Perspectives is a monthly column featuring guest posts from non-Nigerians who follow political and cultural happenings in Nigeria.
The columnist this month is Anja Choon.
A lot happened during my last visit to Nigeria. The vice chancellor of the University of Lagos died exactly one week before I arrived. Before the burial, the campus was turned upside down by a presidential decision to rename the university to Moshood Abiola University. All classes were cancelled for two weeks and students asked to vacate their halls of residence. Shortly later, a plane crashed into a building in Lagos, while repeated bomb attacks in the North also made the headlines. At the University of Ibadan, students from three universities (Ibadan, Ile-Ife and Nsukka) took part in a German language contest. The first price went to Ibadan. Last but not least, at the end of my stay, I had to visit a health centre where I was tested positive for malaria, although a follow-up test in Germany contradicted the initial result.
However, what I want to focus on in this post is cross-border child-trafficking into Nigeria, which all too often hides under the more innocent term “housegirl” or “houseboy”. Up till now, I only met “housegirls” and “houseboys” in novels and articles. To me, they seemed to be a relic of the past. Nobody with a just conscience would buy a child in the modern world, I thought.
Then, I looked down on a “housegirl” – I had no other choice because she is tiny and, moreover, she had thrown herself on the floor in mommy’s house. As she kneeled silently before me, her gaze fixated on the ground in between us, I felt very uncomfortable. She is so young, just a teenager, who should be going to school, playing with her friends and testing her boundaries by being naughty and mischievous once in a while.
Mommy said that she doesn’t speak any language. What she meant was that the girl does not know any of the languages that mommy calls her own. Maybe instead of Yoruba, the girl’s mother tongue is Ewe, which is spoken to the West of Nigeria, or maybe it’s one of the smaller languages of Benin or Togo. Because of the language barrier, mommy sometimes got frustrated with her new “help”, called her stupid and voiced that she might send her back. Then, I still thought “back” would mean to her family, where she might have to face poverty but at least might be loved?
A friend of mine also has a foreign “housegirl”, though she is very different from the one I met at mommy’s place. She seems even younger but at the same time more integrated into the family. One reason might be that she speaks English. Another reason could be the attitude of my friend who had sent a previous “housegirl” to the same school his own children are attending. This went on for a bit more than one year. Then, the trafficking “agency” removed the child from the family, probably because they feared that the education would liberate her in the end. My friend said that that “housegirl” must have been passed on to a different “employer”.
You might have noticed that I am putting words like “housegirl” and “employer” in quotation marks. It is because they do not seem completely appropriate in this context. Child trafficking is not employment. Instead it is a modern form of slavery, and it is not acceptable. In fact, I think it should be made illegal. Laws have to be changed and enforced in order to protect children from poor backgrounds from being exploited in this way.
Of course, it is easy to point out the speck in somebody else’s eye, which I just have done. The difficult bit is to remove it and to do so in such a way that the eye will heal properly. I could have easily suggested to mommy and my friend not to “employ” such a “help” again (whether they would have listened is another story). However, this would not have returned the two girls I met to their respective family. It would not have made sure that in the future they will be able to eat well and go to school. In fact, they might have ended up being “assigned” to a new family, which might be one in which “helps” are treated even worse. So the speck would have just been moved to the other eye probably resulting in an infection there as well.
Thus, instead of a solution, I can only describe the results that I would like to see. To start with, I want the current “helps” to receive some education. I know that there is some discussion going on about sending mommy’s “housegirl” to school as well. It will be hard, not just because of the language issue, but also because the “agency” might interfere in this case as well. Nevertheless, it is worth a try. Ultimately however, “housegirls” and “houseboys” need to be replaced by working adults, such as the nanny one of my sisters employed. Moreover, these adults need to receive a wage that is high enough to take care of themselves and their children. It requires the willingness and the ability of people to spend more money on any help they hire.
One of the questions that now remain is: How can we bring about this outcome? Thanks for reading. Your comment will be very much appreciated.
Anja Choon is a PhD student in Field Linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies. She also works as a research assistant in the ICE Nigeria Project at the Westfälische Wilhelms – Universität Münster. Anja just returned from a trip to Lagos and Ibadan and is looking forward to her next visit to Nigeria.