It was 06:20 as I stood by the entrance to a seven-floored building, whose grey/black exterior churned up fear from within my insides. Not because it looked poorly maintained and intimidating but because it ushered in new beginnings. I despised the anxiety I felt, the uncertainty and nervousness.
Just as I had clicked on the transponder to the second floor, I felt the coffee I had drunk on an empty stomach, fight its way through my throat. I immediately scooted by the side and vomited on the peculiar-looking flowers that boxed the entrance. It’s not just coffee though, I can still distantly taste the vodka I had drank the previous night. Sickening.
“Hallo”, said a German lady’s voice, before asking me to come upstairs. I say so because I was in Germany, and in Germany there are German ladies, and besides, her accent gave her away.
I entered and saw no one by the reception, which made me wonder when work actually started for them. I took the elevator and in no time, I was in a room, surrounded by art that looked as if it had been done by first graders. Even though everything seemed clean,
I could not help but perceive the mustiness of that room, some kind of dampness, like urine and rotting furniture. One of the workers on duty that morning, took me to a small office, with a tiny table in the center, and chairs placed awkwardly too close to each other. I wasn’t nervous anymore, I was just there sitting, existing and taking in data without processing it, wondering when the actual work would commence. The one lady whose name was Cathy found me “interesting”, possibly because she looked forward to bombarding me with questions about migrating, adapting to Germany, and of course enquiring about my roots.
I drew my attention to the yellow paper on the wall which translated to: “One must not be crazy to work here, but a little bit of insanity helps”. I chuckled, on the inside.
“Woher kommst du? Where do you come from?” Asked Cathy and I felt embarrassed to have zoned out.
“Ich komme aus Simbabwe, I come from Zimbabwe.”
She nodded as if she even knew where that was located on the map.
In that small office where we drank bitter black coffee diluted with some biscuits, the workers would keep asking me questions.
“How was the flight to Germany?”
“Do you have siblings?”
“Where is your father?”
“How do you like the weather here?”
I could feel my brain turn into pulp before I had even begun answering. I was tired of it all. I didn’t want to answer all these questions, but I had to so that they could ‘get to know me’ or whatever the case may be. I felt like I was there to work and not make friends.
“Kannst du Französisch? Can you speak French?” asked the younger-looking worker. She would go on to explain that they once had a worker from Ivory Coast, and he could speak French. Funny how the colonizer forgets where he left French and English, I thought to myself.
“I speak English,” I said. I was disappointed in her, the littlest of misinformation they had about my whereabouts made me want to slit their throats.
After the coffee ceremony, the real work began. Since I, as the newbie, had to be shown around first, I couldn’t work independently yet. I would have to follow and take instructions from one of the workers who had decided to show me things that day, which was fun for the most part because I didn’t want to take any full responsibility. This was a place for clients living with disabilities, ranging from epilepsy to dementia. One important thing to note was that they were clients and not “patients” because this was not a hospital even though they were paying for their stay there, something that would confuse me for months to come.
For that whole week, I would follow Melanie as she showed me how to work. The routine was the same. Get there in the morning, help the clients wake up, and then get them ready for the day. The latter meant taking a small basin and filling it up with water to wash them in bed. To be honest, I was shocked, shocked at how all this seemed normal. Most of them slept in ‘incontinence briefs’ and would only be wiped with less than a litre of water. Since there was no time, each would get showered at most once a month, even though some would gladly go for months without.
My first time helping a client to shower, the worst and most unexpected of things happened. I took the female client from her wheelchair, undressed her, and placed her on the chair where I would further hold her hands and help her hold onto the armrests since her right hand was paralyzed. Just as I had begun to shower her with the warm water, she suddenly jerked backwards, her legs stiff and stretched out and one of her arms up in the air. I jumped off quickly and stood by the door with my heart beating like a motherfucker. I’d never seen anything like this, and it had caught me unaware. I did not know what to do. I then pressed the alarm, and one of the workers came to help me. I looked at the client and she was still disoriented, her eyes looked dead, as if she had gotten into a demonic trance. One of the employees came and after she had gathered herself, immediately gave the client droplets in the mouth. I felt bad when the attack was finished because she asked me what had happened, not because she didn’t know, but out of embarrassment. Later I came to understand that my job was to comfort and remind her that these attacks were nothing to be ashamed of.
After that incident, I always made sure to think twice before taking someone for a shower. What are their triggers? How often do they get seizures? Will I be able to carry them if need be? And if I was satisfied with the answers, I would take the risk. I only undertook this feat if I was in a really good mood, usually on Fridays when I knew I wouldn’t have to work on the weekend. The process always left my back screaming for help, my heart pounding, and my skin sweating like a pig. As much as I did not enjoy it, the relief from the clients would always warm my heart. I felt lighter when they felt cleaner.
“Das hier ist Hans. This is Hans,” said Melanie as we entered the man’s room. She introduced me and the man looked delighted to see me, as if we’d been acquainted before. He lay on the bed naked, with a urinary catheter inserted into his miniature penis. The moment I set my eyes on it I felt really uncomfortable. Hanging on his bedside was the plastic sack that collected the urine, his liquid extremely dark and alarming. I made sure not to ask any questions lest I come off as arrogant and annoying. I kept quiet since she’d been there longer than I, and if there was anything amiss, she’d clearly be the first to say.
As she wiped Hans in the bed, he kept talking. Most of the things he said I did not comprehend. Even though my German was intermediate, what made it worse was his severe speech impairment. So, in as much as I would have loved to catch and comprehend each and every word that came from his mouth, sometimes I too got frustrated because I wanted to understand him. But I couldn’t, and that sucked for both of us.
The only time he had been completely audible was when he had referred to one of my friends Ephraim as “affe,” meaning “monkey”. Ephraim had reported this incident to the co-workers, but hardly anyone believed him except me. The ones who did, said, “you know Hans is always making jokes like that”. Saying this wasn’t relevant because they personally had never been called monkeys before. The disappointment came because all of them sort of disregarded the fact that it might have been true, but no one was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they didn’t want to come face to face with the reality of the matter, that some of their beloved clients were racists who knew what they were saying. Just because one could not cater for or wash themselves, did not mean that they were incapable of racism. They were disabled, but not dumb.
Another incident took place again and this time it was a woman who called Ephraim a “nigga”. And again, the employers were quick to defend and explain that she was old, she’d stayed in a palace all her life, and that during her era this was a commonly used term. I never faced such outright racism though. I genuinely think what helped me was the fact that I was a little light-skinned. Still a nigga, yes, but it helped. The only demeaning incident I remember happened during my first week.
We sat in the room where we had our breakfast. One of the co-workers had held a mayonnaise tube and asked “Habt ihr auch sowas in Simbabwe? Do you also have this in Zimbabwe?” I was shocked that this seemingly reasonably intelligent woman was asking me if a whole country had mayonnaise. Where did she think I came from? The bush? It was meant to offend me as she immediately chuckled after asking the question. I’d been tempted to spit fire back at her, but I just said, “Yes… we do”.
Working hard was never a problem for me. My problem was how unfair some of the tasks were. My co-workers would say “Du bist sehr fleißig. You’re such a hard worker.” Half meant as a compliment and the other half as a ploy to make me bend over anytime they deemed necessary. Our duties also included escorting the clients to their doctors’ appointments. Most times they would be driven and later picked up by a third party responsible for that. But sometimes they had a shitload of work and would not manage to, leaving the escorting to us. Given the fact that I was short and generally frail, I found it difficult to push the heavier clients in wheelchairs to the doctors. What made it worse was the fact that the roads were steep, and I barely managed to push them without taking breaks because I felt as if my heart would explode.
There was a girl, a year younger than me or so. Lazy and always found an excuse not to help out. Saying things like “I got operated on yesterday”, “I have period pain”, “my head aches” or in some cases, “I don’t feel like it”, and thus leaving whatever had to be done to me. At first, I didn’t really protest but there was an instance when I got so fed up with her shit.
An eighty-four-year-old Nazi, who didn’t even hide this fact, had to be taken to the hospital. Subconsciously this is what I feel strengthened my stubbornness. One day, he misplaced money in his room and lashed out at the Turkish worker who had cleaned his room that morning, during which he vomited insults like “These Turks should not enter my room”. Later he’d found the money but dared not apologise. Or once when I’d offered to take him for a bath, he out rightly told me “this is not a job for you,” so I left him in his soiled pants because according to him it wasn’t a nigga’s job. Anyway, that morning it was four of us on duty. The Moroccan guy who said escorting wasn’t part of his job, the overzealous girl who’d asked me if I spoke French, the lazy girl who had an excuse to everything, and me, the immigrant who was there to kiss ass.
I remember the lazy girl coming up to me and saying, “can you take him, I have problems with my knee”. I admired her creativity. The whole day she had walked around and acted fit until this task had come along. The Moroccan refused too, the one who was actually able-bodied and suitable for this task, and for once in my life working there, I said “No”. I couldn’t be the one running around as if I was a superhero. I couldn’t. Especially not for a Nazi. My empathy had been overstretched, and it too had limits. So, the overzealous one ended up having to do it. As we sat waiting for her to come, we heard an ambulance just around our building. It happened that on their way back, she had pushed the Nazi in the wheelchair, but he’d fallen out because his belt wasn’t fastened. The whole situation was a bit funny and, I admit I laughed a bit too hard.
After a couple of months, I was now used to the routine. The tasks themselves were generally easy and not difficult but repeating them for the whole week usually left me fatigued and gasping for fresh air. As I stood in the kitchen preparing some coffee, one of the clients came up to me.
“Du hast mir keinen guten morgen gesagt. You didn’t say good morning to me.”
Given that I’m not a morning person I asked, “Warum kannst du mich nicht auch grüßen? Why can’t you greet me also?” She told me I was being rude and went to sit at her table. She was about 80 years old, and barely bothered anyone so I could tell something was a bit off.
Her backstory was that she was a princess. I think an outcome of incest if I remember correctly. She was partially mentally challenged, and her eyes looked a bit deformed but besides that, she was well-mannered and elegant. This view would soon be shattered into pieces, I mean what the fuck? Being her moody self, the princess messed up her bathroom, I mean she smeared her shit all over the walls, the toilet seat and the sink itself.
One of the co-workers explained this casually over breakfast, complaining that the cleaning lady had said her paycheck was too small for her to deal with such time-consuming work. Just in this moment of debating who should do the honors of cleaning after the princess, one of the patients had an epileptic attack and had to be attended to, leaving me to do the work. I got in the bathroom and at that moment, hated all the things that had led up to that moment. I hated my President back home, I despised my family who had thought sending me here would be a good idea, and I despised myself for agreeing.
The following two days I called in sick out of spite, in its purest form, and later that evening I would find myself in a restaurant, on a date. As we sat by the table, facing each other, my anxiety began to kick in. I judged myself, for my short hair, and my peculiar demeanor, “has he even interacted with a black woman before?” I felt judged, and his gaze made things worse. I watched him with the peripherals of my eyelids, as he studied my hair, my piercings, and my hands. But the more I drank from the wine on our table, the more his demeanor felt more like genuine admiration. I too began to notice his beard that formed a perfect square from below his nose to his chin. The turtleneck beneath his blazer accentuated his head to make it look as if it were on a stick. His English struggled to separate itself from his Russian accent, weirdly attractive. Whenever he mispronounced a word, he would look down at the table, chuckle and wait for my response.
I didn’t like the date though. Not because of him. I just hated the fact that it was almost as if we were testing our compatibility by digging out for information through conversation, like “What do you think about Philosophy”, “Do you listen to Fela Kuti,” and “What do you say about the Chinese in Africa?” It was never really like the cliché questions; it was intense. I wasn’t on a date to prove that I had interesting opinions, I just wanted a friend. When the night had ended, the time finally came for me to take the train back home. With my hand tucked between his, he escorted me to the station. When we got there, we noticed the message on the board that said, “Trains Not Moving”. He went to explain to me that a bomb from the Second World War had been discovered. It meant that the trains would not move temporarily until they had been made safe again. I didn’t understand the calmness with which he had said that. The African in me was freaking out, first of all, it meant that all that time I was on the train, on my way to that very same date, a bomb could have exploded. Secondly, how many more lie underneath waiting to explode or be excavated. Thirdly, who was busy at night looking for bombs. And lastly, how would I get home? It had not been my intention to sleep over at his place and he saw the disappointment in my face when he offered.
After three months, the work became more repetitive. I began to enjoy it less, not because of the clients or the co-workers, but because every day was the same, and there was literally nothing to look forward to. On 24 December, the worst thing happened, something I knew could happen but was never ready for. If I were to describe this day, I would say it felt like something from a badly scripted horror movie.
For dinner, a client demanded to have raw slices of bacon on his bread. This was his favorite. Most times one would catch him in the fridge stuffing whatever kind of bacon he could find into his mouth. Out of all the clients, he was definitely in my top two of most difficult to deal with. So, it was during supper, between 17:00 and 18:00. As I walked to the kitchen, I noticed my co-worker kneeling on the floor, pumping the client’s lungs. Screaming, I ran downstairs to call for help. On the first floor was all quiet and bliss, with co-workers by the balcony smoking and having conversations about anything. To my annoyance as I tried to explain why they needed to come upstairs, I could not find the right German words, it’s almost as if the fear and adrenaline had wiped any knowledge of the language right off my tongue. The only word that was able to escape perfectly from my tongue was “erstickt”, choked.
“Ich komme. I’m coming” one of them said, relaxed as if she didn’t hear me just say that someone had choked. She took a few more puffs of her cigarette and finally followed me. I had just told her a man is dying, but no, her fag was clearly much more urgent. I stood there stunned. He had choked on something as simple as a slice of raw bacon. At some point, the medics had been called. In the dining room where he lay, I still hoped he could make it. Something made me refuse that someone could just die whilst trying to nourish themselves; absurdly disrespectful of death.
I left and went to the balcony, lit a cigarette, and began crying. Maybe, maybe if I’d arrived faster, he would still be alive. Maybe, just maybe if I hadn’t chosen this job I would have avoided this unnecessary trauma. His body being carried in the body bag still seemed surreal, but life had to move on, and it did, without him. And the following day we all shouted: “Fröhliche Weihnachten! Merry Christmas!”
All names have been changed for the purposes of this story.