Toyin Olaleye’s Response to “In Nigeria, You’re Either Somebody or Nobody” Op-Ed Piece by Adaobi Tricia NwaubaniPosted on Wednesday, February 27th, 2013 at 1:25 PM
By Toyin Olaleye
Although, this was an opinion piece, I believe it is the duty of every Nigerian in the diaspora to properly represent what is and what isn’t in our country.
When I read the title of the article, I excitedly looked forward to a well written article on some of the flaws in Nigerian society, such as the difficulty millions of qualified Nigerians face in acquiring employment commensurate to their skills without “connections.”
It is therefore not difficult to imagine my astonishment when after reading the article I realized that the focal point of this article was “househelps.”
It is very true that the gap between the rich and poor in Nigeria is extremely wide, and that there is a strong cloud of oppression hovering over the nation. However, Nwaubani’s claim that in Nigeria you’re either somebody or nobody is a bit misguided because she used one of the very few things which serves and is still serving as the economical bone marrow of many Nigerians. And that thing is the domestic labor force.
I am going to first deal with the social problem that was alluded to and not addressed at all in the article – equality of all men. It is true that the American constitution states that all men are equal; it is however untrue that Americans believe that all men are equal. In every society, wealth and social influence are dividers of men. Does the writer really believe that investors on Wall Street consider the coffee makers at Starbucks their equals, or that the Kennedys consider every average American their political equal? This is before we get to the race or sex divide.
It is well known that on average, a black or feminine life is considered less equal to that of a white male. All you need to ascertain this fact is to look into the U.S. legal system. This is not censure of the US in anyway. In every society made of humans, no matter what those humans say, men are not equal. This is something George Orwell put to rest in his well-known book ‘Animal Farm’ - “all animals are equal; some are just more equal than others.” If the writer thinks equality is not enforceable in Nigeria, the US is certainly not doing a good job of enforcing it either.
Now to the focal point the writer has chosen, “house helps.”
Let’s say having house helps is in no way an indoctrination. It is true that some of them are treated badly, but the majority of them are often treated well. However, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine house helps were all treated badly. Then the question that would follow is, “what is the alternative?” Most of them come from impoverished homes, parents that have more mouths than they could possibly feed, so that if these kids are not house-helps, the only other alternatives open to them in a country without social welfare is a life of crime. Not only that; being a house help is the only shot these kids have of making something of themselves.
For many in Nigeria, being a house help has given them open doors to greater things. Quite a number of house helps do indeed ‘hail’ from different villages across the nation and are brought into cities to work for their employers. As a result, these domestic workers get lots of exposure to a life they probably would have only been fortunate to see on television. Many are given the opportunity to go to school, eat Christmas chicken and send money to their parents back in their villages, all courtesy of their employers.
My mother treated our house helps like us and bought them clothes regularly, just as they did for us. My sister and I would even call our house helps ‘aunty’ and ‘sister’ in accordance with the respect we gave to those who were older than us. They would even get the same punishment as us when they did things they weren’t supposed to, or when they would ‘ko ja aye won’ (crossed certain boundaries) as Yoruba women would say. So Nwaubani’s references to the times her father would tell their house helps to stop singing, certainly are not enough to ascertain the notion that they are ‘lesser’ beings. They are house helps, but employees first and foremost.
In America, there is no way any of us would knowingly continue to sing close to our boss when we know he or she dislikes any singing. It’s like people who come to work late three times in a row and are surprised when they get fired.
“Where they do that at?”
For as long as I can remember, the domestic labor force in Nigeria has always been a way for people of all ages to make some money for themselves.
It is indeed true that house helps were widely believed to be “scoundrels and carriers of diseases.” An ignorant mindset that is slowing fading in Nigeria as the country gets more exposure to modern thinking. That mindset is again a function of an individual’s upbringing and doesn’t necessarily represent how each and every household treated or treats their house helps. Many employers and their children accustom a certain level of respect to their workers via salary and/or other perks. Those who don’t, well, they know that they abide in Nigeria where disgruntled workers are capable of doing almost anything. Vicious workers do also exist where kind bosses are, but that is something that no one anywhere can usually control.
One of the greater good of the Nigerian society is the institution of house helps. It is a much preferable institution than that of the western system of social welfare where, if you forgive the use of crude generalizations and vulgar oversimplifications, lazy people are supported by hardworking people being taxed.
It is unfortunate that the U.S is continually being used as a standard to judge Nigerian social affairs. Nigerians need to start seeing that in our own uniqueness we can attain to something higher than the US could have.
In conclusion, I have heard or read somewhere that when you recognize the problem, you are halfway towards solving it. But what chance does Nigeria have if writers who consider themselves thinkers not only fail to recognize real problems, but create problems where there are none and then broadcast it to the world?
Toyin Olaleye is a writer pursuing a Masters degree at the Johns Hopkins University, USA. She’s the unpublished author of “Oh! So You Are From Africa, How Come You Speak English” and is extremely passionate about Nigeria.