About five years ago, when I was living with my parents in Aba, Nigeria, a young child who lived a few houses away from us suffered burns from a hot water her ‘Madam’ poured on her. I thought of calling the police but didn’t follow through. Neighbors would think I had no reason to interfere because it was not my business. I pray I don’t find myself in such situation again but if I did, I would definitely interfere.
On another occasion, while walking around in the neighborhood I grew up, I saw a lady (I will call her Amaka) I knew from childhood selling meat pies from a transparent plastic bucket she was carrying on her head. About fifteen years before, She used to be a domestic help in one of the households on my street. Her hosts were also related to her by blood. At the time I saw Amaka selling meat pies, she was still a domestic servant. On the other hand, her relatives in the same age backet were university graduates and one (who was much younger than Amaka) was married to a man living ‘abroad’. I was sad to see Amaka in such pitiable state. I remember thinking that when she was a child, she must have had the same aspirations we did, but by reason of accident of birth, regardless of how intelligent, beautiful, decent, hardworking etc, she was, her lot in life was decided. She could not get access to a good education which would have in turn attracted the right suitors. (Unfortunately, despite what you see in Nigerian movies about Genevieve Nnaji marrying wretched Ramsey Noah despite her Father, Pete Edochie’s, disapproval; people often marry from their class). Amaka ended up the way she did because of this misconception in Nigeria that bringing a poor child to the ‘town’ is in itself a huge favor to the child and that her host family need not do more.
But we need to reconsider the way we treat domestic servants in Nigeria. Nigerians living in the US often cringe at the way their Nigerian peers treat their domestic helps when they visit Nigeria. Because domestic abuse(domestic abuse in a loose sense, not one perpetrated by one intimate partner against the other) is prevalent in Nigeria, even otherwise conscientious people seem numbed to it and either engage in it themselves or turn a blind eye when they see a victim of domestic abuse. Sometimes, otherwise good people ease their conscience by justifying their silence; they reason that the domestic servants had it coming. But the truth is that domestic servants are often not worse behaved than ‘children of the households’. It only seem so because domestic servants are often the prime suspect for any pilfering that goes on in the house and ‘Madams’ seize every opportunity to expose their vices. But even more egregious conducts by children of the house are covered up and discussed in muted tones. Children of the house get a pass and their bad behaviors are attributed to mere juvenile delinquency.
For me, the rule of the thumb is: if you bring a child younger that eighteen to live with you, treat them like you would your child. Give them a good education and make sure that by the time they leave your house they are set up in life to become independent and productive members of the society. If they are adults, then pay them monthly wages as workers. Above all, do not inflict corporal punishment or abuse them emotionally by telling them how they are no good. Treat them like you would like to be treated.
I am hoping Nigeria lawyers step up in issues of child abuse. While one cannot legislate morality, one can at least help enforce the existing laws to protect weak members of the society. That is how civilized Nations do it. Below is a story of a Nigerian living in the United States who got convicted for treating her domestic help the way most Nigerian women do. She was convicted for involuntary servitude. During her sentencing, despite her claim of innocence, the Judge told her that although she may come from a culture that allowed the kind of behavior for which she was convicted, there was no room for it in the U.S. I have redacted the names of the parties and slightly edited the content for privacy reasons and to focus solely on the subject under the discussion.
‘The facts underlying Mrs Xxx convictions are as follows. In 1996, Mrs Xxx and her husband induced a fourteen-year-old girl (“the victim”) to leave her home country of Nigeria and to enter the United States. The Xxxx’s promised the victim and her family that she could attend school in the United States, and that he would send payment to the victim’s parents for her help in caring for the Xxxx’s children.
‘The victim lived with the Xxxxs from October 1996 (when she was fourteen) until October 2001. During that time, the Xxxxs required her to care for their children, to clean their house, and to cook for them. The victim testified at trial that she was also required to work in Mrs Xxxx’s medical office, where she performed multiple tasks, including answering the phones, preparing patient charts, verifying patients’ insurance information, and cleaning out medical examination rooms. The victim received no compensation for her work. The victim’s father testified that he received only “[o]ne piece of cloth and a bag of rice.” The Xxxxs never enrolled the victim in any school.
‘During this time, the Xxxxs subjected the victim to repeated physical and emotional abuse. In particular, at trial, the victim testified that Mrs Xxxx hit her with an “open hand, and sometimes her fist, and then sometimes she would use her shoe.” She also testified that Mrs, Xxxx threw things at her, and that Mrs Xxxx “would twist and pull [her] ear.” During one particular beating, the Xxxxs forced the young girl to kneel and raise her hands above her head, after which Mrs Xxxx beat her in her sides with a flexible wooden cane, and Mr. Xxxx struck her in the hand with the metal part of a belt. After the beating, Mrs Xxxx forced the victim to continue kneeling for an additional forty-five minutes. This beating left the victim with marks on her sides and breathing difficulties. During another beating, Mrs Xxxx struck the victim with a shoe, causing her wrist to be dislocated. The victim never received any medical attention after any of these beatings.’
In aggravation, Mrs Xxxx brought the victim to the United States illegally. Mrs xxxx was sentenced to prison for seven years and three months and ordered to pay ‘$110,249 to her former domestic help.
While writing this, I also came across this very insightful post by someone researching on abuse of domestic servants in Nigeria. While I know that most of my readers are too civilized to engage in such primitive oppression, I hope we become more proactive by enlightening our peers who engage in such conducts. Where they fail to reason with us, please let’s find a way to rescue their victims. Let’s be the change we want.
PS: If you are a victim of domestic abuse in the US, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I work for a law firm that practice Employment and Immigration Law. Your oppressors probably tell you they will deport you if you report them. But the truth is that they have no such power. If anything, reporting them will help you get a green card because the federal government have provided avenues to help victims of abuse get a path to citizenship.
Please share your thoughts.