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Sunday, March 3, 2024

A man ain’t worth it, dear Marie (Part 10)

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Despite the pivotal role these women played, their contributions were systematically neglected by the very offices they sustained. They were the backbone of the company, the silent force fueling its heartbeat. Their sacrifices, often unnoticed, were woven into the fabric of the institution.

Dear Marie,

The preceding weekend marked a poignant moment in the narrative of my mother’s career—a retirement send-off artfully orchestrated by her colleagues at her former duty station. While my siblings gathered to witness the serenade of kind words and gentle accolades, I, deliberately and conspicuously, chose not to attend.

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It was not owing to a clandestine party organised at home; indeed, my siblings had planned a surprise gathering to celebrate her sacrifices and serve as a testament to the exemplary model she had been for us over the years. Nor was it because I was too engrossed or physically fatigued from my regular 8-4 workdays.

My conspicuous absence was not directed at the staff at the Branch Office either. The delightful staff, recognizing my mother’s dedicated service, pooled their savings to buy a thoughtful gift, presented her with an envelope filled with contributions from their meager earnings, and went the extra mile to prepare food packages and snacks. Their heartfelt statements, which I watched following the event, underscored the impact my mother had on them and emphasized her significance in our lives as her children.

This absence, rather, was a silent protest, a manifestation of my discontent toward a system that, all too often, elevates a chosen few while neglecting the countless voiceless and unheard yet profoundly hardworking individuals in our institutions—simply because it can. In the lead-up to the retirement send-off, simmering in anger since she apprised me of the event a day prior, I found myself contemplating what could have been if only she had been afforded the same opportunities in life that I’ve been fortunate to have.

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In the tranquil moments of reflection, I find myself contemplating the countless days my mother dedicated to her role as a customer service officer, selflessly forgoing the sanctity of public holidays and cherished celebrations such as Eid and Christmas. The demands of her position dictated an unwavering commitment, requiring her presence regardless of the occasion or the hour…

As I delve into these memories, a vivid image emerges—me as a young assistant in that compact customer care center, assisting her in tasks ranging from counting money to meticulously organizing papers, all while engaging in lively conversations about the myriad things that captivate the minds of children.

A treasure trove of A4-sized paper was always at my disposal, on which she would assign spellings for me to memorize or task me with detailing how I spent my days. At the tender age of nine, thanks to her meticulous English language lessons, I was writing proficiently beyond my years. These formative experiences, within the confined yet instructive walls of her workplace, not only nurtured my skills but also instilled in me a deep-seated appreciation for diligence and hard work.

The late hours she devoted to reconciling statements during midnight shifts cast a somber atmosphere over the Gunjur Road, shrouding it in an eerie darkness. During those solitary moments, my stepfather, Basaikouba, may Allah have mercy on his gentle soul, would make the walk to accompany her home. The Gunjur Road, back in the early nineties, existed in a state of sparse population, and the already ominous darkness was further intensified by the fact that I often found myself there during summer holidays, coinciding with the unpredictable rainy season.

Under the enveloping veil of dark and menacing skies, occasionally punctuated by the most formidable lightning strikes and resonant thunder, I would find myself anxiously awake during the nights she embarked on her nocturnal shifts. Each thunderous echo carried with it the comforting assurance of her eventual homecoming, a ritual that alleviated the fears of a young heart.

If she embarked on the early morning shift, she would leave behind her baby, my younger sister, Ndey Kumba. As my first younger sibling, caring for her brought me immense joy and pride. She was not just beautiful but a delightful baby who rarely cried unless hungry. My affection for her was profound; I would keep a watchful eye on her while she slept, anxiously waking her if I thought she slumbered for too long, fueled by the irrational fear that she might pass away during her sleep. This inexplicable sentiment, whose origin eluded me, persisted—remaining a haunting specter even when I became a mother myself, resurfacing with the birth of my own children.

Needless to say, I took great pride in making the lengthy trek to deliver her to our mother for feeding whenever the expressed breast milk, carefully left for her by my mother, was depleted. Although the distance was not extensive, for a nine-year-old, 500 meters felt like a considerable journey. Yet, witnessing the sheer joy in my mother’s eyes when I brought her baby for breastfeeding made every step feel worthwhile. It highlighted a truth often overlooked in life—that there exist individuals who possess the remarkable ability to make others feel seen, loved, and cared for. This is not a universal experience, for I have encountered many who never enjoyed such a privilege. My mother, however, stands among those exceptional individuals. As a genuine lover of children, she emanates a presence that not only makes kids feel seen but also profoundly loved and protected.

My mother dedicated most of her working life to her duty station in Brikama. In this bustling hub, she found companionship with a tribe of equally dedicated and hardworking women who, like her, became the unsung heroes of their workplace. Many of these women, who once stood shoulder to shoulder with my mother, have since passed away, leaving behind a legacy of resilience and sacrifice.

Their stories echo the concept of “givers,” “takers,” and “matchers,” a profound exploration penned by Adam Grant, the revered organizational psychologist from the Wharton School. Grant unveiled these archetypes in his illuminating book, “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success,” published in 2013. As I reflect on my mother’s journey, the parallels between her and the archetypes become strikingly clear.

Givers: In the bustling corridors of her workplace, my mother embodied the essence of a giver. Her generosity extended beyond the confines of her job description. She invested her time, knowledge, skills, and even her emotional reserves, without expecting immediate returns. The satisfaction she derived was intrinsic, a testament to her belief in the principle of “paying it forward.”

Takers: Contrasting the selflessness of givers, there were undoubtedly takers in her professional realm. Those who prioritized personal gain, often at the expense of others. Their motivations were rooted in individual success, seeking to extract maximum benefit without considering the collective well-being of the workplace community.

Matchers: Between the selfless givers and the self-serving takers, my mother and her counterparts operated as matchers. They danced on the delicate balance of reciprocity, giving generously while expecting a fair exchange. Their motivation was to maintain equilibrium in the give-and-take relationship, ensuring that the collaborative spirit remained intact.

My mother’s narrative, like that of her comrades, is marked by a lack of recognition beyond the familiar walls of her workplace. In her years of service, she never ventured beyond the borders of The Gambia for meetings or overseas refresher courses. The glass ceiling of opportunity remained intact, limiting her ascent through the professional ranks.

At the age of 56, she concluded her chapter as a customer service officer to become a supervisor. A year later she was sent for posting at a branch of her office in Farafenni. When I voiced my concerns about the posting, she responded with her trademark spirit, “It is the right time now. All my kids are grown and can take care of themselves. Some had it worse than me, leaving behind very young kids and angry husbands, wrecking their marriages. I am a widow, and now I can dedicate my life to learning the Quran.”

And so, in the tranquil moments of her retirement, she embarked on a new journey, embracing the solace of Quranic wisdom—a fitting culmination to a life marked by dedication, sacrifice, and the unwavering spirit of a giver.

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