This last Easter celebration when friends and family gathered over food and old gists, I came across a set of presentable young women. No, they didn’t have weaves or false lashes or loud make-up. They were well groomed, spoke good English and were well dressed, too. Turns out these ladies, as I’ve chosen to call them were helps.
They were my cousins’ ‘assistants’. I was shocked. Usually, when I see helps, they ‘look’ like helps; sad, remote individuals with this faraway look even when they are in the midst of people. Those helps never belong, they usually don’t eat what the family eats and when they do, it’s probably the dregs and burnt parts in the pot. They don’t drink from the dispenser but from taps, their unkempt hair is usually hidden under grime glistened scarves which their madam insists on them wearing and you immediately identify them by their tawdry and sometimes oversized dresses.
This piece isn’t saying some of us haven’t tried to integrate our maids within our families, many have and failed because you see, there are helps from hell, norrin you do will work and I got a taste of both sides.
My first encounter with house helps, of course was the one my mum got to mind us while she worked. We called them omo odo, back in the day and forget what you have heard, omo odo means the one that is with you. They were usually from Saki, someplace in Oyo State. Forgive me already, I’m not staring down my flat nose at the people of Saki, I have no idea why all the house helps I knew at that time were from Saki.
Anyway, back in the day, too, we didn’t have several types of helps like we have today; by type I mean, the house-girl, who is the bush counterpart of the maid. Now the house-girl is the one you have to teach virtually everything about how a house functions and many times, she doesn’t know the first thing about cleaning. Yes, yes, we all assume that because she is dirt poor, she knows how to clean a house. Nada!
The maid is the city-dwelling help, who comes with a certain level of ‘know-how’, she may have a first school leaving certificate, of some dubious quality, but let her be, she went to school. She knows places, doesn’t need too much help handling washing machines, gas cooker et al. She also knows how to handle the gateman and the driver…they always have things in common.
Now, step a level above the help and maid and there is the Nanny, who doubles sometimes as the maid, but ranks a notch higher; she has a level of education, possibly a secondary school leaving certificate meaning she is quality and so you pay more. Having done some years in the secondary school before fate and the gods spat in her face thus sending her to some home where she’ll mind kids and scrub floors for a living (for a while because you see, she has no intention of cleaning dirty diapers for life.)
She ensures the kids sit to do their homework, notices when kids are sick and many times administers first aid. This one will not attend to certain things in the house, like do your laundry or wash your car, no, her job description is kids first and she would often look down on the gateman and driver because they are below her. She has plenty of ambition.
The there are these ones we call assistants. They run the home and have under their charge, the house-help, the maid, the gateman and the driver. These are mostly NCE holders or OND graduates who will not dirty their hands but run your home with precision. They are few and far between but are a growing force in many homes today.
As for my mother, she made us call her house-girl aunty. Aunty Rafiatu, the house-girl, also spoke a ‘funny’ version of Yoruba that we often laughed at. We considered her bush which made her hate us and was spiteful when the parents’ backs were turned.
Mum treated her like a younger sister and she didn’t do chores my mother felt we could handle, meaning she didn’t wash our clothes or dishes, and neither did she clean our rooms, we did those ourselves, from ages seven.
Of course, she washed my parents’ clothes and ironed them, made their beds and kept their room clean and she had charge of the sitting room as well. Because it had to be kept clean at all times, this meant we hardly got to watch TV when my parents weren’t home.
Aunty Rafiatu kept the sitting room locked claiming that we would mess it up and the parents would come screaming at her. Many times, we often had to go to neighbours’ homes to watch TV, which upon growing up, I realised was her ultimate aim from day one – get us out of the house.
Then one day, like they say, Monkey go market, e no return; father came home early that day, found Rafiatu with her boyfriend in his living room and flipped big time. Rafiatu’s boyfriend was this filthy mechanic named Mutiu, we often saw with Aunty Rafiatu. Both of them smelled awfully bad. Sometimes, he would come upstairs to our home and those times; Rafiatu would warn us never to tell the parents and she often rewarded us with sweets or biscuits or the almighty coke. Coke was a rarity way back and by coke I mean half a cup of coke, like a meagre 4cl, it was never the full bottle, ehen but it was a taste of heaven to us kids.
Rafiatu was sent packing even before mother got home. We were happy to be rid of her but you see with Rafiatu gone, my sister and I began to work like slaves for my parents. Their needs were endless; fetch this, bring that, wash this, iron that, go buy this, you forgot that.
I soon began to wish Rafiatu would come back and take her position as omo odo again because my parents were suddenly impossible to please.
But father was done; he banned mother from bringing in another Rafiatu reminding her that his mother raised 50 children on her own without a house-help. Mother didn’t tell him his mother had tons of aunties and relatives who must have assisted her in raising her brood. No, she said nothing, she just fumed silently and made us do more work.
Me? I didn’t fume in silence when I found myself with two kids under five, and working 8am to 7pm. So, when I was told some mother had raised 1,000 kids all alone while still farming, I replied immediately with as much venom and ardour as I could muster.
“I am not mother and I am not a millipede with a thousand hands!”
So, I contacted an agent and got my own Rafa, the modern version of Rafiatu but my Rafas didn’t stay more than three to four weeks in a row. One stayed for one week and left. I got yet another and that one stayed for like two months before packing up with some sorry tale.
These modern Rafa’s are a problem, they’ll just wake up one morning and say, someone told them their father was dead in the village and they would cry buckets and insist on going for the burial as their father’s ghost is walking about their room asking them to return. To make matters worse, I normally would have paid the agent no less than six months advance salary plus transportation, many times, the con agent would just disappear with the money. So I would plead, I would cajole, I would even threaten the helps, haba! After paying Agent for six months, you want to leave?
But they always left and many times I was back to square one angrier than ever.
I tried the Cotonou version, no deal, I tried the Nigerian version, still no show, even the much dreaded Calabar version. (No vex o, I love Calabar people o, they are my friends). It took me a while to realise they were lonely souls. They are mostly left on their own most of the day and the way we live, its mind ya business with the neighbours.
Then I changed gear; I promised succeeding maids they would be sent to learn some form of trade, but of course, they would finish their primary duties first. I enrolled the first one of such at a beauty salon down our street. She got a chance to interact with other gossipy young girls like her, got a chance to learn something she could use to survive after her salary had been shared across her community back home, she got a chance at life.
Yes, I paid for her apprenticeship, I also paid for some of the items she would require to work there. Yes, I also paid her salary in full and she stayed with me for five years until she allowed some idiot boy knock her up. And then it was hasta la vista!
The next one stayed for three years and I had one or two others who at this time hardly did much in the house as I adopted my mother’s style early on with the kids doing their own chores. I ensured they looked their best both at home and outside the home. Did I trust them implicitly, nah! I just taught my kids things to look out for.
So when I saw this new crop of helps called ‘assistants’ I knew someone somewhere was also thinking. Some people have encouraged their helps to get an education and these helps are turning their lives around and many unemployed youths are swallowing their pride to take up jobs that hitherto belonged to pure illiterates.
There’s hope yet for this nation as house-helps graduate into maids.
There’s hope for Nigeria.