into the principal’s office and because he didn’t know why he was called in, he was more nervous.

He cleared his throat to draw the attention of the CEO. His boss gave him a quick glance and continued reading the document on his desktop. Mark was embarrassed. He felt like a fly flippantly swatted away with the back of a hand. He decided to wait it out. It wasn’t like he had a choice in the matter anyway. After five minutes, which felt more than, the CEO was ready to talk.

He swivelled in his chair and faced Mark directly. Their gazes held and as he spoke, his voice boomed as it reverberated and bounced off the walls in the room. Mark was uneasy once again. He didn’t quite understand why his boss was concerned. In fact, their profits had been steadily increasing that it was a wonder and telling of the hard work put in considering the economic climate. The CEO however, could care less about the increments, he wanted assurance that it wouldn’t plateau.

‘The greedy bastard!’ Mark thought as he finally understood the CEO’s directive. The man was a ruthless mogul. It was even more surprising that Mark had been surprised, his wife had remarked later that night while they were in bed.

“We have to cut our costs and utilise our resources efficiently” He said to Mark.

Mark nodded and slowly repeated the instruction to make sure he had got it right. The CEO grinned. He knew Mark had understood him perfectly. What he was actually instructing his line manager to do was sack a percentage of his staff, and resource cheap labour offered by migrants.

“Now don’t give me that look Mark. We get what we want, they get what they want and even the tax man gets his fair share too. They can hardly survive where they come from you know? I’m doing everyone a favour” He rebuffed and tapped his chubby fingers rhythmically on his keyboard.

“Damn, by the end of the year, we’ll be rolling in the bonuses and you can cut yourself a fat cheque too. You can thank me later. That would be all” He said with finality.

Without uttering another word, Mark got up and left the office.

Indeed, money made the world go round.

………………………

Muna had been terrified when the flight first took off, but hours later when he looked through the window and saw the clouds, he felt a sense of peace, then longing. His heart longed for whatever awaited when the plane landed on the other tarmac. He never once doubted that the grass was greener on the other side. All his life, Muna had watched Hollywood movies and wondered what it would be like to live in a mega city like London. He was finally going to find out and the prospects seemed endless.

He wondered what the white men looked like up close and hoped he would understand their accents. The weeks before he left his parents’ house in an impoverished part of Lagos, the running joke was that his accent would soon change to that of the British, who spoke through their nostrils. He remembered how he and his younger brother had practised speaking like one of the guys in The Inbetweeners. They had both ended up laughing and cackling on the floor as each sounded ridiculous to the other. As Muna remembered this event, he smiled and wished his brother was with him. He had vowed to work hard and send for him when the time was right. All he could do now was work hard and send as much money as he could back home. He had to prove to his parents that his trip was worthwhile because they had emptied all of their savings, in addition to money borrowed from other relatives to pay for his flight. It hadn’t been easy but they had done it, expecting that it would return back to them in many folds as soon as he got a job. After all, many who had travelled before him to London had returned to build mansions for their parents. England was the land of milk and honey and it was high time the Amunike’s reaped from it.

Muna was giddy as he got off the plane. He knew that his uncle was waiting for him at the arrival lounge and all he had to do was go through immigration, then collect his bags. His uncle had gone through the process with him over the phone the day before so he wouldn’t get confused when he arrived. Muna rehearsed it in his mind and grinned broadly as he approached the passport check officer.

“Good afternoon Sir” He said and handed his passport over.

He was greeted with silence. This astounded him. ‘What a mannerless man’ he thought.

Muna must have been deep in thought because he was suddenly brought out of his daze by the man’s bellowing voice: “Are you alright? I asked what your reason for coming to the UK is.”

Muna looked at him thinking it was a joke or a pass at small talk but the man’s expression informed him that he meant business. Muna quickly divulged his rehearsed line. He was visiting his mother’s brother and would be returning back in a couple of weeks. His response seemed satisfactory, and he was waved through.

Muna finally let out a sigh of relief when he saw his uncle waving at him as he walked away from baggage claims with his trolley. His arrival in London hadn’t been what he had imagined. He had been searched at the ‘goods to declare’ customs section even though he had explicitly told them he had nothing to declare. His uncle had stressed that he shouldn’t bother hiding any Okporoko or egusi seeds in his bags because he couldn’t risk drawing attention to himself.

Muna had found the officers rude. The way they had looked at him, had made him feel uneasy. Even in the worst parts of Ajegunle, in the ghetto, no one had looked at him with such repulsion. For the first time, he was beginning to wonder if London wasn’t just a bed of roses after all.

When he got to his Uncle’s towering block of flats, the mist that had once clouded his senses began to lift as he realised that he would have to work blood and sweat to uphold his vow to his family; for what he saw was unexpected. The Uncle that they had all thought was living in grandeur in London was indeed a faithful member of the underclass. ‘No wonder he hadn’t returned home in years’ Muna thought. He realised that his Uncle’s excuse of being too busy and over worked was only part true. Yes, he was over worked and only gained little in return for that labour, but busy he was not. That reason could never account for the missed weddings, Omugwo (child naming ceremony) and burials that he had missed in the years since he had been away.

Finally in London, the great city that he had fantasised about in his dreams, Muna felt foolish. He had been ignorant. His Uncle had helped him get to London, but the rest was now mostly up to him. In the morning, his Uncle would ask around to see whether there were any cash in hand jobs that he could do. Since he didn’t have a working permit, he would have to go through the back door to make ends meet. That was what the so called ‘illegal immigrants’ did. His Uncle had confided.

Muna looked at his Uncle’s calloused fingers as they ate the egusi soup and pounded yam they had bought from a local West African restaurant. This was the same man that had sent him and his brother their favourite wrist watch a year ago. If only they had known how hard he had worked to get his money, they wouldn’t have grumbled behind his back that it wasn’t even a designer brand.

Muna was humbled. He ate his dinner and laughed hard at his Uncle’s stories of life in the white man’s land. In time, he too would realise what others who had returned had failed to explain.

Ignorance had been bliss.

………………………

Alex left the job centre in annoyance. How could they have suggested she lower her standards? What had her life turned into? Surely it wasn’t so bad that she would contemplate working for minimum wage at her age. She believed it hadn’t so refused the position that they had told her to apply for. The mere suggestion for her to apply for it was an insult to her. She might be broke but she still had her integrity. If she accepted such jobs, what then differentiated her from the peasant foreigners that lived around her? She was sick of hearing foreign languages whenever she left her flat. Just the week before, she had seen her next door neighbour usher some other boy with suitcases into his flat. No doubt he was accommodating another immigrant in the already crowded space. She was tired of her predicament and wanted out, but things weren’t as easy as she had hoped.  She had barely settled in the benefits house but couldn’t wait to be rid of it. Surely, it was only a matter of time before she found an appropriate job. The attendants at the Job centre Plus were farts for even suggesting a cleaning job to her. She would rather remain on benefits than shame herself so. Those were jobs for the poor not her.

Alex strode off in a huff and walked into a WH Smith store by the station. She paid for a daily newspaper and got on the next train. On the front page of the newspaper, the headline was about the influx of Eastern Europeans that were soon to swoon into the UK since the lift on the ban. Beside it was a tag line about what to do about the immigration problem in the country. Resources were running thin and an immediate solution especially that on benefit frauds had to be tackled. Alex’s phone was ringing and upon inspection, she found out it was Sophie. She put the paper down and answered on the second ring.

She reassured Sophie that she was doing fine and had just left the job centre; but no, she hadn’t applied for any jobs.

“They are taking the piss if they think I’ll apply for any of those ridiculous jobs. Do they not understand that I was a supervisor at a high end store on my way to becoming an assistant Manager?” She said with grandiosity.

“Come to think of it, I was just reading the paper and I swear all these immigrants are the ones taking all our jobs” She continued.

She was unaware or perhaps unconcerned that the people in her carriage could hear her rants. The Caucasian woman opposite of her squirmed in her seat and looked at the floor throughout the journey. She avoided the gaze of the other passengers who were all ethnic minorities. It seemed like Alex’s outbursts were embarrassing and causing her discomfort.

Alex who was none the wiser, carried on.

…………………………

Muna could barely feel his fingers. He had never been that cold in his life. He wondered how people carried on with their daily lives. The sun in Lagos was mostly fierce and prickling, but this- the iciness in the air was unbearable. He moaned throughout his every waking moment-from day to night- that his Uncle ended up giving him a befitting nickname- Muna the moaner. He hadn’t found it funny at first but now he laughed at the joke whenever his Uncle said it. He just couldn’t help himself; the conditions weren’t made for his skin or temperament he joked back.

Muna was all smiles that day. It had been a successful day indeed. He let the lady who lived across from him and his Uncle into the elevator before he got in. He pressed the fifth floor button and moved his head rhythmically to the tune he played in his head.

The lady looked at him. He didn’t know her name but smiled at her. She quickly looked away but within minutes, glanced at him curiously. He realised that she wanted to say something to him without knowing how to proceed, so he made the effort.

Muna introduced himself and told her that he believed they were neighbours. Where he came from, knowing your neighbour meant a lot, but to her, he was another person on her floor that she had to put up with.

“You seem excited. I haven’t seen you smile since you moved in” Alex said.

‘Oh so you’ve seen me before eh? And you’re pretending like you don’t know I’m your neighbour’ Muna thought.

“Yes, I am. Today has turned out well” He replied.

Alex smiled at him and wished him luck but on second thought decided to ask why the day was a good day. Muna was happy to soothe her curiosity. Damn, he wanted to shout out why at the top of his lungs on the rooftop. His job opportunity was why he had embarked on the long journey to a foreign land in search for greener pastures.

However, the smile quickly disappeared from her face and as soon as the lift opened at the fifth floor, she rushed out.

“You people should go home. You’re taking all our jobs!” She screamed and hurried into her flat, closing the door with a bang.

Muna looked on dumbfounded. He didn’t understand why she had been furious. He had only been able to get a cleaning job from his Uncle’s friend who knew someone that knew someone else that knew a manager at the company. It was nothing glamorous or prestigious for that matter.

Muna had failed to get into University after sitting the exams twice. He had passed on both occasions, but because his family couldn’t afford to grease hands with a dean or professor, he had been unable to get in. He had also applied for several jobs but had failed at that too. This was his first successful attempt and although he knew that he was going to be exploited, the alternative was worse.

He walked into his Uncle’s flat sadly. This life wasn’t what he had expected. Perhaps his fantasies had been too wild even for a poor ghetto boy like him.

From where he stood, he couldn’t tell if the grass was actually greener.

                                                                         THE END

According to UN figures (2013) 232 million people, which was 3.2% of the world’s population were international migrants. This immigration is from the North to South just as it is South to North.

Immigrants can pose a threat if they are seen in a ‘zero sum’ way (what they get, we lose); this is a form of ‘realistic threat’.

Louis et al. (2013) studied Canadian and Australian participants and found that high levels of national identification can lead to more ‘zero sum’ thinking and subsequent justifying ideologies such as ‘they’re cheating the system’; which in turns leads to ‘dehumanizing’ emotions (e.g., disgust) and then to anti-immigrant attitudes.

 

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