'A sense of humour lends you poise, it gives you balance and it helps you to bend without breaking'

(HH Pujya Gurudev Swami Chinmayananda)

Menory Lane - Knowing Nigeria...Lesson 2; hired help

Continuing the tale of African adventure; you will note this is not so much a chronological memoir as a collection of related experiences, categorised... (it began two posts back, if you need to catch up!)

One of the things to which new expatriates had to adjust was the use of hired help. Gardeners, drivers, houseboys...

I have mentioned that mum helped John the gardener not simply by giving direction but by jumping on the earth, digging out its innards and slaying its invaders.  John never really got over this.  Not only was it not right that a white skin should do such menial and exhausting labour; more so should not a woman. Neither did this lady seem to mind that his little daughter played with the 'boss-son'.

One day, going to market, dad said to take the car as he didn't need it that day.  Mum quite literally took the car, leaving John the driver looking bewildered.

Then there were the kitchen wars.  Well. Moments of disagreement.  Emmanuel was a different cut from the Johns. They were Yoruba (thus not native to Benin either). Emmanuel was Igbo**, from Enugu in the East. They spoke different languages and held different standards. I recall a couple of 'frays' between cook and gardener, in which mother had to play mediator.  Emmanuel held high standards of cleanliness, John the gardener, not so much.  There was one memorable incident when John was discovered helping himself to food from the prep shelf - with unwashed hands - and our houseboy flew into a fit of rage.  Later he told 'madam' off because she had allowed 'that boy' to become too familiar!

Emmanuel prepares coconut for the scrumpers!
It was a point to be noted however.  When mother attempted to take more control in the kitchen she met firm but ever polite resistance from this experienced man.  It was not proper and what was more, he had to earn the money he was being paid. He was a man of principal. Loyal and trustworthy.

Emmanuel had all our respect.  He kept a bare minimum for himself and sent whatever was left over back to his family in Enugu.  He was the first person I sat with who accepted this was his life; that as long as he had food, clothing, good bosses and worthwhile occupation he had little else to ask for.  As with many in such situations, the education of the  next generation was the key focus. He was a Christian, but like many there, retained something of the ancient beliefs which, despite many a strange ritual and layers of deity, still lead to a unity, the One God principal.  The Igbo did not, traditionally, claim any territory as their own and I can recall very clearly a conversation with Emmanuel where he told me that Igbo were once a democratic 'local government' sort of social structure.  The arrival of Europeans had put paid to that, as well as invasions from Imperialistic Benin/Edo and the more bombastic Yoruba; women had once held equal status but outside influence had destroyed that balance. He never once said anything directly against the White Man, for he was also a man of tolerance.  It could be seen, though, that he was saddened at the loss of culture.

Good help was highly prized.  At the risk of inciting libelous comment, it has to be said that on the whole this is a lazy nation.  Minimal effort maximum gains appeared to be the general rule. Emmanuel was worth his weight in yams...

**NB I use here the name used by the Igbo themselves; at the time we were there, this was Anglicised to Ibo or Ebo.


  1. One way or another most of us want the same thing, to do right for our children. Nicely told.

  2. Sometimes I think it would be so good to have servants but really sitting around doing nothing only works for a little while t soon becomes boring.

  3. I detest why kids have to go through bad times.. wherever or whoever they are .. It is shameful for the adult people


  4. I've really enjoyed this series of posts about your experience of Nigeria, Yam, especially the evocative photos. It's obvious how much Emmanuel impressed you and I love the fact you can remember him so clearly and respect him so much.


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