Shola Olowu-Asante

Housegirls

This is how we sleep: three in a bed, in a dust-grey room with a single window, fused shut, where cracks as stark as lightning forks run amok along the walls.

This is where we bathe: in a damp, windowless room with faded blue tiles, where the shower hose rests above the toilet bowl and black mold ripens in every crevice.

This is how we eat:  on low wooden stools, in the yellow light of the musty pantry or outside on raffia mats beneath the flame tree, swatting away flies.

This is what we do: rise at five in the morning, before the rooster crows. Shower, dress, brush our teeth. Draw the living room curtains, open the windows, sweep and dust, mop the floors. Wake the children upstairs, beg and cajole them when they cry and complain that they do not want to go to school. Bathe them, dress them, comb their hair. Make them breakfast, beg and cajole them to eat.  Find their homework, organize their bags, stuff them in the car before the drivers shout at us to hurry, so they won’t be late.  Sweep indoors. Sweep outside. Wash the windows. Wipe the mirrors. Collect the newspapers and fan them out on the dining table. Prepare Oga’s breakfast, then Madam’s breakfast. Wait for them to finish breakfast. Only when Oga has left for work and Madam has gone to the hairdresser or the spa or the shopping mall or wherever she goes when she slides onto the back seat of her Lexus, only then do we stop to eat.

We do this every day, from sunrise to sunset. These are the rules and we have to obey. If we make mistakes then Madam will call us names: dirty, good-for-nothing illiterate. Stupid, lazy, ungrateful, ingrate. If we make mistakes Madam will scream at us. She may slap us, pour hot water on us, she may punish in ways that we don’t yet know. If we do it right then we are allowed to go to Church on Sunday. We may visit Alade Market to sew a new dress. Or Ikeja bus-stop to braid our hair. But our hair can’t be too long and our dresses can’t be too short. We can’t wear make-up or earrings or bangles. We can’t draw too much attention to ourselves, because Madam suspects, though she doesn’t know for sure, that there are other rules we might be compelled to obey.

Because from time to time the drivers come to us in the dead of the night. They may be laughing and playful, other times brusque and insistent. They pull us outside, whisper in our ears, then take us on the back stairs under the stars, or on the bonnet of Oga’s car. Other times it is Madam’s teenage son and his friends who call to us, pull us into the rooms we cleaned earlier, now strewn with beer bottles and cigarette stubs. They play music, ply us with wine. Sometimes they take us roughly, sometimes gently. Sometimes they give us money afterwards, to make it easier to forget. Even Oga has been known to come to us, after an evening at the Island Club with whisky sloshing in his belly. He pretends not to know where he is and we pretend not to hear him. He’ll reach out, steady himself by holding onto a foot, a calf, a thigh. It may be any of us, Grace or Mercy or Blessing – it doesn’t matter which. He’ll toss aside her wrapper the way he discards the foil placed over the food that lies cold and uneaten on the dining room table. He’ll mount her, fumble with his buttons and belts. He’ll spit on his fingers to wipe himself, enter her swiftly. We hear her catch her breath, hear her hiss. We feel the mattress dip, the bed springs jerk and shake. We hear the room fill like a balloon with the sound of his low moans.

The drivers, the boss, the boss’s son – they are all the same to us and we do as we are told. We don’t talk about it much afterwards. Even if we like it and dream about running away with a driver, making a life somewhere else, being mistress of our own home. Even if we hate it, like when the skin on our inner thighs catches on the clasp of Oga’s Piaget watch. We don’t talk about it and we don’t complain.

We know what we are doing. We don’t keep quiet because we don’t know any better. We do it because we know where we came from. We do it because we are lucky, chosen over so many others in the village because we were the good ones, the strong ones, the smart ones, the tough ones. We were chosen because we could cook. Edikaikoing. Fufu. Bitterleaf Soup. We knew how to wring the neck of a chicken in one move. We were chosen for our patience. For our cleanliness.  For our godliness. We were chosen because even though we left school at age ten, eleven or thirteen, we could read and write and do basic sums. We were not lazy, did not have to be asked to work hard, draw water, fetch firewood. We did not gossip or shout or talk back. We were chosen because we had wanted more than anything else to leave our village and were willing to do more than the others to make it happen.

Ask anybody in Lagos and they will tell you this is how it is. We are in every home, on every street. Busloads of us come from the village everyday to make our way in the city, working to send money back home. We are its beating heart, its soiled undergarments. This is how we are when Jade moves into the house.

We are elbow deep in chicken feathers and cow guts when she walks through the gate, one arm around her midriff, the other holding a threadbare bag. Abdullai, the security guard eyes her with suspicion and marches her to the rear of the house. She struggles to match his stride and her eyes widen as they take in her surroundings; the flamboyant trees flanking the driveway, the razored lawns, the pillars that seem to rise as you draw closer to the building. Her dress hangs tent-like around her knees and a pair of scrawny legs poke out beneath. On her feet are patent leather shoes that might have been good once, but the leather has cracked and the soles are worn thin at the heel. A badly sewn weave sits askew on her head and dry wisps of hair stick to the sweat beading on her neck and face. When Abdullai deposits her at the side door, she looks with such longing over her shoulder, at the gate through which she has just walked and it makes us think of a trapped animal ready to bolt.

There is no Brother Chinoye accompanying her, no Aunty Ada to hold her hand, explain the rules and prepare her for what she will find. She is all alone when Madam steps outside and orders her over. The drivers who had barely noticed her before, halt their banter. They stop buffing the rows of cars and watch as Madam puts her hands on the girl’s shoulders, looks her up and down, checks her hair and her teeth, as if inspecting merchandise for sale. Madam inquires after her mother and family. She asks about her journey. When she mutters a reply, Madam says loud enough for us all to hear, ‘Speak up girl! You’re in Lagos now. Don’t make me shout to get your attention.’

We know why she mumbles and cocks her head to the side when spoken to. We see the effort it takes to keep her head up rather than let it swing low. We know what it’s like to stand in the theatre of this courtyard and feel the stares like welts on your body. We watch, remembering that we were like that once, so when Madam asks us to show her to our room we all trip over ourselves to help, nudging her forward like mares to a foal. One of the drivers reaches a playful arm out in our direction but we swat it away. We are not interested in their games. We have been given a higher calling. She has been entrusted into our care and our hearts swell with the weight of this new responsibility.

We ask her name.

‘Jadesola,’ she says.

She tells us that it means a child who will come into wealth. We think it is a fine name, an auspicious name. Better than Grace or Mercy or Blessing, constant reminders of the virtues that are so hard to live by. Better a name that works like an omen or incantation, that carries with it the hint of prophecy.

There is time only to deposit her belongings in the murky darkness of our room before returning to our chores. She shadows us wherever we go but we do not force her to work. There will be time enough for that. We take pleasure instead in teaching her, showing her all that she will need to exist in this world. How Madam likes her tea just so and where we store Oga’s coffee. How we arrange supplies in the storeroom and where and what to write when supplies are low. The whereabouts of every item: cutlery, crockery, towels and linens. The preferences of each child and how to umpire their daily arguments, little tricks that encourage them to do as they are told. Later at the end of the day, when the rest of the household has retired we stay up and talk, pepper her with questions.

‘Where are you from?’ We ask. ‘What brought you here?’

Like us, she is seventeen years old, a middle child in a house full of siblings. She too grew up in a small village and learnt to swim by thrashing around in the local river. But she is different too because we hail from the East, while she comes from the same southern village as Madam.

‘My father was a school teacher,’ she says. ‘He died three years ago.’

We listen enviously as Jade tells us that because of him she finished secondary school, but there could be no thought of further education, only of marriage and earning her keep. For theirs was a town of subsistence farmers and it was struggle enough to make ends meet. It was Jade’s mother who wrote to Madam, a distant relative, begging her to take in her daughter, treat her like her own, so that her life might be useful, perhaps eventually learn a trade. We look at each other then, back at Jade. We pity her because none of us had ever been given away.

We help her unpack, cluck our tongues at her meager wardrobe, promise to take her to our network of cheap and cheerful tailors. We switch on the radio and educate her about the latest music. We huddle on the cool tiles of the floor, fling open Madam’s old editions of City People, drink in the images of the palatial houses, expensive cars, designer outfits. We argue over who we think are the prettiest Nollywood actresses – Chioma or Uche, Genevieve or Omotola. And when we have talked and laughed till our throats are sore, we slide into bed, and place her in the   farthest corner, up against the wall, as far away from prying hands as possible.

We grow used to Jade. Her presence in our lives is like a subtle shift in the direction of a breeze. We feel different when she is near, better somehow, able to think more clearly. She is not as strong as we are, nor as fast. It takes her twice as long to sweep and mop. Sheets remain crumpled after she makes a bed. She burns the toast, leaves crumbs across the counter. Her stews are bitter, her rice too mushy or undercooked. But we protect her from Madam, shield her with our bodies because we have lost so much, but through Jade so much more has been returned.

We are not embarrassed to admit to her that we can barely read or write, that we struggle to do sums that use more than our ten fingers. We can say without shame that we know nothing of the world beyond our borders. She tells us things that we could never have imagined, about the stars in the night sky, the planets that exist beyond them. The oceans and the seas, the strange peoples and lands separated by them. She tells us about our bodies and cycles, things we should do to stay clean and healthy. She tells us that the women and children cast out of our villages were probably not witches. That the sudden deaths of our cousins and uncles were not caused by evil spirits, but by terrible and unseen diseases. How could we not love her for shining a light onto the darkness of our minds? And when she cannot answer any one of our many questions, when she reaches the limits of her own knowledge and sighs, wishing aloud that her father had not passed so that she might have continued to learn, we feel the pain in our own hearts. We too wonder how high she might have soared, how far we could all have flown had we been given the chance.

We are as happy as we’ve ever been. Jade grows comfortable. At first she eats only small portions because she is not used to big meals, but like a plant thrust out of the shadows into the sunlight, she begins to bloom. With her hair pulled back, out of her face, we notice for the first time the brightness of her almond-shaped eyes, the pillowy fullness of her lips, the vase-like shape of her body. We urge her to wear shapeless t-shirts, loose fitting dresses because if we see this, then others will have noticed too. Like the drivers who follow her with greedy eyes, licking their lips when she walks past. And Oga who insists that only Jade be allowed to prepare and serve all his meals. Madam’s teenage son, looks for any excuse to wander into the kitchen, brush up against her. Even Kola, Madam’s eldest son, the pride of the family, returned home from university abroad, is under her thrall. He is made of all the better parts of his parents–

his father’s height, his mother’s complexion. Playful and jocular with the household, with a belly laugh as loud as his father’s, he is kinder and more patient than his mother, but like her struggles to change his bad opinion of others.

Each year he seems more foreign than the last. We find him rummaging in the kitchen early one morning, cracking eggs.

‘I can make my own omelette,’ he says, when we urge him to leave our domain and wait to be served. He does not want to wait, he says, to eat with his parents. He prefers to do things at his own pace and he’s got two hands, so why not prepare his own breakfast. Later when we try to clear his plate from the dining table, he shoos us away. ‘I can wash my own dishes,’ he says, taking them into the kitchen, and it feels as if he takes up all the space in the room.

Sometimes he sidles up to us when we are working to ask us questions. Surveys,  he calls them, research about the dehumanized and the disenfranchised. What do we think about our jobs? How much do we earn? Why not negotiate for more? What are our ambitions? Don’t we wish our lives were more meaningful? Don’t we have plans for the future? Foolish questions he asks us. Stupid questions. Dangerous questions. We giggle and pretend not to understand. We know better than to entertain these discussions. Jade is only too happy to answer. We hear them talking when she is hanging up clothes to dry, laughing when she is sweeping the backyard, and the sound of their laughter rings like an alarm in our ears. And in no time at all he too watches her with the same hungry look as all the others, as if she were the last piece of meat in a pot of stew.

But like a black dot in her peripheral vision, a mosquito bite on the back of the leg, everything that Jade does begins to annoy Madam. No task is ever completed to her satisfaction. When Jade works slowly, she accuses her of laziness. When she eats, Madam accuses her of greediness. When she cries, she accuses her of sullenness. If she is late for Church on Sunday, she complains that Jade lacks godliness. When Madam misplaces her bracelet, she hurls abuse at us all, but it is at Jade she stares when accusing us of stealing.

‘Excuse me, Ma,’ Jade says, trying to defend herself, to defend us all. ‘I saw you remove it when you were sitting on the sofa this afternoon.’

Madam is too worked up, too angry, too suspicious. Do we think she is stupid, she asks. She has already looked there; she has turned this room upside down. When Jade speaks again, Madam slaps her for talking back.

‘What the hell are you doing?’ we hear Kola say. We are awed when he springs to Jade’s defence, chastising his mother in front of us. ‘How can you treat them this way? This is little more than modern day slavery, indentured labour.’

He refuses to back down, even when she tells him not to interfere.  ‘All your western nonsense,’ she says. ‘These girls are lucky to be working at all. Do you know where they’ve come from? How skinny they were when they came here. You don’t know how easy they have it. You don’t know anything at all.’

He shakes his head in despair. ‘This way of thinking is everything that is wrong with our country,’ he says, ‘the reason we are still living in the dark ages, why the western world has left us behind.’ He storms over to the sofa, flings off the cushions. Wedging his hand deep into the corners, he pulls out the bracelet, and he holds his mother’s gaze when he places it in her hand. ‘You’re educated, Mum. You’re supposed to be enlightened. I expected so much better from you.’

We hold our breaths, not knowing where to look or what to think. We wonder how we will be affected, whether she will direct her anger at us. We keep our expressions blank. But the look on Jade’s face is of something awakened, like the old black and white television in our room that has doubled as a dressing table for years, suddenly flickering to life.

Another shift in the trajectory of a breeze. Jade begins to look and act different, like some girl with a glass full to overflowing. We see it in the slight upward turn of her lips, the way she hums when she works, the sway of her hips. We notice too the hint of kohl on her eyelids, the whisper of mascara on her lashes, the echo of rouge on her cheeks. She spends less and less time with us in the evenings, has even taken to leaving our bedroom in the dead of night when she thinks we are asleep. When we press her, she admits to spending time with Kola alone.

‘We’ve become friends,’ she says, in a simpering voice.

‘What kind of friendship can you have with the boss’s son?’ we wonder.

‘We talk,’ she says, with a nonchalant shrug. ‘He wants to petition his parents on my behalf, so that I can complete my education. He wants…’ and her voice trails off so that we plead with her to stop playing games, to tell us all.

‘He is very respectful. He doesn’t want to take advantage of me. He wants to help because it is the only way for us to be together.’

‘Together?’ we say, uncomprehending, looking at her with fear. We thought we had taught her well, that we had made her understand the world and her place in it.

An exaggerated sigh, as if she were talking to the children and Jade raises her head in defiance. ‘It’s you who doesn’t understand. There is no us. He doesn’t see me as a housegirl.’

We blink as we look at this confident stranger with makeup and elaborate hair. There is no trace of that frightened little girl that had been so ready to bolt on her first day. We search her face, clinging to the hope that the Jade that we know and love is still there.

The changes continue.

Jade separates herself from us, angles for the easiest tasks, the soft jobs that require her to stay indoors. She does what we cannot do, ingratiating herself with Madam by making herself indispensable to the children; helping with their homework, working on their handwriting, reading them stories. She takes to mocking our poorly spoken English in front of them so that the children laugh at us, so that we are excluded. She looks at us now with a barely concealed disdain. We mourn the loss of our friend. We want to take her by the shoulders and shake her. We want to slap her, remind her about gratitude and loyalty. Instead we bide our time. We wait.

One Friday afternoon when we take bowls of Jollof rice and Efo to the drivers, we linger at their boys’ quarters to joke and flirt. We complain that life has been dull of late, that we’ve missed spending time with them as we did before. We say it all coyly before drifting away. That night we watch Jade preen herself in the mirror, smearing lipstick on her lips, pinning her hair up so tendrils fall like ribbons about her face. She is so far away, so lost in her own appearance, she does not register when we leave her in the room alone. The drivers when they arrive are surprised to see us on the other side of the bedroom door. What kind of game are we playing, they complain. They didn’t come here to be teased. But their grimaces turn to grins as we push the door open to let them see our gift.

When the first driver comes out we hear the creak of bedsprings, a muffled sigh and a whimper as a second man exits, zipping up his fly.  Soon we move into the moonlit courtyard out of earshot.

Our eyes adjust to the darkness. We find Kola lurking in the shadows. It comes as no surprise when he asks of Jade and we tell him she’s waiting in the room alone. He walks away with jaunty steps but when he returns in less than a minute, the shutters have come down over his face. He kicks a wall and we watch as he limps slowly back home.

We sit on the raffia mats under the flame tree. The wind blows with it the sulphurous stench of the roadside sewers that lie on the other side of the compound walls. We watch, in silence, as the last of the drivers makes his way out, whistling as he walks away. We wait. We don’t know all the details, what she might have said or done. The past does not matter. All the matters is what happens next. We imagine her on the bed, lying on sweat-stained sheets, her body and legs clammy and sore. She will pick herself up and half-walk, half-crawl out of the room. She will lean on the wall, using her shoulder to steady her trembling. She will have tears streaming down her cheeks, but when she looks up we will be here waiting with arms outstretched, ready to nurse her to health, to welcome her, once and for all, into the fold.

 

 

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