Duel in the Savanna
By Wanjiru Waithaka
Sophie’s pleasant well-modulated voice disguised the tension and exhaustion she felt. The busy morning shift at the hotel switchboard required two telephone operators but Bill was away attending his mother’s funeral. It was Daniel’s turn to work the shift but he had failed to show up for work, again. She would have to work a double shift, the second time this week.
She had no problem covering for him. But she hadn’t eaten anything since 10pm the previous night and hunger was making her cranky.
She called the kitchen several times but the waiters refused to send her anything and instead asked her to go down to the basement where staff ate their meals. “Who will answer calls if I’m not here?” she finally asked in irritation. But there was no sympathy there, certainly not for an intern who had been on the job for just over a month.
She hated the morning shift. The afternoon one from 3pm to 11pm was better but her favourite was the graveyard shift from 11pm to 7am. It was the least busy with the most important job that of scheduling wakeup calls for guests. Calls after 1am were rare, which left plenty of time to study or do assignments.
Her three co-workers hated it and let her work this shift as often as she wanted. She was studying for a business diploma at a city college. Working the night shift allowed her to sleep during the day before attending evening classes from 5.30pm till 8.30pm.
Her intern allowance was Sh3,000 a month with an extra Sh2,000 if she worked three or more nights a week. She really needed the money. She lived with her older brother Luke, a junior accountant in a manufacturing firm. He paid for her tuition but couldn’t afford to cater for her other expenses like text books, stationery or personal items.
She was thus happy with the working arrangement except when Daniel failed to show up for work. Martin had explained that he had a drinking problem and would sometimes black out for hours. She would cover for him but would not work a double shift on an empty stomach.
She sought the help of Ian Matengo, the Assistant Food and Beverage Manager, during a lull in incoming calls ten minutes later. Once she explained the situation, he immediately ordered the kitchen staff to send a full continental breakfast to the switchboard. Sophie eagerly tucked into her tea, croissant, scrambled eggs, fried bacon and sausage unaware of the minor storm she had set off downstairs.
By 2pm she was ready to fall over in exhaustion. She had spent most of the night studying for a financial accounting test, her least favourite subject and one she had been struggling with all semester. The morning shift had been gruelling with calls coming in non-stop. When Martin arrived an hour before her shift ended, she almost kissed him in relief.
“Hi there,” he greeted her, smiling and cheerful as always. His quick graceful movements reminded her of a cat. He was short and lithe with eyes that constantly searched his surroundings, never resting on anyone or anything for longer than a few seconds. Conversation with him was always entertaining, peppered with wisecracks that left her in stitches.
“Oh thank God. Please tell me you can start now.”
“I came to rescue you. Daniel didn’t show huh?”
“And he didn’t call either. I’m so tired and I have a CAT today.”
“Pole.” Martin took off his jacket and sat beside her. Sophie took a few minutes to unwind and stretch as he took over the switchboard. “You called Ian, huh?”
“Can you imagine the kitchen wouldn’t send me breakfast? What’s up with those guys?”
“You’re at the bottom of the hotel food chain Sophie. Asking them to come all the way to ‘the box’ to serve you? Really?” He used the nickname they had given their cramped windowless office, carved out of the bottom of the staircase. She smiled at his sarcasm. Martin would have made a good actor.
“How come they always bring you food?”
“I bribe them with free calls.” He paused as several buttons on the switchboard lit up and transferred the calls quickly and efficiently. “Ian raised hell. I’m pretty sure he’ll have a few words to say to Daniel, when he shows up.”
Sophie sat up abruptly in dismay. “Oh no. What have I done? Daniel will kill me.”
“Hey, it’s not your fault he drinks like there’s no tomorrow.” Martin winked at her and smiled in reassurance.
“I have to go or I’ll miss the shuttle. See you tomorrow.”
Sophie trudged out of the office, feeling even more tired than before. Daniel was easy going most of the time, but he had a quick temper. The next few days working with him would be hell if he got into trouble with management because of her actions. She mulled over the situation as she entered the lobby heading to the staff lockers in the basement.
Even though she had been working at Woodville Golf Hotel and Country Club for a month, the sight of the grounds still took her breath away. The five-star hotel and 18-hole championship golf course owned by the Karenga family was carved out of their 200 acre Tezi coffee farm located in Mbukia, a rich agriculturally endowed area that bordered Lavangwa on the north.
Lavangwa was the capital city of the Republic of Bancushi, a country with a population of 25 million that sat upon the equator on the eastern coast of the African continent.
The portion of the farm not under coffee had thick virgin forests in steep river valleys and rolling hills that provided the ideal landscape for sculpting the golf course. Seven thousand yards of lush, springy fairways, greens and challenging water hazards had been carved along the valley’s contours to fit perfectly into the rolling topography at an altitude of 6,000 feet above sea level.
The Victorian style buildings were designed to blend in with the indigenous treed skyline. With the forest as a backdrop, 120 deluxe rooms comprising twins, doubles, studio suites and cottages formed an arc overlooking the spectacular golf course. The brick red tile roofs, outer white walls and brown and red polished stone of the courtyards provided a stark contrast to the lush greens and man-made lakes.
Woodville’s golf course was renowned worldwide and attracted devoted golfers in their thousands every year. But this wasn’t the hotel’s only attraction. The Karengas had built a dam to trap the waters of River Ndara which ran through the property. The dam provided water to keep the greens lush all year round and also doubled up as a recreational spot with plenty of water sports, making it a popular weekend destination for residents of Lavangwa.
This was the only place in the hotel where guests could bring their own food. The modest entry fee of Sh200, with free entry for children under 12, allowed people who couldn’t afford to eat in Woodville’s restaurants to pack a picnic basket and enjoy a day of boat rides, canoe or kayak races, water skiing, horse and camel riding.
Woodville was home to over 240 bird species which attracted many bird watchers. It also had a heated swimming pool, gym, two squash courts, three asphalt tennis courts, three jogging tracks ranging from 2-5km, gift shop, a health club and spa, hair and beauty salon. Several lounges, restaurants, conference rooms and the clubhouse rounded out the hotel’s attractions.
The Republic of Bancushi was famous for its coffee and was one of Africa’s leading exporters of the crop. No visit to Woodville was complete without a trip to the coffee farm where guests were shown how the coffee bean is sorted, pulped, graded and stored. Visitors got sample coffee brewed from the farm at the end of their tour.
Entry to the lobby was via a courtyard with a 20-metre tall Baobab tree as the centrepiece. The tree had a diameter of 40 metres and was rumoured to be 100 years old. Sophie had heard that the tree had caused some problems in the initial phases of construction because it was right in the centre of the area the hotel was to be built.
Rather than cut it down however, the builders eventually opted to construct the hotel around it. The final effect was spectacular and was often a talking point for tourists visiting the hotel. It had become a popular spot for taking photos and was now as famous as the hotel itself.
Sophie crossed the magnificent lobby, still awed by its large size. The two bedroom apartment she shared with Luke could fit comfortably into it twice over. The décor was a delicate mix of Victorian and African. The central feature of the lobby was a grand red-carpeted staircase with intricately scrolled black wrought iron balustrades topped with polished mahogany handrail that led to the main restaurant on the first floor.
The high vaulted ceiling of the lobby was painted white with black mahogany beams providing contrast. Four pillars rose from the glazed terracotta floor tiles arranged in a geometric pattern in shades of brown, cream and ivory. The bottom half of each pillar was panelled in dark brown wood while the top half was painted white.
Four circular light globes mounted on wrought iron rails surrounded each pillar at the half way point where wood met cement. On one side of each pillar stood a giant potted plant and on the other a large metal sculpture of one of the big five – leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo – Bancushi’s main tourist attractions.
The king of the jungle stood sentinel just inside the imposing entrance into the lobby. Steel columns with antique lanterns mounted on top lined the corridor from the lobby to the spa and swimming pool.
Sophie walked down this corridor heading to the basement. On a whim, she decided to go to the south lawn and then use the paved path to the staff entrance on the east side of the hotel. That way she could enjoy the breathtaking view and fresh air.
She deserved it after sixteen hours in that airless cubicle, which seemed to have been designed as an afterthought. Or maybe the hotel management didn’t think telephone operators deserved to breathe fresh air.
The lawn was so green and inviting that she decided to take off her shoes. She curled her toes in delight at the delicious sensation of bare feet on grass, something she had often done in her hometown of Kinyani, usually when she accompanied her mother to clean houses in the suburbs.
Lawns and wide open grassy spaces didn’t exist in the dusty concrete jungle she now called home. She closed her eyes and spun slowly, arms outstretched, face raised towards the cool breeze which tempered what would otherwise have been a blazing hot sun.
Sophie opened her eyes and turned, then froze when she recognised Tony Karenga, son of the hotel owner. He was casual in a white polo shirt over tan trousers and black and white synthetic leather Nike shoes, which indicated he had just come from playing golf or was about to start a game.
“I’m sorry, I was just ah…I was just going back to the lockers,” she stammered, gesturing in the general direction of the staff entrance as she hurriedly put her shoes back on.
“You work here? I’ve never seen you before.” Sophie nodded. “Which department?” His appraisal was swift but she was sure that penetrating gaze had missed nothing, from her long unruly hair now released from its usual tight ponytail, blue striped shirt over black slacks to her feet, now encased in low, black, open toe slingbacks.
“Switchboard. I’m an intern, been here for a month.”
“That explains it. How do you like it so far?”
“It’s ah…it’s ok, going fine.” She wanted to kick herself the moment the words were out. “What I meant to say is…ah…it’s great, a wonderful opportunity.”
“Relax, I won’t bite.” The corners of his eyes crinkled and his lips curved into an amused smile.
Great. He’s laughing at me.
She started to walk away.
“And your name is…?”
She stopped and turned, feeling foolish. “Sophie Gitwana.”
He stretched out his hand and after some hesitation, she shook it. “Welcome to Woodville, Sophie. I’m Tony Karenga.”
“I know.” He inclined his head but Sophie didn’t give him a chance to respond. She fled.
A long low whistle of appreciation followed her hasty progress down the flagstone path. “Now that’s what I call a nice booty,” commented Isaiah stepping out from behind a shrub where he had been enjoying a cigarette with Freddo.
Sophie felt a sudden heat come over her and she quickened her steps wanting to get as far away as possible from the trio. She disliked men who leered and made catcalls at women. She breathed a sigh of relief as she reached the corner of the building and once out of sight, proceeded to the locker room at a more leisurely pace.
She was taking a jacket out of her locker when someone poked her in the ribs. She turned and smiled at Maggie, her friend from the housekeeping department. “I heard you caused quite a ruckus this morning.”
Sophie closed the locker and put on the jacket. “I don’t know why everyone is making such a big deal about it. I was hungry, I needed to eat. You can’t work a double shift on an empty stomach.”
“Don’t worry about it; you know how this place is. Besides, it’s time those kitchen guys were taught a lesson, always acting like they’re doing the rest of us a favour, and yet they’re staff like us,” Maggie reassured her. “Going home?”
“Nope, the library. I have a test.”
“Was that today? Good luck; I don’t know how you do it, juggling this job and college.”
“At this precise moment, I’m questioning my sanity. I’m so tired.”
“You have the day off tomorrow?”
“I wish. I’m on the night shift.”
Maggie grimaced but didn’t say anything, busy changing into her housekeeping uniform, in readiness for her afternoon shift. They had met during her second week on the job and despite their obvious differences, had become fast friends. Whereas Sophie was of average height and slender, Maggie was short and rotund. She smiled easily, loved to talk and knew everything that was going on in the hotel. Sophie was supposed to work for two weeks in every department so that she would have a good understanding of the hotel’s operations at the end of her six month internship.
She had started out in housekeeping and Maggie had taken her under her wing, showing her what to do. She then moved to the switchboard but after two weeks, the department which had lost two employees the month before requested that she stay on until someone new was hired. That hadn’t happened yet, so for the moment, she was stuck there.
“You’ll never guess who I ran into just now. The big kahuna.”
Maggie looked up eager for some juicy gossip. “James. Where?”
“No. The playboy.”
“Let me guess, he was going to play golf with Freddo and Isaiah?”
“When do these people work considering they are always running around together?”
“When your daddy is as rich as the chairman, I guess work is optional.” Her smile was wry. “So what did he say?”
“Nothing much, just asked what my name was and welcomed me to the hotel. Being polite I guess.”
“He didn’t hit on you?” Maggie stared at her in disbelief.
“I have to run, don’t want to be late. See you tomorrow.”