The sound of car horns permeated the still Lagos air. It had been raining for about a week but the nights were hot and uncomfortable. Rissa adjusted her weight in her seat between a young man and an elderly woman at the back of the bus. The bus was crammed to the teeth. The conductor had instructed that five passengers were to be seated per row. It was one of those Volkswagen ancient buses. Despite the terrible inconvenience, the bus driver was charging 300 naira from Obalende to Yaba. Ordinarily it should have cost about 150 naira but this is Lagos and taking advantage of precarious situations was the order of the day.
“Oga please shift small, the metal part of the seat is what I’m sitting on” complained a lady sitting on the detachable sit beside the door.
“Shift to where? You see space for here?” the man replied angrily and hissed.
The lady not surprised at his outburst replied angrily as well. “I can clearly see the space between your legs you used to put your bag. You can afford to shift.”
“See this rubbish girl oh, na me send you make you fat? The space wey you sit down for, two people fit stay there. Abeg nor give me stress oh!” He looked menacing in the dim glow from the tiny bulb hanging from the headliner of the bus. Some of the passengers just ignored the man’s insults and just watched on for drama. “You shouldn’t have spoken to her like that oga.” Rissa piped up. She hated how these men unabashedly abused fat women. Other voices joined in to criticise the rude man’s behaviour. After a threatening warning from the conductor, the man eventually shifted. The lady thanked the other passengers in the bus while the man hissed.
It was a common habit in Lagos for people to fat shame women who weren’t as slim as others. Sometimes, they would be refused entry into the bus on the ground that they could only ride the bus if they agreed to pay for two seats because of their size. Rissa had experienced her own share of embarrassing moments on buses. She was just counting down the days till her entry level position would become junior asset manager so she could afford her own car and avoid the insults.
The bus crawled slowly in the traffic. It took about three hours before she could finally get home. I need to either leave this country or move closer to the Island, Rissa thought to herself as she climbed the stairs to her room.
Rissa had studied estate management in the University. She was one of the ‘lucky’ ones who got a good job for their NYSC placements. Shortly after her service year she was retained at Sunrise Capital. She did market research for investments in Nigeria. She lived at Alagomeji in Yaba with her aunt’s family. After a quick shower she checked her email notifications. Another debit alert from Guaranteed Trust Bank, 150 naira for SMS fees, but it’s not even close to the end of the month; Rissa groaned inwardly. She had to get some extra money before the end of that week. She had spent a considerable sum of her savings on transport and her last month’s salary had been used to purchase a new prosthetic leg for her younger brother Raymond. Her mum worked as a nurse at Luth. Her dad was a retired Construction Engineer. Combining his pension and her mum’s salary would not be enough to get him the prosthtic leg he needed so she had volunteered to pitch in.
A call from Anwuli snapped her out of her reverie. “Babe I’m close to that Dominos at Yaba, I’m meeting up with Mark from that Insense shipping company.” She said hurriedly. “Hi Anwuli, I’m sure you’re fine, I’m fine too thanks for asking.” Rissa replied sarcastically. “Aunty I’m sorry, I’m just a bit nervous, that’s all.”
Rissa huffed. “You! Anwuli! Nervous to see a man, why?”
“He’s the German guy I told you about “Anwuli cried impatiently.
“Is this a work related meet up?” Rissa asked
Anwuli exhaled and then responded, “not exactly.” “Their company has my firm on retainer. He came to the office for a meeting recently and my department is handling a dispute they were having with NIMASA. He sort of took an interest in me after that but this is the first time I’m meeting him outside the office.” she sighed.
It dawned on Rissa that Anwuli was interested in this guy.
“You’re beautiful and brilliant Anwuli, I don’t think you have anything to be worried about” Rissa said in an encouraging voice.
“Thanks dear, my dad also can’t know I’m meeting up with foreign men at night.” She trailed off lauging.
Anwuli’s dad is a retired Brigadier General in the Army. He was quite cotrolling about her movements. While her mom worked at NNPC so she was relatively comfortable financially. She had her own car because of her dad’s grouse with the Lagos public transport system. She lived with her parents. She was one of Rissa’s best friends.
“You’re welcome dear. Let me know when you’re done. I could use some Cold Stone Ice Cream tonigh.” Rissa said running her hands through her short braids.”
As soon as the call ended, messages from Olamide, Selene and Ediseh popped up. The girls had made a group chat where they could keep tabs on each other easily.
Rissa logged in to her Upwork account to search for jobs. Rissa was a pretty good graphics illustrator. In her spare time at the university she learnt graphics designing. She loved how proficient she was at using Adobe photoshop for her illustrations. She made book covers and arts for writers on writing platforms. Selene was the only person she did free graphics for.
She scrolled through the messages. Olamide had registered all the girls for the GT Bank Fashion Weekend. She was contracted to help with the set up for the event. The girls all seemed excited to be going. Rissa didn’t particularly love these fashion shows.
They made her more self-conscious of her weight and she didn’t need that right now. She feigned some excuse about not being able to attend which was partially true. She needed to finish a report she had started earlier that day at the office and she would love to use the office Wi-Fi for her Upwork job hunting. The girls seemed bummed that she wouldn’t be able to make it.
Thirty minutes after she started drawing the characters in her new comic she dozed off. She didn’t realise she had slept off on her table till her 4a.m alarm rang.
She bolted off the table and immediately felt the strain in her neck. She tried to massage her neck. It was quite stiff. She moved gingerly to her bed and propped her pillow under her chin. The next time she saw colours, It was 8;30 am.
“Hey 8:30!” Rissa groaned and got out of bed.
Rissa hurried through her shower and breakfast. Placing her tab carefully in her bag, she set off for the office.
The roads were relatively traffic free, she said a quick thank you prayer to God as she stepped in to the gate.
“Madam, good morning” Musa the gateman greeted.
“Good Morning Musa, have a great day” Rissa replied.
She took the steps to her office floor. She stepped in, a couple people were in. The accounts manager in the pensions department and some of his team members seemed to be having some team meeting. She walked to her department office and sat at her desk. Put in the office wifi password on her tab and placed it on the table as she got to work on her report.
Rissa you need to leave here before 2 pm , she said to herself. She started the report and within three hours she had made considerable progress. She finished by 1 and did her final proofreading before sending it to her department head.
“Clarissa” a slightly unfamiliar voice called. Rissa turned, searching for the strange voice calling her by her full name. No one called her Clarissa, not even her parents.
A tall, dark bespectacled man was walking towards her with his eyes trained on her. She racked her brain for its database of faces. He was the new regional manager. She mentally face palmed herself. He had resumed earlier that week.
“Good afternoon sir.” She greeted politely. The man was easily in his late twenties, younger than the previous regional manager. How he knew her name she didn’t understand.
“Oh please no need to be so formal,” he said with a slight Yoruba accent.
“Alright then, hello Mr Adekunle.” He extended his hand for her to shake , she shook him but his grip lingered just enough to make her a bit uncomfortable.
“What are you doing in the office on a Saturday?” He chuckled softly.
“I just had a few things to tidy up. I was about to leave.” Rissa did not like how he was sizing her up. He licked his lips indiscreetly.
“Would you mind discussing some files with me. I’ve been told you are the research wiz in your department.” He said with his eyes trained on her chest. Rissa was becoming even more uncomfortable with the turn of events.
“Sir, if you don’t mind we could discuss them on Monday.” Rissa replied warily, the office was eerily quiet.
“Oh come on, it would only take a few minutes of your time.” He said brushing her arm.
All the alarm bells in her head started going off.
“Sir, honestly today isn’t a really good day to explain these files…” She stopped mid-sentence when she noticed the hard look on his face.
“Do you not want to curry favour with your new boss. I could easily make life difficult for you,” he said callously. “I could transfer you anywhere I like. If you don’t want that, you have to comply with my demands. “
Rissa’s blood started to boil. It was bad enough that Mohammed who she started with had already been promoted in the two years they had worked at the company despite his poor skills just because he was a man and his sister was dating one of the senior colleagues.
“It’s just some file briefings and I’ll let you go.” His fake smile was back.
Rissa had heard stories of awful encounters at different companies but she trusted that it would never happen to her. She couldn’t file a report without proper evidence. It was his word against hers at this point.
“Which files sir? I should be able to access them on my desk top. Our company has a cloud where we store all our clients’ information.” She said proud of how she had been able to avoid going into his office.
“The Shevchenko LLC file is the first one I would like to take a look at,” he replied.
She accessed the cloud and searched for the file, in the course of giving a general overview of the company’s investments in Sunrise Capital, she turned in her swivel chair. Abruptly, Mr Adekunle inappropriately grabbed her thigh.
“Mr Adekunle!” she screamed. “I do not appreciate these inappropriate advances . “
She really wished the CCtvs were connected to this part of the office but her department was low risk and the company had seen no need to increase security measures in their department. She muttered an “excuse me” and moved to shut down her desk top.
“The feisty ones are always the best he whispered in her ear.” She was disgusted by his behaviour. He unsuccessfully tried to grope her again and angrily Rissa grabbed her bag and swung at him. She missed but he could see the fire blazing in her eyes and stepped back afraid. She would not let herself be used as a mere object.
She stomped out of the office all the while dialling Selene’s number. She dabbed at her eyes. Tears had begun to stream down her face of their own accord. Selene picked on the third ring.
“I need some legal advice, my boss just tried to molest me what do I do.”
Selene went quiet for a second and asked, “Where are you?”
“I’m at the gate of my office.” Rissa replied.
“ I’m around Onikan, I’m coming to get you .” Selene hung up the phone.
Rissa ignored Musa’s attempts at pleasant chatter. Her eyes were on the road, she willed herself not to think about what had just happened. It was not her fault. She couldn’t have done anything to deserve sexual harassment.
Selene’s blue Toyota Corolla pulled up after five minutes.
“Get in” Selene said.
“What exactly happened?” Selene asked. She looked very upset.
“Drive first, I don’t want you to beat up my boss. I know you’ve been taking self defence classes.” Rissa replied lightly attempting to relieve some of the tension in the car and the dread she was feling.
Reluctantly Selene started to drive away from the office. Rissa narrated the ordeal to her.
“Men can be such pigs,” was Selene’s reply.
“You need to file a report with the HR department first thing on Monday Morning. The sad thing is it’s your word against his but having it on record that you made a complaint is necessary. Then if he does anything further to you we can sue. You’re my friend I’ll fight it out at the National Industrial Court.” Selene was an Oil and Gas Lawyer but in her spare time she championed for the rights of women in the office. Anwuli volunteered with her when she could spare time away from her work.
Rissa tried to listen but she was just shaken by the events of the day. They had stopped over at PinkBerry to get some frozen Yoghurt but Rissa had no appetite.
“I feel like throwing up.” Rissa said to Selene.
“Sorry love, I was heading to the GT Bank Fashion Weekend when I got your call but I can call Olamide and tell her what happened. I can’t leave you alone like this.”
” I know you will be, but I can’t just leave you like this.” Selene’s phone started to ring. She glanced at it.
“It’s Ediseh, I’m sure she’s calling to know where I am.” Rissa nodded absent mindedly.
“Hello Ediseh,” Selene said.
“I’m with Rissa, she got molested at work.” She said matter of factly.
Ediseh screamed. It was loud enough that Selene had to place her phone away from her ear.
“I’m taking her home.” Selene explained further.
“Rissa, Ediseh wants to speak with you.” Selene handed the phone to Rissa.
“Rissa” Ediseh said sympathetically.
“You’ll get through this.That man is a scumbag,” she stated emphatically.
“Thanks Ediseh.” Rissa tried to sound cheerful but she just wasn’t feeling up to it.
“Olamide is so busy with set up. I will come and see you much later in the day.”
“Alright” Rissa replied dryly. Ediseh hung up.
“Try to have some yoghurt Rissa,” Selene pleaded.
The journey home was quiet.
“Good afternoon Aunty Imoh”, Selene and Rissa chorused. “Welcome my children, she replied.”
Once they were settled in Rissa’s room, Rissa started to cry again. Selene tried to pacify her. Eventually she slept off. Selene stayed for about an hour and drpped a note on her table before she left.
Ediseh couldn’t make it to see her but all the girls got talking on Whatsapp later that night about the course of action that was to be taken. Olamide suggested that she record anything he said if he came close to her again.
Monday morning rolled by faster than a sneeze. Rissa went down to the Human Resources Department to complain and met Dara on the way.
Dara was the one the company sent to deliver ‘bad news’ to the employees.
“Hi Dara” Rissa greeted.
“Actually I was just coming to see you”. Dara said.
“Oh what for?” Rissa asked a bit afraid.
“I was asked by the new Regional Manager to give you a suspension letter. He said you refused to cooperate with him and you’ve been rude and insubordinate in the short time he’s been here.” Dara crossed her arms. It was obvious she thought it was hogwash that Rissa would be rude to anyone at the office.
Rissa’s heart skipped.
“Dara, I came to make a sexual harassment complaint about the Regional Manager.” Rissa said calmly but firmly.
Dara looked shocked.
“Please sit down. Let me get the forms.” Dara searched through the cabinets in her office for the forms.
“This man na wa” Dara said in pidgin.
“He just got here and he is already making a mess but he’s rich.” Dara sighed in frustration.
“I hope you have people in high places Rissa?” Dara asked concerned.
“Don’t worry I will be fine.”
Rissa made a call to Selene and took a photo of the suspension letter and sent to her whatsapp number.
Based on suggestions from the girls, Ediseh who was a TV how host was able to convince her boss that they needed to interview Rissa. The topic for the show was Sexual Harassment and Gender Inequality. There was a panel, an expert psychologist was present, Rissa as well as an respresentative from a renowned NGO called’ SDGs r us’.
Ediseh politely asked Rissa questions about the working environment in Nigeria generally and then about what working at Sunrise Capital was like. Rissa explained how men were given preferences with respect to promotions and training and stated how married women even had it worse at the office than single women.
The psychologist tried to explain how sexual harassment created am unhealthy work environment for the staff. The psychological effects it has on employees and then the SDG’s r us representative explained that creating awareness on how cutting gender inequality can increase productivity in the work place.
The week after the interview held. Rissa got an email, that her employment was being terminated immediately without notice.
Olamide designed shirts representing sexual harassment and started a social media campaign. The shirts sold were to be used to fund Rissa’s graphics designing business which she needed to rely on to make ends meet.
The coming weeks were fierce and full of meetings and a lot of legal discussions. Sunrise Capital was unwilling to settle amicably so Selene and Anwuli were suing the company on behalf of Rissa and they were doing it pro bono.
Mr Adekunle apparently had ties to some foreign companies investing in Sunrise Capital which led to their reluctance to settle or pay Rissa. The company had a hardline stance from the beginning of the case till the end. It refused to throw Mr Adekunle under the bus.
Six months after, the National Industrial Court ruled in favour of Rissa. Sunrise Capital was required to pay her arrears of all the salary she had been deprived of after the suspension as well as damages for the wrongful dismissal in addition to punitive damages for the sexual harassment.
Rissa was full of joy when the judgment was declared. The last couple of months had been tough but she had her graphics designing to rely on. For the first time in a long time she had hope. She was glad she didn’t stay silent. She was thankful for her friends, her support system they made sure her voice was heard. The scales of justice had validated her voice.