By Saah Millimono
By six o’clock that morning the premises of the bank were already crowded. People sat huddled along the tarmac road, their breaths steaming into the morning air. More than a fortnight earlier, they had sat and waited to receive salary arrears, but without success, and on every face the strain and toil of waiting seemed etched like a scar.
Tasked with paying civil servants’ salary, the state-owned bank was a butter-colored brick building at the intersection of Center and Benson streets, in central Monrovia. There was nothing impressive about it except a low portico facing Carey Street and a series of imposing glass windows. Even so, it had had its share of corruption scandals, and millions of dollars had been known to disappear without trace.
Among the crowd was Mr. Moses Gayflor, a fifty-year-old father of twelve, who worked as desk receptionist, a post he had held for as long as anyone could remember, at a government ministry. It had left its mark on him during the years. When he sat behind his desk he seemed to bend forward in slumber, age, and tedium. He wore a gray threadbare shirt that reeked of sweat, over-sized khaki trousers hitched up with nylon ropes, and an old pair of black canvass shoes, with one of the bottoms partly loose.
Turning to a tall, bearded man behind him, Mr. Gayflor asked, “You think they will pay us today?”
“I wanted to ask you the same question,” the man said, looking straight into Mr. Gayflor’s eyes, as though he had posed the question already and now wanted a reply.
“I think they will tell us to go and come back tomorrow,” said Mr. Gayflor, his voice not without a note of disappointment.
“That’s their modus operandi,” the man said, “making fools out of poor civil servants.”
“Where do you work?” Mr. Gayflor asked.
“I’m a policeman,” the man said. “And you?”
“I’m a desk receptionist at the Ministry of Interior,” Mr. Gayflor rejoined.
“I see,” said the policeman, nodding his head.
“Now, as a police officer I think you’re in a better position than most of us, with salary being postponed from one day to another. Even when it comes it’s just from hand to mouth.”
“What makes you think so?” The policeman looked at Mr. Gayflor with a flash of suspicion.
“Take a bribe here, a bribe there, and you can see that you police officers are better off. For me that’s out of the question. I don’t even get a stipend, and being a desk receptionist is even worse. ”
The policeman’s face broke into a smile. “You’re right. That’s just why I opted for the police force. Why don’t you join the LNP? Cash comes in quicker than you can bat your eyes. Most times I don’t even care if the government pays me or not?”
They burst out laughing.
At quarter past eight, a BMW drove toward the bank’s entrance and came to a stop. Immediately the crowd surged forward, pushing and shoving. In seconds a hasty queue had been formed.
Mr. Nahpan, a rotund, bearded man in his fifties, popped out of the vehicle. He was dressed in a gray coat suit and a pair of eyeglasses, his expensive black shoes buffed to a blinding shine. Casting suspicious glances at the motley group of people gazing at him as if he were a god he strode into the bank briskly. A hungry man is an angry man, thought the governor, and this mob’s hungry. The sooner I get into the office the better.
“The governor’s here,” an excited voice shouted in the crowd, and then came a chorus of voices:
“So what? He was here yesterday and we didn’t get paid?”
“The truth is the government hasn’t yet decided to pay us in the first place. All this waiting is for nothing!”
“We’ve got to be hopeful my people. Yesterday the governor assured us we will get paid today, didn’t he?”
“I won’t believe anything until I lay eyes on my pay.”
Suddenly, out of the bank emerged a couple of security guards, motioning at the crowd to keep the line in order as salary arrears was being processed. Again there was a scuffle. Voices could be heard shouting threats and protests. Those who found themselves shoved at the end of the line shouted amid a barrage of insults. A fist fight broke out. An old man, pummeled to the ground by a huge, muscular fellow, began to scream at the top of his lungs.
“He stole my place,” shouted the old man, scrambling to his feet. “I say the idiot stole my place!”
“Shruuup,” shouted the muscled man. “Since early this morning I’ve been standing right here!”
“All right, take me out of the line if you’re man enough!”
But the old man, obviously not man enough, could only content himself with a show of shaking his fists into the face of the muscled man, and then returned to the tail of the queue.
“My people please keep it quiet,” said the taller of the security guard. “I’m sure you’ll all get paid today.”
“I told you,” said a slender man, turning to an old woman behind him.
“It’s better,” she said, smiling. “My old legs can’t bear this waiting any longer, and one more day in this line I will lose consciousness.”
A fellow somewhere in the crowd began to hoot and bob, as though his legs were made of springs. Now he dashed at the end of the line, making funny faces. Now he ran at the head of the queue, gamboling, frolicking, and jumping up and down. Now he darted across the asphalt, yelling with laughter, returned, and ran again from the head to the tail of the queue, his face more comical than ever.
“That man’s crazy,” said Mr. Gayflor with a sneer, turning to the policeman behind him.
“I wouldn’t blame him,” said the policeman. “Like every one of us the man is happy he’s going to get paid today.”
“Do you believe the security guard?” Mr. Gayflor asked.
“I don’t know who or what to believe,” said the policeman, shrugging his shoulders. “We must only pray we get paid today.”
Suddenly, out of the glass door strutted the governor of the bank, Mr. Nahpan. The man who had been hopping about came to a halt, hardly blinking his eyes, like a statue in the rain. The crowd fell to a pin-dropped silence. The air stood still.
He took a deep breath, looked over the heads of the crowd, and said, “Unfortunately, there’s not pay today. It’s really unfortunate, but with patience…”
“Our children are dying at home and you talk of patience!”
“Give your patience to the devil!”
“Y’all get that governor!” a voice shouted, and, as if by reflex, a few hands were instantly upon the governor.
Petrified, Nahpan spun on his heels and fled back into the bank, leaving his ragged coat into the hands of the multitude. Amid shouts and scuffle, fist fights broke out in all direction, and the security guards could be heard yelling as they were struck and trampled upon.
At five yards from the bank, the fellow who had been prancing about collapsed. He had suddenly lost the will to rejoice.