Our housemaid is a constantly brooding fourteen year old Togolese named Joy. I call her NE. Forever distracted, always looking out the window and never hearing when she’s called.
When I ask her: —NE, what’s on your mind?
She answers: —Nothing.
When I ask her: —NE, what’s good?
She answers: —Everything.
Joy works like a mule. She wakes at six a.m. and washes both my mother and her husband’s car. She then sweeps the house—both floors—after which she sweeps the compound, removing just not litter but sand, too, from the interlocked stones (my mother and stepfather would be out by then, taking their cars with them). Then she comes back in to mop the downstairs tiles to a shiny brown, and upstairs to an equally shiny black. She does the mopping every other day. She also cleans the kitchen, washing the pots and pans my mother likes to use excessively when she cooks, and cleaning the gas cooker, fridge and deep freezer every night.
I asked her once if she thought the chores were too difficult. She laughed, her milky brown teeth peeping out her lips.
—Where I work before, the woman have three children. Two are baby. One is three. The woman like party. I take care of the children and clean the whole house. I clean baby when baby shit. I answer baby when baby cry, sometimes, two of them the same time. This place, I sleep every afternoon. The work is not too hard at all.
There is a lot of scratching the back of her left ear as she says this; something she does a lot anytime she speaks. Sometimes, I’m afraid of her skin flakes finding their way into the soup.
The day after our Military President executed his third wife was the day I found out Joy’s name isn’t really Joy. My mother’s best friend, infamous Aunt Fatimah had come to our house with her baby Bolu, whose patrilineage not even Aunt Fatimah was certain of. She brought along her teenage Togolese housemaid Faith. Joy was all smiles, dragging Faith by the hands into the kitchen and whispering in a language that was alien to me. The stifled laughter coming from the kitchen was enough to vex Aunt Fatimah, who shouted for Faith.
—Joko sibi ti mo le ri e, Aunt Fatimah screamed as soon as Faith stepped into the sitting room.
The little girl looked confused, standing, her eyes darting between Aunt Fatimah and my mother.
—She said you should sit down there, my mother instructed in that offhanded calm voice of hers.
Faith’s facial expression did not change.
—What’s wrong with her, I asked, plucking my eyes from the trashy women fighting on The Jerry Springer Show on the television and giving my Aunt Fatimah and her maid my full attention.
—She doesn’t understand anything but Togolese. It’s taking her too long to understand English. I think she’s a little slow in the head. Aunt Fatimah laughed as she said this, her wavy curls dancing on top her head.
—Sit, I said, pointing to the chair, and the girl finally heeded, the leather of the chair making a farting noise as she perched into it, her eyes cemented to the kitchen door. My eyes and attention shifted focus back to the television, Jerry Springer’s bouncers breaking the fight.
It was much later in the day, while toweling myself after a bath, that I realized it was ridiculous for someone from a French speaking country to be named Faith. Or Joy. I made my way to the kitchen after wearing shorts and a tank top, my flip-flops making a crr-crr sound as I dashed down the stairs, and asked my mother why people christened their children with English names in a French country.
—Where did you hear that one? She stood asking, her hands bobbing up and down as she removed stones from elubo in a pink sieve. Amala was for dinner. I sometimes wondered whose head the idea to dry yam in the sun, grind it into fine flour, and then make it into a paste with hot water drove into first. Perhaps, his was the head that also thought to treat Cassava so.
—Joy’s name is Joy. Joy is an English name. I said, looking at my mother like how could she miss the obvious?
—Joy, ngbo, why did they give you English name? My mother said to Joy in a tone that clearly sounded like she was just humoring me.
—My real name Tinou. I bare Joy when I enter to Nigeria to work, Joy replied, as she bared her right hand for us to see the names tattooed just beneath her elbow.
—Who changed it to Joy? Mother had her back turned to the sieve now, watching Joy speak.
—The woman that we follow inside Nigeria. She tell us that our name is too hard for our new ogas to pronounce, so she give us new name. She give me Joy. She give my friend Mercy, and another of us Peace. She is giving us English name like that. She had this melancholic and retrospective look as she spoke, until my mother slapped her left hand from behind her left ear.
My mother says that I indulge Joy too much. She said when one gets too familiar with househelps, they begin to forget their place and start to grow wings. She said this on a particularly hot afternoon— the power holding company deciding to hold light for themselves.
—You need to be like your brother, polite but not too friendly. I smiled and told her I had heard.
—Why did you come to Nigeria, NE? I asked Joy on that day.
Joy turned to give me her full attention.
—Because is Nigeria or marry.
—Marry? How old were you when you left for Nigeria? What was she talking about, I wondered.
—Your age when you entered Nigeria, I snapped.
—Oh. Twelve. She smiled.
—Marriage at twelve?
—No, but where I come from, I marry by sixteen or seventeen. Let me tell you. My friend, very close friend, her elder sister, they tell her to marry when she, erm, sixteen. The emphasis lying on the word sixteen, as if a question. She continued, Is then me and my friend say we should just come to Nigeria and work instead of coming to marry.
—What happened? She married a Nigerian?
She leaves the dining room to come stand behind me by the open door.
—They tell her to marry one Nigeria man. The man, what you call it, his very slow. Very slow, spit fall from him mouth when he talk even. When she marry him, he beat her because his very old and no get work. After she pregnant for him, his still beat her, and she give him two boy. Twins. He always beat her, and she have boyfriend she like before her father tell her to marry this man, fine boy that all of us like and he like her. So the boyfriend is in Nigeria now, he come because of her, and she go to meet the boyfriend. When she see the boyfriend, he give her poison to give her husband. She give the man and he die and his family bring police to carry her to prison. Me and my friend just say, make we go to Nigeria to work jor. Better than marry old man in Nigeria that beat us. At least this one, there’s money.
That’s all she said before my mother walked in to chastise me.
Joy did in fact start to grow wings. It began with her telling me to stop disturbing her anytime I attempted asking her a question, then her hissing anytime she felt she was being called too often, then her talking back at my mother. I asked my brother if he had noticed her change in behavior, but he simply mumbled something and said he didn’t relate with her much. True. He was the wrong person to ask.
Mother came to me soon enough, asking if I had seen what my over familiarity had caused. She complained about how good housemaids were very difficult to find, asking if I remembered our former housemaid, Bose, who used to steal her make-up, or the one before her, Nkechi, who had run away with our fridge repair guy (we had no idea the two of them were dating) from down the street, taking with her a chunk of Mummy’s gold, all of her husband’s money, and a lot of my brother’s clothes with some of his underwear. (Luckily for me, my room was locked the day Nkechi made her great escape). She said if I didn’t fix things fast, she would have to sack the girl and all of her responsibilities would fall on me. I didn’t want that, so I apologized and told mother I was going to be more curt and professional with Joy. Washing two cars every morning was not something I planned on ever doing again in my life.
However, being curt and professional did not change things much. Joy stayed rude and dismissive, although carrying out her duties diligently. Mother said she could live with that. A hardworking and rude housegirl is better than a polite but lazy one, she said. I was glad.
It was funny, seeing her act like that. The same girl who on the day she arrived at our house, after showing her to her new room and her own bathroom, had gasped, asking if she was going to be staying in such a large room herself, and if she was expected to bath in ‘that swimming pool’ everyday. It was a bathtub.
I often wondered what made her change so, if my questions and attitude towards her were really the reason, or if something else had spurred her rebellion. That was until the day I left church a bit too early to go home.
That day, the preacher blabbed me into a deep sleep, and I woke with a jolt, not because an usher came to wake me—there were too many of us sleeping for them to attempt to wake us all—but because I needed to shit so badly. I contemplated holding it, but decided against that when it seemed like I was going to shit myself if I didn’t look for a way out soon. The church toilet wasn’t an option: I used it once before and had to go fetch water at the tap to both clean up and flush. That wouldn’t have been a problem, except the only tap in the church is located behind the altar. That would also not have been a problem, except that there are two large window panes sitting at either side of the altar for everyone with a view of the pastor preaching to see you carrying a bucket of water; for everyone to know you just used the toilet. No, the church toilet wasn’t an option.
So, I ran home, my oversized guinea Buba and Sokoto flapping in the wind. I even forgot my bible in church and only remembered after I was halfway home already. I made up my mind to go back to church, when I was done shitting, to get the bible. When I got home, I met the front door open. That wasn’t out of the ordinary because my brother never went to church and always left the door open so we could enter after church without disturbing him. I ran into the house, the television in the living room playing vulgar Nigerian afrobeatz on blast. I then ran into the visitor’s toilet by the living room to meet my brother settled on top the porcelain throne, also carrying about his business. He laughed at my obvious urgency and told me to go use the one in my room.
I ran up the stairs and into my parents’ room because I knew there was no toilet roll in mine. It was then I was confronted with the sight of my step father and Joy having sex. I stared with my mouth wide open. I thought he was in church, but here he was, standing by the bed, wearing a white singlet, his three-sizes-too-large earth-colored trouser pulled all the way down to his ankle. His bare black ass, the color of amala, was directed at my face. Joy, our once naïve Togolese housemaid was crouching on my mother’s orange floral bed-sheet. Her leaf patterned ankara gown was pulled up to her breasts which were in the firm grip of my step-father’s calloused hands. Her head was looking back with eyes staring at me. It was a sight I will never forget. I mean, these people were doing this stuff while my brother was sitting downstairs watching TV, and they didn’t even bother to close the door. What if he had needed something upstairs and walked in on them?
—Niyi, don’t tell your mother, my step-father pleaded with this senile old man look on his face, and I just turned and left.
It was on my way back to church that I remembered I had gone home to shit.
Post image by Roland Peschetz via Flickr.
About the Author:
Niyi Ademoroti is a Yoruba writer born and raised in Lagos. He is a graduate of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, an associate editor at qlick.com.ng and an alumnus of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop.
He blogs at niyiademoroti.wordpress.com