Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Any semblance to any real life persons, places, or events is coincidental.
I recognized the name the moment I saw it on the cover of the resume that my assistant had just printed out. It had been five years since my last encounter with her, but here she was. How can I ever forget the name that haunted me day and night and kept me awake into the early hours of the morning? That one year was the worst experience of my life. And I had been through hell before.
I didn’t have much to my name. I was fresh from varsity and had just gotten my very first job with a small private firm as a receptionist. It was a job way below my qualifications, but it was still a job anyway, and it came with a salary. I used to think that if I placed my mind over matter, everything would work out in the end. I was wrong. Working as a receptionist was not easy at all. At first I thought, ‘what could be challenging about picking up calls, welcoming clients, and scheduling meetings for my bosses?’ I had just spent four years at the University of Zambia pursuing a humanities degree, and I thought my first job would be as a Human Resource personnel. The front desk job to me was something most suited to school leavers or diploma holders. However, after sending out more than a thousand applications and receiving absolutely no response, I settled for the first offer that came my way. Within a short time, I learnt that ‘clients’ came in different forms, and not all of them were human. The ones I classified as human are the ones who came smiling and treated me with respect despite the menial salary attached to my position.
And then there were the beasts, the ones who never bothered with pleasantries. They were either born naturally angry or the world had somehow screwed up so thoroughly they forgot all things relating to human decency. These ones screamed, demanded, commanded, and every now and then there would be that attempt at physical attacks if a response was not in their favor. It was then I learnt that the front desk was not as friendly or as easy-going as I imagined it to be. It was more like a war zone and I was in the frontline. My job was to filter the evil from the good and ensure that anything that went past the front desk would not be a threat to the very important people working in safe cubicles and high offices with expensive leather and great window views. At the end of the day, I had to purge myself of all this evil I had consumed and hope that tomorrow would be a better day. I longed for that long bubble bath in my very tiny bath tab in my very tiny bedsitter apartment in Mass Media. A glass of wine as I watched a few episodes of CSI Miami on my laptop and I would be good for bed, ready to take on the world the next day. I wish.
My rental was a flat, semi-detached to be specific. A bedsitter with a decent kitchen space and bathroom. There were a total of six houses in the yard, far-spaced from each other, and mine was the only one attached to another. The rest of the homes were independent and had these make-shift fences around them that gave them privacy from the rest of the tenants in the yard. I shared my privacy with the other tenant attached to my flat. Her flat was two-bedroomed, thus making mine the cheapest in the yard, and also somehow giving my neighbor the upper hand in terms of shared yard space and manners.
I saw the first sign of trouble the very first time the agent took me to view the house. I saw her peeping through her window when the agent opened the small gate that led to the attached apartments. Next thing I saw, the door opened and this tall, very angry slim figure stepped out. She was shooting daggers at us through her eyes. She looked like she was on the eighteenth day of her period.
“Who are you people and who let you in?” The tall figure asked. She was dressed in a pair of short-shorts and I was sure if she turned around, we would see the bottom half of her ass acquainting itself with the heavy atmosphere. As for her top, it truly was a top because it only covered the top part of her body, her shoulders, and her boobs. I had to give it to her, she had the sexiest stomach I had ever seen on a human. I remember thinking that perhaps it wasn’t such bad luck after all that I couldn’t afford an ironing board. I had one right next door.
She had what appeared to be thirty-something inches of Brazilian hair, and at that time it was just getting popular so it was extremely expensive. Everything about her, including her attitude and demeanor looked expensive. The agent made the introductions and the tollo said, “I wish the landlord had told me that there were people coming today.”
“Do the apartments share access?” I had to ask. I could clearly see the door to what could be my apartment on the far side of the building, away from her door but she was acting as if we needed her permission to view the other apartment. She gave me a severe look that sent chills down my spine.
“Of course not, why would they?” She retorted.
“Then if you don’t mind, I would like to see the place right away.”
“Why would I mind?” She asked. I was being rhetorical. She was being an ass.
“I don’t know,” I replied sarcastically, giving her a sweeping look. She stepped back into her apartment and slammed the door shut.
“What was that about?” I asked the agent.
He shrugged his shoulders and led the rest of the way to the apartment to let me in. For the amount it was going for, it was more than beautiful and comfortable. I guess God hadn’t completely turned his back on me after all. I desperately needed this place. It was close to work, but that wasn’t the only reason I needed it. For the past four or so years, I had been living with my aunt, my late mum’s younger sister. It was not the most ideal living situation but since I was not accommodated on campus and could not afford a boarding house, Aunt Alice and her family were my only option. She reluctantly agreed to let me sleep in the living room provided I cleaned the whole house, minus the bedrooms because they would all be sleeping every morning before I left for school. I also had to do all the other house chores, including laundry for the family of five. She had fired the maid a week before I moved in, so it only made sense that I replace her. She asked me to move out the day I wrote my last exam paper. That’s why I had been searching heaven and earth for a job. To pay for this particular apartment, I had to borrow money from a friend, a former course mate.
“Why is the rent so cheap for such a place, and in such an area?” I remember asking the real estate agent.
“The landlord is just a generous man,” he said, averting eye contact. In retrospect, I should have paid more attention to his behavior.
“That landlord must not be Zambian,” I joked.
“He is,” he answered. “He has a lot of businesses so he doesn’t depend on these houses.”
“Makes sense,” I said, convinced I won the jackpot and silently rendering reverence to God. I would soon discover the real reason why the place was so cheap.
I moved into the apartment that same evening. I only had a mattress and a two plate cooker so it was an easy move. I planned on buying a few plates and some toiletries in the coming days. But it felt great to finally have my own space. This was only the beginning. There was only one way from here given that I was right at the bottom.
The second sign of trouble came two hours into my moving. Music. Very loud music that shook my walls and made the ceiling vibrate. It was so loud I couldn’t even hear my own thoughts. The sound was definitely coming from a great sound system and clearly, the owner was very proud to show it off. I thought about going to knock on the door and asking her to reduce the volume but I convinced myself to sit patiently and hope she would remember she now had a neighbor.
The noise came to a stop at 3 in the morning. I finally managed to slept at 5 and woke up thirty minutes later to prepare for my first day at work. On my way out, I stopped at my neighbor’s door and knocked.
“Who is it?” She asked from the other side of it.
“It’s me, Sandra, your neighbor.”
“What do you want?”
I hesitated. I didn’t think it was the type of conversation we could have like that. “Do you mind opening the door so we can talk?” I asked.
“I mind. What do you want?”
I hesitated, then stammered, but finally managed with, “the music… I wanted to ask if you could turn it down a bit since I moved in last night. I thought maybe you didn’t know I had moved in. Thought I let you know.”
“Huh?” I heard her, I just couldn’t believe the response. There was no response from the other side of the door.
“Miss, are you there?” I realized I didn’t even know her name. Still no response. I simply laughed and left.
The excitement that comes with a new job died by the third hour at work. The place was very busy and chaotic. I guess it shouldn’t have been surprising considering it was a tech company offering an array of services at the cheapest prices on the market. The phone never stopped ringing and I had absolutely no time for a bathroom or lunch break. Seeing as I was new, I couldn’t find anyone to man my spot while I attended to urgent personal needs. And so I held it all in; the urine, the hunger, and the anger. I smiled, I laughed, I answered calls, continued smiling at people hailing insults at me for problems they started facing way before I joined the company. I received commands and demands from certificate and diploma holders working in the marketing and sales department who treated me like I breathed sub-standard Oxygen. Even the low-level secretaries and drivers who had never seen the walls of a lecture theatre acted like my superiors. In fact, they all were. It didn’t matter that I had a Degree with a Distinction on it bearing my name somewhere in my cheap handbag. As far as everyone was concerned, I was their slave, hired to do everyone’s bidding. And so I tucked in my pride, checked my tongue and put on my best fake smile as I counted the ticks on the wall clock, desperately waiting for the hand to hit 5 so I could go home.
But there was no home. Only hell.
I called the landlord on the third day and demanded an audience with him. He was a very good man, in his early forties, perfectly groomed that he could pass for thirty-five, medium height, a fair complexion, and the thing that stood out for me was the gray Alexis he was driving. Not the color, but the car itself. I kind of expected him to be driving a Hammer or Lamborghini, like most wealthy men I knew. I could tell he was not the usual Jack or Jim. His name was Augustine Lungu. I insisted on calling him Mr Lungu despite his invitation for a first name basis because he was older, and my landlord. I was only 22 years old then.
“I wondered what took you long to call,” was the first thing he said to me when I greeted him at the door.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He motioned his head towards my neighbor’s flat.
“Ah,” realization dawned. It was then I looked past him to the car he was driving. I blinked twice, maybe twice. It could have been twelve times. I looked at him, and then back at the car. Then back at him again. Perhaps if it was not so beat-down, I wouldn’t be so shocked. It looked like it would come apart if four people sat in it.
“Is that your-“
“Yes, that’s my car Ms Khumalo.” The bemused expression on his face told me he had read my mind.
“Wow, definitely not what I was expecting. You must be a humble man.” My very friendly neighbor drove the latest Range Rover on the market. And she didn’t even have a job.
He chuckled. “I wish,” he said. “My car is at the garage. I was involved in an accident. My wife is using her much fancier car, and this happens to be our back-up ride.” He would later show up at my door step in a Ford Ranger. I thought it fitted him perfectly.
“Most people would feign humility, but you sound determined to prove me wrong.” He opened the door for me and I sat on one bum, careful not to put too much pressure on the fossil. I reached out and opened his door before he could get to it.
“Thanks,” he said.
“I take it you already know what my grievances are,” I said.
“Unfortunately, I do.”
“So?” Clearly, my neighbor’s behavior wasn’t news to him.
“I’ll talk to Lulu and ask her to dull down the noise.”
So her name was Lulu, but short for what, Luyando? Lungowe? She certainly didn’t look like a Luyando. The Luyando’s I knew were as fragile as a flower. The closest to a plant this Lulu woman was, could be the Aloe Vera plant, and not the one with the healing powers. I concluded she was a Lungowe. They tend to be tough in nature these Lungowes.
“Ask her? You’re the landlord. Can’t you evict her? Clearly, she’s been tormenting all your tenants. You should have gotten rid of her a long time ago instead of lowering the rent.”
“Ah, you picked up on that. You’re very intelligent Ms Khumalo.”
“Sandra, my name is Sandra.” He was making me sound so old.
“I thought we already established we can’t be on first-name basis.” I thought he was being smug using my own words against me, but he looked serious. “Works both ways ma’am,” he added. Now he was just being patronizing.
“Why can’t you kick her out?” I asked.
“Lungowe is someone related to my elder brother.” That was code for mistress. His tone was quite telling. And I was right, she was a Lungowe.
“I’m sure you’ll meet him soon. He’s a regular here. She’s been living here for the past two years, rent free. It makes things easier for my brother…for obvious reasons.”
“I bet he does the same favors for you. I just don’t understand why I have to pay the price for it,” I said.
“That’s why I reduced the rent,” he said. I could tell he wanted to address my accusing tone but he managed to stop himself. Good for him, because I was not in the mood.
“I can’t get rid of Lulu, she threatens to ruin my brother’s life every time I ask her to behave or leave. I owe my brother a lot, my life. This is the only thing he has ever asked of me. Lulu is headstrong and likes to have her way, always, so dealing with her isn’t the easiest thing in the world. She can be quite challenging. She is selfish and stubborn.” He was being very kind. I had seen serpents on the National Geographic Channel that were less poisonous. I wondered why any man would find such a woman attractive, but then I remembered her body.
“So are you telling me that I have to contend with that noise for as long as I live here?” I asked.
“I’ll still talk to her, see if we can come to an understanding.” Either the man was naïve, and a coward, or an angel sent from heaven.
“And if nothing changes? You know I can easily report her to the police right?”
“I know you can but I wish you wouldn’t do that. That would cause a lot of problems for my brother. How about we do this; You don’t pay rent for the next two months while I figure out what to do with our friend here without incurring her wrath? I promise to make it worth your while.”
“She really has that much control over you people, huh?” I thought it was laughable that these seemingly powerful and wealthy men were at the mercy of one simple woman. Whatever she had on the brother must have been very damning.
It would be two years later when I would learn the truth about the nature of Lulu’s relationship with my landlord’s brother. A sex tape. I was forced to move out a year later after finding a job as a Human Resource Officer, this time at a prestigious private firm which had two front desk managers and an appropriately qualified sales and marketing team. Even the PA’s had degree’s as a minimum qualification. I was promoted to manager two years later, and another two years I was heading the department.
I waited for my PA to staple the papers together and I walked into my private office holding Lungowe’s resume in one hand, and a cup of coffee in another. It appeared Lungowe had given up the life of mistressing three years ago, at least according to her resume. She had obtained a diploma in secretarial studies at some private institution and was hoping to fill a vacancy in the administrative team. Given my tough journey to employment after obtaining my first degree, I wasn’t touch on experience for certain roles provided someone demonstrated enough promise to deliver to expectation. Lungowe however would prove to be my first ethical challenge as a Human Resource Practitioner.
That evening after work, I invited the MD to dinner. We had somehow become the best of friends after working closely for such a long time. Mutinta was thirty-six years old, married to a lawyer, and together they had three kids. I had only been married for a year and half and was just getting started on the family front. I explained to her that I had an ethical situation on my desk and I needed her unbiased opinion on the matter. I deliberately held back telling her my history with Lulu until after I heard her verdict.
“Well, show me the cv.”
I pulled out the envelope containing the cv from my bag and handed it to her. She quickly skimmed through it, and there really wasn’t much to see there given Lulu’s lack of experience and minimal educational background.
“Why would anyone like this even consider working for us? Underqualified is an understatement,” Mutinta said. “She needs to at least qualify for something, before she can be underqualified.” She carelessly threw the cv on the table. That in itself told me everything I needed to know. I picked it up, placed in back in the envelope and then back into my bag. So what’s this whole situation that’s bringing about the potential for bias?” She asked.
I brought her up to speed.
“I see what your concern is now,” Mutinta said. “However, you were right in your judgement. She’s clearly not qualified.”
“But we’ve given people with less qualifications before a chance to work with us, and they turned out alright,” I said. “If I don’t give her a chance, it’ll just seem like I’m being vindictive.”
“Seem vindictive to who? Yes we’ve taken chances in people before but you didn’t know those people personally,” Mutinta said. “You know this Lungowe person and she’s not a good fit for such a role given her personality. Her interview started way before this position was created, and unfortunately for her, she failed then, and she’s failed now. There’s no need for you to question your integrity here. Chuck that thing into the bin and forget it ever crossed your path.”
“What?” Mutinta was a no-nonsense type of woman. She said what was on her mind and she meant every word of it, consequences be damned. “Look,” she continued. “You’re the best at what you do. One of the reasons why you were promoted so quickly through the ranks is because of your integrity and the way you deal with people. You’re very patient and always objective, no matter how stressful a situation is.” I had that horrible receptionist job and Lungowe as a neighbor to thank for that. I was well trained, but of course I couldn’t say that. Mutinta was still my boss after all.
“You are the only HR person I know who somehow still manages to remain friends with the people you fired,” she said. She was right. Firing people was the worst part of my job, but fortunately for me, I only ever had to get rid of two employees during my five years of practice.
“I feel like it would be unfair for me to make a decision based on my past experience with her,” I told Mutinta. “What if she changed over the years? We are all not the same people we were five years ago.”
“We’ve gotten better, yes. But some people don’t change. In fact, they become worse.” She said.
“How about we put her to a test then, see how she fares,” I suggested.
“What type of test?”
“I’m thinking… putting her in a situation where she has to interact with others when she thinks she’s not being observed.”
“Is that ethical?” Mutinta asked.
“It is,” I said. “The interview starts the moment she walks into the building. For others it even starts before, when we review their online and offline activities. If Lulu is still the same person she was back then, there is only one way she would respond in these types of situations.”
“And if she pretends? You know people are desperate for jobs these days. They’ll become whatever they need to be just to be picked.”
“There’s no law against pretending to be good at a job. Who knows, the other candidates that I don’t know might be pretending too. As long as they show the right attitude and prove that they’re the perfect fit for the job, my job is to trust that and hire them. I mean, for how long do you think someone can pretend? That’s why we have probation periods and contract reviews. People have to keep proving themselves whether they like it or not. And it works in our favor if they keep pretending they’re that good at their jobs.”
Two weeks later, I got home and had a story to tell my husband. “Guess who will be starting work as an administrative assistant in my department next week?”
“Don’t tell me you gave her the job.” My husband looked like he had just been doused in water.
“She doesn’t have the experience but she did better than everyone in the interviews,” I said. “My team said she has a lot of potential to excel.”
“You and Lulu, working together? You, her boss?” He laughed. “I guess it’s true what they say about karma. Does she know you work there?”
“I recused myself from those interviews but she saw me walking from the boardroom back to my office. She was in the waiting room right across my office. I waved to her and she reluctantly waved back. I think she wasn’t sure who I was. I look like a pig now you know.”
My husband went straight into husband mode and drew me into his arms. “Don’t ever say such things about my wife,” he said, planting kisses all over my chubby face. At six months pregnant, I was a little heavier than my usual 54kg’s, and my legs were getting swollen by the day. I felt like the fattest woman on earth even though my doctor kept insisting I needed to put on more weight for the baby. My husband agreed, meaning I had no choice but to agree also. This was my first child, but it would be my husband’s third. He was way more concerned about my health and that of our baby given that he lost his previous wife in child birth. This child was like a second chance for him. But he was my everything.
The first news I received when I walked into the office the following Monday morning was, “she turned down the job ma’am.” I gave my assistant Brenda a quizzical look before it dawned on me who she was referring to. I should have seen it coming.
“Did she give any reason?” I asked.
“She said over her dead body would she work here.” Brenda was holding back a chuckle.
I couldn’t help but laugh. So nothing much had changed about Lungowe after all.
My team had told me about her emotional display during the interview. She desperately needed the job to support her three kids. It had been four years since her relationship with my brother in-law ended. I had heard through the grapevine that Henry was fired from his top government position for some shady dealings, and thanks to his philandering ways, he had not made any notable investments he could fall back on after his dismissal. No one could employ him given his track record, so it didn’t take long for him to become destitute. His wife had taken the kids and whatever little savings they had and went back to her family in Ethiopia.
Without Henry’s financial support, Lulu was left to take care of their twins alone. According to my husband, she had managed to secure herself another sugar daddy after Henry but he bounced the moment she fell pregnant for him. Her plot to trap him with a child backfired on her when the man refused to leave his wife for her.
I could have easily moved on from her rejection of the job offer we had made to her. It’s not like she was the first to ever do so. We had potential employees in the past turn down offers because better offers had come along since the interviews. However, I knew the case wasn’t the same for Lulu. Given her qualifications, it would not be easy for her to find a job. That day I did something unorthodox by looking up her address on her cv and then driving to her place. Aside from the professional connection, she was still somehow related to me through her kids. I couldn’t just let her throw away an opportunity like that just because of pride.
Suffice to say, she was shocked to see me standing at her door. That apartment was very different from the one in Mass Media. Back then she only had me as her closest neighbor. Now she had way more neighbors than I cared to count, living in the same house. If the place was somewhere close to Unza or Evelyn Hone, I would have assumed it was a student boarding house. But it was in Kamwala, and there were way too many noisy babies in sight.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” She greeted me in her usual friendly tone.
“Can we talk somewhere private?” I asked. It was just too crowded and noisy.
“What do you want?” She was shouting at me, maybe not deliberately. There was too much noise around and the baby in her arms was now wailing. She looked like she could use a bath, maybe even four, desperately.
I had no choice but to scream back. “The job, you need to take it. Don’t turn it down because of me.”
“What makes you think it has anything to do with you?”
“I know you Lulu. I lived next door to you for a year.”
“You know nothing about me.”
“I can have you transferred to another department.”
I saw her consider the offer for a few seconds but her words betrayed her. “I got a better offer elsewhere. I don’t need that job anymore.”
“How much are they paying you?” I asked.
“It’s none of your fucking business. Can you leave, I need to feed this stupid baby.”
“What would it take for you to reconsider?”
She gave me a curious look. “Why are you doing this? I know you hate my guts.”
“I hate your guts, that’s a fact. You have no idea how many times I dreamt about choking you to death back then. However, I don’t want you making a stupid mistake all because of what happened back then.”
“I know what I’m doing. I don’t need your pity.” She slammed the door in my face.
The truth is, I knew what the outcome of that meeting would be, but I still wanted to try. I won’t lie and say it didn’t feel good seeing her at my mercy like that. It was like finally getting the revenge I had desperately longed for five years ago. Who knew that one day I would come to own the very place she had turned into hell for me? How many times had she called me a peasant for living in a bedsitter? I still vividly remember all those nights I went to bed crying over the desperate situation I was in. After moving out of my aunt’s place, I thought I had finally found solace in my own place, no matter how tiny it was. But Lulu turned my sanctuary into a living hell. She was unapologetic in her bullying just as she was unrelenting in her torment. Never before had I felt so abused, alone, vulnerable, and at someone’s mercy.
I wanted Lungowe to suffer as much as I did, maybe even more. I wanted her to learn about hard work and kindness, just like the rest of us trying to survive out there. However, seeing her experiencing all those bad things I wished her didn’t give me any peace. There was a part of me that felt guilty, that perhaps I had cursed her too much, or that I was a terrible person for entertaining some form of triumph upon seeing her like that. That was why I went to her house, to relieve myself of the guilt. To do the right thing even if I could live without having done so.
But I did my part, and I’m proud of myself. The rest was up to the universe.