Most of the businesses in Nigeria have an office gofer. Someone who can run errands for the staff, pick up food, clean a spill, make a cup of tea. Usually this person has an official designation, they might be the security guard or the cleaner. But when they aren’t opening gates, they hang around and wait to be summoned.
The person who does this at my office is a girl called Esther who is always taking days off to write exams. She would say, “I won’t be around next week, I’m travelling to Ibadan to do WAEC.” Or “I have JAMB on Saturday, I have to attend lesson.” You’ll see her sitting in the corner reading Literature-in-English past questions, or squinting at an Accounting textbook. One day it was a Chemistry practicals textbook, I had to ask.
She laughed, “Haha, all these subjects? It’s not for me, I’m doing the exam for other people.”
I said, “What about id cards, don’t they check?” She said, “You know I’m a girl na, if they catch me, I just beg them.”
I would have complained more, but it seemed pointless to chastise someone who hadn’t passed her own JAMB for writing papers for someone else.
When she returned from this last set of exams, my project was winding down so I was working late. Esther was cleaning the office. She was singing an indistinct song as she vacuumed. I moved my laptop to the kitchen area which has a sink, a fridge, and a small table with chairs around it. I was on a Skype call when Esther came in humming to herself. She started doing the dishes, washing coffee mugs and plastic take-away containers. The humming got louder, then she broke into a praise song. I muted the call and shouted at her. “Esther, stop singing!”
She looked over her shoulder at me, raised one soapy hand. “No, Uncle, you cannot stop me from worshipping my God.” Then she turned and continued washing.
The whole thing guilted me because here I am thinking I’m a good person, or that I’m at least neutral, when I’m actually the villain in someone else’s testimony. I started praying more, I went to mid week service in church. On my way to work later that week, after the bus started moving, I brought out my phone and opened up the bible app. I disentangled my earphones and put them on to filter out traffic noise. As I was doing this, unravelling, inserting the earbuds, the woman next to me stood up, waved her hand over her head and said, “Praaaise the Lord!” She said, “I know some of you people will act as if I am disturbing you.”
“Some of you,” she pointed her finger and swept it around the bus, “when someone wants to talk to you about God, you block your ears. You know who you are, God is watching you.” The roving finger stopped on me, then she went into her sermon.
Our project ended that week and we celebrated with the entire department going to the beach on Saturday. I spent the day manoeuvring to be next to a sales rep, Tomi, that I’d been trying to impress. Whenever they divided us into groups for team events, I would wiggle around, swap seats until I ended up in her group. All that afternoon, I was quick with the punchlines. For anything she said, I had a funny anecdote to accompany it. We did some climbing challenge, I scrambled up, then stretched out my hand and we made prolonged eye contact as I helped her up. I was totally in.
In the evening, the team gathered wood to make a bonfire. When the sun set, we lit it and gathered around. And there I was, right next to Tomi, like, “oh what a coincidence, it’s you again.”
She watched the flames and I watched her, yellow light dancing across her face.
We were close to the bonfire, I could feel the heat from the blaze on my eyelids, it warmed the entire front of my body.
She moved closer and brushed against the hair on my arm. The fire cackled and spat burning flecks into the night. She reached over and held my hand, I intertwined my fingers with hers.
We stood like that for a while, staring at the fire, my body tingling, images flickering through my mind.
She turned to me. I felt her breath on the side of my neck. She said, “If this small fire is this hot, can you imagine how hot hell will be?”
She dropped her voice and continued, “Father, help me make heaven.”
I said, “Amen.”