Friday, May 14, 2021 12:17 am
By Chris Anyokwu
Language purists tell us that the word “Househelp” is incorrect, contextually inappropriate, being one of the popular, albeit wrong-headed products of linguistic conventionality and arbitrariness. Thus we are advised to use the word “Help” instead, even though the term itself comes with its own baggage of confusing significations.
But in our social environment, “Househelp” is freely deployed with such cocksure and secure sense of normality that the language police are hushed into compromised silence. For the sake of clarity, we shall adopt the use of “Househelp” enclosed in inverted commas. “Househelp”, like its problematic verbal nomenclature, designates that sub-category of the servant-class, the déclassé who occupies the very bottom of the social tree; the lowest rung of the social ladder. The fact that they, the servants, are not normally bought with money or sold gives members of this interstitial class some bragging-rights over the galley slave. We are talking of houseboys and housegirls.
Some people argue that the phenomenon harks back to slavery days whereby you had both what was known as “house nigger” and “field nigger”, the one being the slave who made him/herself useful and serviceable in and around the house and the other, the slave whose mouth was suitably notched and secured with a padlock, working like a donkey on the plantation. It really doesn’t matter how old or hoary-haired the slave/househelp was, s/he was regarded as “Girl” or “Boy” in the eyes of the white boss/madam.
Thus in those days when civilisation arrived Africa, the colonialists came with this social-ranking mentality. All black subjects, king and commoner, prince and pauper alike were “househelp” in one form or another, in their estimation. However, for administrative and diplomatic convenience, the white man was pragmatic enough to separate the field nigger from the house one, the sheep from the goat. Even so, the help was so useful in the grand scheme of things that quite a lot has been written about him or her.
Please recall in those colonial days, some able-bodied black men used to bear on their shoulders, either singly or as a group, a white functionary, say, a District Officer. It didn’t matter how obese he was or how far the journey. The white god would be carried on the shoulders of the black beasts of burden. Over time, the help as a sub-class has rigidified into a distinct social category, not very far removed from pets like poodles and terriers or the steed and the thoroughbred. And his/her quarters isn’t very far from the pigsty or horse’s stable.
The spatiality of power and powerlessness is laid out in material particular in the architectural design of the compound. Thank God for small mercies, the story of this sub-category, or to echo Wole Soyinka, “sub-mental apes” hasn’t gone untold.
Ferdinard Oyono’s The Houseboy and Amma Darko’s The Housemaid are two important instantiations. For good measure, “househelp” also has a say in fiction and drama. The character, Joseph, in Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman and Polycarp in Ola Rotimi’s Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again exemplify this. In Victorian Lagos and other towns and cities in Nigeria, the man of the house and his wife always went everywhere with a retinue of help waiting on them. It was a status symbol, a mark of class and distinction.
But it is important to ask ourselves this question: were there houseboys and housegirls in precolonial traditional African societies and cultures? If yes, how were they treated? Like beasts of burden stripped of all dignity? Research reveals that in ancient society everyone was family, treated with respect except the Igbon (that is, Ika-Igbo for slave). The Igbon was accorded some measure of consideration and tolerance, a humane disposition arising from basic human decency and humanity of the African world. In modern-day Nigerian society, the nouveaux-riches and the more established old money continue to perpetrate the practice of having househelp. The boy helps out with laundering, mowing lawns, walking the pets, washing the vehicles and, indeed, acting as handyman around the place. On her part, the housegirl usually accompanies the madam to public functions such as the market, shopping mall, farm, sundry meetings, including hospital and the hairdresser’s.
We are told that the hurly-burly of city life, the rat-race for primitive accumulation and, in one word, the capitalist culture of achievement has made it inevitable for the services of “househelp” to be secured by the breadwinner. As a matter of fact, many a bride these days, right from the wedding venue, goes to her husband’s house with a housegirl in tow as part of her worldly possessions. Now, the Great Mistake. As soon as she settles in, Madam would make it abundantly clear to Oga, she is his wife, not his housegirl. Meaning? She cannot cook his meals, do the dishes, wash his clothes, especially his underwear.
Accordingly, she outsources her statutory and customary wifely duties to her housemaid. She is Queen Bee in her house, relevant only in bed. Even so, she grates on the nerve, cherry-picking, nagging interminably about her husband’s weight (he’s either too thin or too fat), his off-putting smell, his bad habits of snoring when asleep and not brushing his teeth before bed-time. What’s worse, she also moans no end about lack of care and concern from him (a roundabout way of draining the poor man’s pocket). She would splurge and binge to her heart’s content but Oga is not game. Oh, he’s old-fashioned; he’s old-school. He’s not going with the flow. As though, profligacy and improvidence were the mark of trendiness. Amid all of this drama, the housegirl ̶ nearly always shabbily-clad, diffident, bashful and prone to malapropism ̶ fills in the gap, ticking all the boxes. She cooks, does the dishes, and laundry, makes the beds, including the king-size one in the master bedroom, the holy of holies.
Ever wonder what goes on in her mind while doing the chores? The fantasising? The absent-minded impersonations? The role-playing skirting on the brink of possibility? Why arm the burglar with weapons with which to kill you, Mrs. Wife? The Yoruba say: ọlọ́bẹ̀ lólọ́kọ́ (meaning: the good cook owns the husband; or, better put, good food is the shortest route to a man’s heart). That is to say, she who rules the table equally rules the bed. Period! The woman who meets a man’s needs is more likely to win his affections and when chemistry and opportunity meet, sex is the most natural outcome. The same logic holds for the man. If he is not always available for his wife, if he is an absentee husband – always working late, attending executive meetings, going on business trips and so forth – the houseboy will take over his fatherly and husbandly duties and responsibilities. And privileges too. And why not? What do you expect in a situation, sad and unfortunate as it is, whereby the houseboy is the father-figure the kids see every time? He bathes them, brushes their teeth, dresses them up, does their homework with them, drives them to school and other places and sings them to sleep at night. And when Madam is blue, he lisps and stammers endearment to her. I recommend to the readers Isidore Okpewho’s bestselling novel, The Last Duty. You wouldn’t drop it until the last page. It’s more thrilling and pulsating than a Nollywood flick on the subject under discussion.
Now, another mistake of a different complexion. Mistreating the help. You hear statements like: “Odibo, Odibo! Who gave you the right to… know your place in this house!” As far as dressing goes, the help is known in the neighbourhood by a single dress – an Okrika, a khaki get-up, or a faded reach-me-down, torn here and there, held together with safety pins. Sadder still, he or she is eater of leftovers and when ill, s/he is not given prompt medical attention. S/he has to swallow paracetamol for all ailments. S/he is the punching-bag in the house, blamed for everything, from the excessive humidity to the incessant rain, mosquito invasion, environmental degradation, the stench and filth around the block. S/he is the Devil’s incarnate in the home, always accused without evidence of stealing and at times hurled before the odd mountebank seer for verification and public disgrace. S/he is also a witch/wizard whom visitors like in-laws, friends, religious associates and colleagues regard with suspicion. The help is an agent of Satan, a spy, a traitor, a potential killer. We ask again: why not? The help does all the work but gets all the blame. S/he starves while others gorge themselves on food prepared by the help. Others go to school, learn a trade and travel abroad. Nothing for the “househelp”.
Little wonder, you hear of some help accused or alleged to have spat or urinated into pots of soup or stew, or even poison food and drinks in the home. Some of them are alleged to have infected the kids in their care with diseases like Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. People claim help also teach these impressionable kids antisocial acts such as pornography, smoking, lying and also abuse the children. They sometimes rape these hapless children in their care, a particularly rife societal ill. In extreme cases, these help snatch spouses from their madams and their ogas and breed bastards, thereby polluting and interrupting the blood line. The orange tree now bears pawpaw!
We have also heard of cases in which the help is fingered as the insider who vouchsafes vital information to kidnappers. burglars, petty thieves, rapists and armed robbers to come and storm the house and wreak havoc. What’s more, sometimes, the help themselves help themselves (pun unintended) to their masters’ valuables such as cars and money and, in some cases, though understandably rare, abscond with the children in their care.
A caveat is in order at this juncture, however. The foregoing scenario does not reflect a universality of occurrence or uniformity in behaviour patterns among the servant class. Some help are lifesavers, fully integrated into the family. They thus become the veritable pillars of the home, and, in later life, become exemplary members of society. But many of them operate on the wrong side of the law. They nurse a huge grudge against society, always seeking occasion to get even, to settle scores. Some prostitutes, area boys, petty criminals, kidnappers, bandits and insurgents fall under this category. What to do, then? How do we right the wrongs? First, there must be the political will on the part of the authorities to enforce extant laws on domestic violence and allied matters. Second, erring “Ogas” and Madams, no matter how highly-placed or influential, must be prosecuted. Nobody is above the law. We hear of some people bathing their help with acid; using hot knives to scarify them; pouring pepper into their private parts for committing infractions or indiscretions such as breaking chinaware or eating a piece of meat or wearing madam’s perfume. This is wrong and must stop.
Third, all houseboys and girls must be registered with the relevant ministries for oversight and disciplinary functions. Fourth, we need the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to do more in terms of litigation and advocacy. Fifth, religious bodies should also help in catering to the needs of help through proper counselling, provision of clothing items, as well as guidance and instruction to husbands and wives who keep help. Sixth, we must return to or encourage the Do-It-Yourself culture. Avoid having help if you can. Having one is a two-edged sword: it is at once boon and bane in equal measure. It’s Beauty and Beast wrapped into one. For some help, however hard you try to treat them with love, care and humanity, they still leave you a cropper. They always bite the finger that feeds them. They betray your trust and shatter your world. So, count the costs before you hire that boy or girl from the neighbouring country, from friends or relatives, or from church brother or sister. Background matters little when it comes to the complex and complicated conundrum of human motivation and action. The heart of man is deceitful and desperately wicked. Who can know it?
Chris Anyokwu, PhD.
Associate Professor of English,
University of Lagos