Response to Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: In Nigeria, You're Either Somebody or Nobody

by Mary Shorun

In America, all men truly are believed to be created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. America holds that truth to be self-evident, as it is emphasized in the Declaration of Independence. And Nigerians are also brought up to believe that the Nigerian society, though consisting of folks from varying financial backgrounds, is one that should exhibit belief in equality. I was raised by my father, a humble medical practitioner, and my mother, a civil servant, to understand that “all fingers are not equal.” Though I have since grown to consider that statement as a cliché meant to verbally ameliorate the unfortunate condition of some members of the society, I still believe that we cannot all enjoy the same privileges. I was taught to embrace the beauty of diversity; to fully grasp the forces that bind all humanity even in the midst of differences.

The earliest indoctrination I, as well as millions of Nigerians, have to this mentality happens at home. In my childhood days, my mother employed helpers for the house, usually “house girls,” who helped out with daily chores: laundry, dishes, dusting, etc. These girls came from impoverished families usually, and they worked in exchange for monthly wages. In addition to the wages they received monthly, they also received occasional tips from my parents and siblings. Throughout my childhood years, my father never mentioned that some people are born to own and enjoy, while others are born to toil and endure. What he said was that hard work earns people financial freedom. My father worked hard and still works hard; he left at sunrise and returned home hours after sunset. He taught me and my siblings by example. He taught me that life does not treat lazy people mildly. My mother also made this clear: hard work pays off.

My father detested it when our house girls – or me and/or my siblings – sang. First, because our voices sounded like a thousand croaking frogs. And second, because noise interrupted his short nap or his concentration on CNN reports about Israel. If I started to sing, my dad would ask our house girl to shut me up, likewise vice versa. The house girls usually sang of what reminded them of home – a dismal, sorrowful melody. But everyone was treated equally. My siblings, the house girl(s), and I better not forget the no singing rule because when we did, we felt the wrath of an under-rested over-worked dad. The wrath usually settled the matter.

Indeed, some of our house girls did not stop at singing; they went further. But I don’t recall any of them giving off some foul odor. What I do remember, is that they would occasionally be sad and miss home, and then quickly cheer up at the thought of going to visit during the next “Ileya,” the Muslim festival or during Christmas season. My mother treated them like family. They were not prisoners or savages; they were simply helpers. And they visited their homes as often as was possible bearing gifts from my family. We all got matching lace, ankara, or guinea brocade fabric at Christmas, New Year, and Easter celebration.

They usually took long, exhausting trips from their homes to ours, so it was not out-of-normal that they would need a shower once they arrived. They showered like the rest of us; they wore clean clothes, and they did their own laundry. They never sat around waiting until a certain stench oozed out of them – they are human. We didn’t set stools aside for them; they sat where we sat. They cleaned out our leftovers, just as I cleaned out my dad’s. There was a fascination for my dad’s leftover – I shared this fascination with our house girls.

We all encounter tribulations at some point in our lives. I am sure even Warren Buffet has had or still has tribulations. Financial buoyancy does not necessarily equal absence of tribulations. My parents’ families, who are scattered everywhere, did not hesitate to call either of my parents or other family members when they were in trouble. Someone’s daughter was on the verge of dropping out of Queen Mary University of London. Another was facing deportation, so they called and asked for help. It was what we all were taught to do — ask for help when in need. It applied to the house girls too. They wouldn’t share their problems if they didn’t trust us.

This is the twenty-first century. Seriously, should anyone not get tested and checked out regularly? So if someone was going to become a member of our family, albeit temporarily, we had to be certain there were no health matters to worry about. So at the arrival of a new house girl, we would all go to a hospital for checkup. It wasn’t a huge deal. Even couples get tested nowadays before “anything” happens.

Indeed, some of them possessed thieving hands – they were prone to temptations. And sometimes, they gave in. This is why my mother insisted that they ask if they needed something. Stealing was not tolerated by either of my parents. The house girls themselves submitted their luggage for checks at the end of their stay, but my mother often evaded that denigrating act. Sometimes the house girls even got preferential treatments. For example, if I took something of my mother’s and didn’t ask (especially money), I got spanked. And my excuse could be “there’s more from where I took it from.” But my mother cared less. If a house girl took something of hers and didn’t ask, she yelled. Then she would lecture them on the dangers of stealing and becoming morally loose. They seldom got spanked. My mother opined that since their background was not necessarily known, she could only tell them what was right.

My friends’ families all had similar stories like ours. One friend, Damilola, encouraged her mother to adopt a teenager who had come to them as a helper some years back. The girl is all grown now, preparing for university. In my family and my friends’, we thought of house girls as people like us; people who came from the other side and needed all the love and affection we needed.

I’m not a huge fan of Mark Twain.

Racists do exist in America still. And there is even traces of segregation. America is no doubt more civilized than Nigeria for many reasons. But I am aware that the principle of equality that was laid out back in the day is not the only force that does the trick. There are numerous amendments to the constitution of America, and there are laws in place (Affirmative Action, Fair Employments Act of 1941, Civil Rights Act, etc). Activists like Martin Luther King Jnr even had to make the ultimate sacrifice for America to be what it is.

A somebody-nobody mind-set is at the root of corruption and underdevelopment in Nigeria. But this mindset is not necessarily birthed out of a househelp–family relationship. It stems from a personal selfish desire. And it is not just in Nigeria that you will find selfish people. Selfishness transcends countries, continents. America is not a country that is completely rid of uncivilized mentalities. And even in America, the rich treat the poor with disdain, though in a million unspoken statements.

The difference between respect and fear is love. If a house girl is loved, she will return respect and love. This is the way a sane society works. If a house girl is ordered around and treated like a nobody, she returns fear. She sleeps at night with one eye open, wondering what the next day holds. She constantly fears the unknown.

Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to test the making-one-househelp-supervisor-over-the-rest theory. I wish I had.

I also never had to make the decision to start treating house girls as “somebodys.” There was never a time I didn’t.

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