Sometimes crossing the road can take a lifetime.
It was a chilly morning and birds chirped as they announced a new day. It was 5.30 am; 26th June of 1978 and Rwanda was going through a Transition.
Moses looked at his watch and reluctantly rose from the bed to take a shower. He was a businessman, a middle man; a man who thrived on the illegal trade in minerals. He had no fixed abode and his tools of trade were a brief case of money, a smile and a fast tongue. He was a connector and connected the warlords in Congo with the rest of the world; but today was not a good day.
As in any business, his also had a downside. The rebels and the cheating buyers in Europe were easy to deal with; but the Government bureaucrats were another kind. Always pretending to be officious; forms to fill, procedures to follow; but all they were asking for, was a bribe. In this Moses knew is way around, he knew how the game was played, whom to talk to; but of late they were demanding more than he could deliver.
As he patted himself dry he could remember the day he got hooked into this line of business. As in all good things that happen in life; this had happened by accident. He was scouting around Kigali for a house when he was introduced to an Estate commissionaire by his friends. He never rented the house; but was instead was introduced to the world of minerals.
The agent suggested he could, "introduce him to some stones". He thought that was funny at the time but he later after inquiring from some of his friends they told him the man was legit, a man who brokered big deals. He was intrigued and after, as they say, the rest was history.
Today he had an important meeting at Magerewa, the local idiom for the Rwandan income tax offices. He knew this meeting, like many others before, was an elaborate scheme to extort more money from him. The income tax officials were just minions, sent to harass him. He knew who the puppeteers were, how to get to them; and how to placate their hunger. His was not exactly a legal trade, it thrived on bribes, threats, intimidation and some killings too. His exact role was to navigate through this minefield and make sure everybody was satisfied with outcome.
Even though it was dangerous Moses avoided carrying guns at all costs. It attracted attention which could be a death sentence depending on which part of the world you were in. This meeting he knew was move by some greedy elements within the ruling circle who wanted a larger share of the proceeds. The letter he had received from the post office showed Magerwa (The local Idiom for Tax office) claimed $100,000 from him. This was a starting figure he could negotiate from, downwards. They knew he would never pay such an amount.
He left the hotel at seven and walked down the street to a restaurant he preferred. The hotel he stayed in had good accommodation and facilities; but he preferred the African fare more than the continental food that was laid out in the breakfast room. He was not expected until 8.00am and he had time to buy a newspaper and read the latest which was not a lot. The only thing new in the paper was the expected changes in the constitution.
At precisely 8.00 am he sauntered to the Government offices located in the middle of the town. He knew he would be early. He was not worried, he preferred they find him in the office rather than the other way round. It allowed him to get a feel of the place and to get to know the cleaners and secretary. They were a source of information if handled right.
Usually the office would be filled at 8.30 am. Government bureaucrats were notoriously late.
He lit a cigarette and inhaled as he belched the breakfast he had taken.
The secretary walked in at 8.15 am. That meant the boss would be early today. She was a middle aged woman with a sizeable afro. She wore a local ceremonial dress known locally as Imishanana and the latest cat eye spectacles. She was a kind woman but as voracious as the rest. He stood to greet her.
"Mwaramutse Madam Jorge"
"Mwaramutse Monsieur Tom" she replied with a smile.
"How is your family" he asked.
"They are fine and yours Monsieur Tom?"
"They are good, so how the children doing?" Tom asked.
And this as he knew triggered in the lady an excited talk; as she enumerated the numerous positive qualities her children possessed. She was a happy, well fed woman, who was living the African dream. A cushy safe Job, married to a senior Government officer, with nine children. They lived in an affluent suburb and drove the latest model.
He smiled and made the right noises as he waited for the monologue to end.
"I have brought you a small gift for your children" he proceeded as he quietly handed her ten dollar note.
This had the desired effect.
"Thank you Monsieur Tom".
"What brought you here, Monsieur Tom? She asked, already in the gossip mode.
This was what he wanted; office gossip. It would help him prepare for the eventful conflict that would arise in the meeting.
"They sent me a demand letter", he replied.
"Yes, yes. You know I saw the letter and I wondered why they were sending you such a bad letter monsieur. It's shameful and the way you have helped them" she continued, acting all peeved though he knew she didn't care.
"Why do you think they wrote the letter?" he inquired in a voice that conveyed confidentiality and trust.
He knew she enjoyed the feeling of being consulted. Holding the power to such useful information made her feel good about herself. It was still a wonder she was still working in the same office for so many years. She was vain as the rest.
"You know I think it's not my boss doing, I could see he was not happy. I think this must come from some else. I probably think it was the Minister".
"mmh" Tom quietly considered, though he knew this to be true.
"Bonjour monsieur Tom", greeted the lady cleaner/ tea girl/ messenger.
"Bonjour Madame Jane; How is your morning?" he asked politely.
"Fine and yours?" she asked.
"I am okay", he answered.
Jane was a buxom woman, tall and unlike madam Jorge physically fit from the cleaning and the walking. She was not stupid either and she regarded Madam Jorge with contempt though she carefully hid this.
She wore a brown overcoat, drab clothes and her hair was cut short.
Tom had always relied on her to get solutions to very simple problems like who had a file, which officer was being difficult. She was indispensable. Unlike Madam Jorge who was all talk and no action Madam Jane delivered. If you wanted something done in the ministry he had realized you not only oiled the big wheels but also the small cogs. This you ignored at your own detriment. If you wanted things to be done without a hitch in a bureaucracy you never ignored the small people, the cleaners, the watchmen, the secretaries, clerks, they watched your back and knew things or could do things even the big man didn't know or couldn't do.
Madam Jane said hello to the secretary and packed her things behind the secretary's desk. They had a small chat in kinyarwanda then she proceeded into the Boss's office to clean.
'You are early' the secretary told him, 'you know the boss comes at 8.30am
'Yes I know, but I will wait for him.'
The secretary looked at him and continued with her beautifications; powder, comb the hair arranged her bag.
He continued reading the newspaper as he waited for the Boss.
At 8.25 am the phone rang.
The secretary picked it up.
He knew it was the receptionist alerting the secretary that the Boss had arrived.
He pretended not to know this and waited.
Even before the boss had arrived the office was suddenly filled by people who wanted to see him.
They had been waiting in other offices or outside and now they crowded the small space and corridor waiting for him.
The room suddenly stank of sweat and perfumes, but he was used to this.
Presently the man arrived. Heavy set in a blue suit and tie and studiously ignored everybody and went into his office.
They all waited patiently for him to start calling the visitors.
The secretary ignored them.
Presently she was called in as the cleaner exited the office.
Among the people waiting to see him were office clerks and administrators.
The secretary exited the office and told two of the officers to enter.
There stayed there for probably 20 minutes before they left in hurry.
At 9.00 the boss exited suddenly and he stood up to greet him as the crowd shyly yielded space to them, their eyes looking at them beseechingly, expectantly waiting for their turn to talk to the Big man.
'Aahh yes monsieur Tom, how you doing?' the big man asked.
'I am fine monsieur Jacques and you? He replied
'Good how is Nairobi? Is the weather good?' Jacques continued as he made his way out of the office as the crowd looked at them wishing to seek an audience with him.
'Yes monsieur its good, how is your family?'
"Aaah the big one is about to finish university you know, it's been a long journey"
Tom nodded his head sympathetically. He knew it had not been easy for Jacques to take his son to the university.
'I have to see the boss today and we have a meeting at 9.00am I will tell him you are here'
'okay, thanks' Tom replied and watched him walk away with purposeful steps to the Controllers office as people followed him asking for an audience and while others decided to wait for him in the office.They looked at him wondering he was and braced for the ineviatble inquiring questions. He picked his newspaper and ignored them.