Not too long ago, I sat down with a few lovely young women for a chat. They shared one thing in common—they were either housemaids or had been housemaids at some point in their lives.
There’s much to be said about the housemaid/houseboy culture in Nigeria and very little about it is good. For one, it is mostly populated by minors, ungoverned by any reasonable or enforceable laws and bears a close resemblance to slavery. A typical Nigerian maid/houseboy is underage, not on the minimum wage salary scheme, probably trafficked from some poor family on the promise of a better life, denied access to education, physically, verbally, emotionally and psychologically abused and laden with chores from sunup to sundown.
These brave ladies shared their stories with me and I have, with their permission, decided to share some of the stories. Their names have been changed to protect their identities but each name reflects the ethnicity of the ladies.
*I will post these in four parts.
𝐌𝐄: “This isn’t a formal interview or anything. We’re just gisting, so you can start when you’re ready.”
IDARA: “My name is Idara and I’m twenty-five years old. Auntie, where do I even start? My parents died when I was very young, so life was already working against me at a young age. My father died first. As the last child, I was my mother’s handbag; she took me everywhere she went. I was the apple of her eyes. Then she fell sick—they said it was a spiritual attack from evil people in my family. She died and left me. It was so hard to adjust after she died.
My sisters and brother were just managing, not doing good jobs like that, so I was sent to go and live with my mother’s sister. I don’t even want to open that chapter. When I left her house, I started doing maid work. I was like sixteen years at that time, so I was already big, unlike other people that start small. Auntie, what have my eyes not seen in these my small twenty-five years on earth?
One job was in Osun state. The man said he was looking for a girl to come and live with his mother since she was old and they didn’t want her to be alone in the house. The person that carried me there is one man from our village; he used to help girls to find work in houses where they need maids. The man said he was going to pay me eight thousand naira. Auntie, I agreed-o, because I thought it was big money. After all, I was going to live in the house and eat there too. Little did I know that I was using my two legs to enter trouble.
The first thing was that I was working in two houses, not one. Every morning, after I’d finished doing my chores and giving my Madam breakfast, she would send me to her pastor’s house to go and help them with housework. Auntie, you see that pastor’s house? I worked like a donkey! Clean, clean, clean. Wash, wash, wash. She, her husband and children had a mountain of dirty clothes that you can never finish washing.
That woman was a pastor’s wife but she was wicked! She was always shouting. Every little thing, she will shout and quarrel. One time, I was looking for mop to clean the floor and she came out and saw water on the floor. What did this woman not say to me that day?
‘You’re very stup.id! Evil idi.ot. You poured this water here so that I’ll slip and fall down. Small work like this, you can’t do. You want to kill me, as if I’m the one that killed your mother. Better go and ask who killed your mother because it’s not me.”
I was in shock. Then I became angry, very angry. What brought my mother into this matter? I tried to explain that I was looking for mop; this woman was still shouting. I dropped everything there and walked out.
Before I reached the house, she’d called Grandma, my madam, to tell her what I’d done. Of course, she added pepper and Maggi to the story. When I got home, my madam started telling me that I was wrong. I explained what happened. Do you know what Grandma said?
‘Even though! Even though she said those things, you suppose to kneel down, hold her legs and beg her.’
Me, I said, ‘Grandma, beg her for what? She don’t suppose to talk about my mother.’
‘Eh, you will still beg her. She’s your senior, so you must tell her sorry. She’s a mother too, she will understand and forgive you.’
Me that I was already tired of going there, I told her that the agreement was for me to work for her, it didn’t include working in pastor’s house. How can I be doing all that work for eight thousand naira only? I told her that I was not going there again. It’s like she knew that if she tried to force me, I’d leave. So, she didn’t say anything.
Grandma was good-o but she used to do small small wickedness. Her children would pack plenty food to her house but she’d ban me from eating some things. Her son, the one that hired me, came one day to visit. He asked me to boil eggs for breakfast. He was surprised when I served the food but there was no egg in my plate.
When he asked, his mother said, ‘Egg is not good for her. It’s for adults.’
He laughed, told his mother to stop and made me go and boil eggs for myself. Small small wickedness like that.”
𝐌𝐄: “I’m assuming you eventually left. When did you finally leave and what made you decide to leave?”
IDARA: “Since I refused to go and work in the pastor’s house, Grandma said I wasn’t doing much in the house. She found one place for me to go and learn how to make hair. I didn’t tell her I wanted to learn hair-making. But I went. Would you believe that at the end of that first month, Grandma removed three thousand naira from the eight thousand her son was giving her to pay me? She said it was for my training at the salon.
I called that my village brother that brought me and told him I want to go home. The woman begged me. She said she’d never had someone like me. The son begged me too, said they’d increase the money. But I knew that if they increase that money, it’s not only Pastor’s house I would be cleaning; I’d be cleaning for all the church members. (We both laugh)
I said, ‘No-o, let me go before they’ll kill me for my dead mother. Sometimes I miss her because the work was not plenty. But her wahala was too much.”
𝐌𝐄: “Do you have other experiences you’d like to share?”
IDARA: “Nko when I started, I said, ‘where will I even start?’ The stories are plenty. When I left Grandma, I went to stay with my sister. Then that our village brother came again and said that someone else was looking for a maid. My sister asked me if I wanted to go and I said yes. This one, the man was elderly, a widower. Maybe, like sixty years.
The first day I came to the house, the driver told me to be careful, that our Oga is a good man but that he likes women too much. He was not lying. The man used to bring different women to sleep with every week. Married women are his spec—once you’re married like this, the man will be interested. He’s a very nice man, so I’m not surprised that women liked him. He even slept with three sisters one time like that.
𝐌𝐄: “Three sisters! At the same time? Are you sure?”
IDARA: “No-o. Not at the same time. That was when we went to his village for New Yam Festival. He slept with the middle one first, then the first daughter and the last born. The three of them came to the compound to fight over him—that’s how the story came outside.”
𝐌𝐄: “Okay. Carry on.”
IDARA: “Before, I used to come in the morning and go in the evening. But he asked me to move in. I agreed because his first son and daughter were living with him. They were like twenty-nine, thirty years. First first, nothing happened. I did my work in peace. Then he started buying all these sexy sexy nightgowns, pants and bras for me. I don’t even know how the man knew my size. Sometimes, he would be asking me if I’ve worn the underwear that he bought for me. I didn’t wear the nightgowns until I left his house.
One day, I came back from the market and caught him in my room. Auntie, this man was sniffing my pants! Abasi mbok! Nsuto ndisime ido’do? What kind of nonsense is that? From there, he went higher. He started asking me to bring his food to his bedroom and serve him there. When I go inside with the tray of food, he’d be sitting on his bed, holding his penis in his hand and touching it while I set up the table. One day, he said I should put down the tray and come and touch him. I ran out of the room.”
𝐌𝐄: “How old were you then?”
IDARA: “Seventeen. Almost eighteen.”
ME: “But you were not married. Why was he interested in you?”
IDARA: “Auntie, I told you the man likes women. Young-o, old-o, he likes them. He really likes married ones but he still likes women.
ME: “Okay. Continue.”
IDARA: “I started avoiding him. If it’s only me and him in the house, I’d go into my room and lock the door. I tried to serve his food when everyone was around. If he called me and he was inside his room, I’d look for a reason not to go. His daughter would be shouting at me, calling me deaf and lazy because I wasn’t answering her father. But I don’t blame her—she didn’t know. It was even the son that noticed what was going on. Can you imagine?
He tried to protect me. If his father called me, he’d come to the room with me and do as if he wanted to talk to his father. Auntie, this story is long.”
ME: “Go on. I’m listening.”
IDARA: “Okay. The man was getting worse by the day. At a point, he didn’t want me to talk to any man. Even the driver. One day, a man drove by the gate, stopped and asked me for directions, then left. I didn’t know my Oga saw me from the balcony. This man quarrelled with me, that I’m busy talking to men everywhere. That I’m getting spoilt. I didn’t answer him.
Another time, his son asked me to clean his room and make his bed. Hei! This man was angry. He said I was sleeping with his son, that that’s why I’d refused to touch him and was dodging him. He didn’t talk to me or even answer my greetings for two weeks. Best two weeks I spent in that house! After the two weeks, he started ‘toasting’ me again. He was even coming to my room at night; I started locking my bedroom door at night too. I was so afraid he was going to succeed and rape me one day.”
ME: “Why didn’t you leave, the same way you left Grandma’s house?”
IDARA: (she shakes her head and heaves a heavy sigh)
“He was taking care of my family. Auntie, when I say this man is nice, I’m not joking. When my niece fell sick, he paid all the hospital bills. He would give my sister money for the children, plenty money.
My sister’s work wasn’t paying plenty money and her husband was doing small small contract jobs—the money wasn’t much. Even my brother in the village was benefitting from his goodness. I didn’t want to remove food from their mouths. But because God loves me and he knew my heart, he made the man to use his own hand and remove me from that house.”
(Here, Idara stops and laughs long and hard. Her laughter is infectious and I join in, even though I have no idea what is causing her mirth)
IDARA: “He used to call my sister sometimes to ask after the family. One day, he called her in the night and asked her how is home, how is family. Then he asked her, what was she wearing? My sister was surprised. She said she’s wearing nightgown, why is he asking?
He now asked her whether she has plenty hair in her…you know…her woman parts or whether she usually shaves. That he would like her to take off her clothes and touch herself. My sister shock!”
(Again, Idara stops and laughs. But I’m stunned; I can’t see what’s funny. Perhaps my facial expression brings her laughter to a halt)
“Auntie, you don’t understand why this is funny. I’m just imagining my sister’s face when he was saying all that rubbish. My sister that even though she’s married with children, she’s like next to a nun, like Deeper Lifer. Imagine someone telling that kind of person to remove her clothes and touch herself.”
(She chuckles again)
Anyway, my sister was very angry. She insulted him very well.
‘You’re very mad. You’re very stup.id. Old goat, you cannot respect yourself. Thunder fire you!’ Then she cut the phone on him.
The next morning, she entered bus and travelled all the way to the town where I was.
As she entered the parlour, the man didn’t even know what to say. She stood with her legs apart like a soldier, put her hands on her waist, and told me to go and pack all my load, that we were leaving. His children kept asking what was going on but my sister didn’t say anything and the man too was looking at the floor, he didn’t say anything.
At that time, I didn’t know what had happened between them. I was just happy to leave. My sister told me everything when we got home. She was angry for days. Now, when I want to look for her trouble, I’ll ask her, ‘What are you wearing? Do you have plenty hair there or do you usually shave it?’ The way she’ll get up and chase me around the house eh…”
(This time, she laughs so hard, tears stream down her face as she falls off the chair. This time, I laugh too)