Would you describe your job as a boil on the nose of the workplace? And if you did, would you say that you couldn't wait for it to burst so that you could have a day off?
I heard this description recently at a workshop where a consultant encouraged employees to write poetry about how awful work was. When she called time, my paper was blank. As people shared their disrespectful sonnets dedicated to employers and customers, my mind began to spin. Fortunately my family name is far down the alphabet so I eventually had time to write a few words before my turn came.
" Alyke pounds cassava with a wooden pole
In the sun
The room fell silent after I read the poem I wrote about my Nigerian friend Alyke, and I felt like a complete witch. It's easy to make people feel bad about their lives if they live in the West. That's what charities rely on; our guilt funds their annual appeals. And why not? The need is great and the money we send is usually well spent. What's more difficult is to change where we are now with regard to our jobs and workplaces. That's where we need to fight. Instead of writing rotten poetry about our terrible work lives, we need to battle against what makes us so miserable.
The job-hating employees could learn from Alyke. Dignity in the workplace is a battle we fight regularly, especially as women. Fun in the office has virtually disappeared under the weight of the tension that we carry. We work longer hours than ever before and we feel worse about it.
My little haiku doesn't tell the whole story of Alyke's work. If it did, the room wouldn't have been silent with shame; it would have been buzzing with confusion over why this Nigerian woman seemed to have such a good time undertaking such back-breaking toil.
I once worked with Alyke on the cassava for an hour, after which time my cassava still was mainly in the dirt instead of in my pounding bowl and my hands had blisters. Cassava is a staple African crop. The leaves are eaten as greens, while starch extracted from the root is used for paper manufacture, and monosodium glutamate retrieved from the rest of the plant is used as a vital seasoning, cash crop. But many cassava varieties contain a poison that must be removed by grinding and then packing the paste into tubes.
What I did for an hour -- what Alyke does for hours on end -- is hard work, requiring good muscles and great timing. This work takes at least three-and-a-half hours a day and must be done in the sunshine to speed the poison extraction process. Alyke's work with the cassava plant takes her away from her family and her village nearly every day for about ten months of the year. During the rare non-cassava times, she lives with her sister in a family compound and works at her trade -- hydrology.
Pounding cassava is not boring, though. First there's the gossip; who's sleeping with whom, who has bought a car, which woman tested positive for HIV, which man lost his job . . . mixed with township news from passing strangers or visiting relations. Then there is the braiding. While you pound cassava, other women -- older women and young girls or women who are ill -- braid your hair and massage your back. They hold the beaker for you to drink tea. Above all they make sure you know you're doing a good job. Even I was told that I was a " real worker," although the woman who said it giggled so much she hardly could get the words out. While pounding, we discussed personal problems -- a recent miscarriage, a husband with wandering eyes, a baby who seemed to be making slow developmental progress. We argued about politics. We sang songs, and I had to teach one, which means there's a village in Nigeria where cassava is pounded to the lusty notes of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" -- a cappella style!
It's not a romantic idyll. The women who pulverize cassava live hard lives under poor conditions. However, it's not a soul-destroying existence. They are validated by each other. Alyke is important, not because she's my friend, or because she's also a professional water engineer, but because when she's in the village she fits back into a lifestyle that doesn't demean or marginalize her. Pounding cassava is simply what women do when they're not in town earning money.
If I asked Alyke to write about my work she'd probably say something like this:
" Kay pounds her keyboard
Seven days a week
Too much work
Makes her grumpy."
And she'd be right. The trick of it is to giggle, to validate your work-mates and to sing. Even if you're singing silently while you mop the floor or input data, you will be part of an a cappella chorus of working women. Listen . . . can you hear "Bohemian Rhapsody"?
BIO: Kay Sexton has an overdeveloped work ethic and a fig tree in her garden. She finds it hard to reconcile the two. In the past twelve months she has been published by E2K, Literary Potpourri, MiPo, Pierian Springs, SaucyVox.com, Smokelong Quarterly, The Sidewalk's End, Thought Magazine, Wired Art for Wired Hearts, and Yankee Pot Roast. The fig tree is also flourishing.
You can email Kay at firstname.lastname@example.org