The house help industry in Nigeria is big business but are the house helps treated like slaves?
On May 16, 2017, The Atlantic published an article titled 'My Family's Slave'.
It is a bittersweet tale of a Philippine slave Lola who was with a family for 56 years. The writer of the story Alex Tizon wrote a lengthy moving story of how Lola was inherited and spent all her life as a slave, with no personal life of her own.
She suffered both emotional and physical abuse but never allowed it to break her spirit. 'My Family's Slave' is a beautiful tale of the power of human kindness.
While reading the story, my mind went to the unwritten and unheard tales of millions of house helps living in Nigerian homes. There are girls and young women who are 'house girls' in public but slaves in private. There are many women suffering in other people's homes.
The 'house help' or 'house girl' culture is big in Nigeria. There is hardly any household (especially in Southern Nigeria) that does not have a house help. Growing up, we had at least 10 house girls (not at the same time). They were brought in by an agent who acts as the middleman between both families- the family of the house help and the family that wants to her services.
In some cases, a monthly pay is sent to the girl's family. In other cases, the family who takes in the house help will be responsible for her upkeep and education.
Circa 1990, we had a young Ghanaian lady named Comfort as our house help. I can't remember who brought her but I do know she spent almost a decade in our home. My parents paid for her education up to secondary school education. After that, she learnt how to be a seamstress. Circa 1997, she left our home and got married, and we never saw her again.
The story of Aunty Comfort is one of the positives of the house girl culture in Nigeria. Young women who don't have a good shot at life can have a better chance when they become house helps for families who pay for their education.
Unfortunately, these type of stories are fewer than the negatives. There are many house helps who have horror stories of physical violence and sexual abuse. There is also mental abuse.
House girls are treated like slaves, given rags to wear, eat leftovers and sleep on the floor. Some never get to go to school and are stuck at home taking care of the kids of busy parents.
Domestic servants or house helps (boys are house helps too) are glorified slaves. There are no agreements or legislation that ensures they benefit from this exchange. There are many house helps suffering in Nigerian homes today with no one telling their stories. The environment will live in low key supports slave culture.
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