I called one of my friends in Lagos last week. While I shouted into my phone, trying to force my Wi-Fi to make my whatsapp connection clearer, I heard my friend talking angrily to someone. ‘But I asked you to buy 5 litres of vegetable oil’ she said. After a long pause, she said again ‘ I expected you to use your common sense but at your age you don’t seem to have any!’ A prolonged teeth-sucking show of disdain followed before she continued her conversation with me as if nothing had just happened.
Naturally, I assumed my friend was talking to a silly child. I tried to diffuse the situation by saying that kids could sometimes be absent-minded but she retorted that it would have been forgivable if it was a child. No, the culprit was her middle-aged driver (chauffeur) who doubled as a messenger and part time-house keeper, depending on his chores for the day.
This is not the first time I have heard or seen people disrespecting their employees, just because they can. It wasn’t any better when I visited home two years ago. I remember one of the vendors supplying food for my sister’s wedding calling his driver and saying to the man: ‘ Mr John, e ma stupid gan ni o’ ( Mr John, you are very stupid). No big deal, except for the fact that Mr John was clearly old enough to be the man’s father.
I have lived abroad for a long time and it is ironic that many Nigerians at home criticize those of us who live abroad as being rude and disrespectful, contrary to our African values. I call my boss by her first name. I call our CEO by his first name. That doesn’t mean I can be rude to them. Actually, I could be rude but I would be out of a job in no time. Likewise, they cannot be rude to me as there are channels of complaint I could take if I felt that they were being disrespectful to me. I will be reprimanded in a respectful manner if I do any wrong, but no one has the right to humiliate me just because they are my boss.
Why it is that Nigerians who claim to have cultural values steeped in respect now have a generation of rude employers? I remember growing up with a number of female house maids (my kids now tell me that the term ‘house-maid’ is rude. They should be called house-keepers). My parents insisted that we called them ‘aunty’ if they were much older than us, which they almost always were. We were not allowed to be rude to them and my parents never beat any of the house maids.
I remember that my younger sisters attempted to beat one of these aunties while I was away at boarding school because she used to eat their food and my mum refused to believe them. It was a valiant but unsuccessful attempt. She was in her twenties and they were 11 and 8 years old at the time and she beat them back. If our house-maids misbehaved, they were reported to whoever brought them and if they didn’t change, they were dismissed and sent away. That aunty, by the way, ran away of her own accord but that is a story for another day.
I met my mum’s driver when I visited home two years ago. He was in his late fifties and I thought he looked rather ‘garage-wise’. His name was Mr Gani but he was quick to ask me to call him his nickname ‘Oluyole’. When I asked the origin of the nickname, he said it was because he was from Oluyole Local Government Area and he knew the whole of Ibadan like the back of his hand. That was all well and good for Ibadan, but I felt like shouting at him and telling him to let me drive (but I was afraid of the trailers!) when he took me to Lagos to visit my cousin in Magodo . We got lost before we even reached Berger because Oluyole refused to stop to ask for directions.
By the time we located my cousin’s house he had gone out after waiting for us for 3 hours. I also missed an appointment with a former colleague so I asked Oluyole to get some lunch while I shopped in a store, Oluyole disappeared for another 1 hour. Our drive back to Ibadan was a rather quiet one. I was fuming. In fairness to Oluyole, he kept quiet and tried to find a radio station he could interact with during the drive back. After he swerved dangerously several times to avoid potholes with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the radio dials, I told him to please pay attention to his driving and leave the radio. He finally obeyed.
He reported himself to my mum as soon as we returned home. He said ‘Mo ti se aunty’ ( I have offended aunty). I refused to say anything on the matter that evening. I was horrified the next morning when he arrived and started apologizing and making moves to lay down on the floor in supplication. A man at least 15 years older than me! He was ready to humiliate himself that way because he thought I was going to shout at him and maybe get my mum to sack him. Poor man. I recognized that he was probably trying to show off that was familiar with all the roads in Lagos and it went horribly wrong when we got lost. He tried to remedy the situation and he got us further away from our destination. The long hour lunch was another folly as he knew I only wanted to buy a telephone charger in the store.
We all know that majority of people who work as domestic servants do so for a variety of reasons. Some people are not particularly clever and may be slow in completing tasks or understanding instructions that involve calculations, analysis or even innovation. In Oluyole’s case, he had no concept of time. That doesn’t mean they are not hardworking, loyal and determined people with goals, feelings and aspirations. Insulting such people is mean, cheap and unfair in many cases. Even where the employee needs to be reprimanded by the employer, it can be done without insults and demeaning language and behaviour.
Old or young, every employee is a human being, deserving of respect in all circumstances. It is never okay to be a rude employer. If you find your domestic help/ employee so infuriating and incompetent that you cannot stand them, for goodness sake, sack them and stop insulting people who are only trying to make a living!
BTW: Oluyole won some money from his gambling and disappeared for three months while my mum was out of the country. He has since been seen driving a little Nissan micra taxi around Dugbe area in Ibadan.
Abi Adeboyejo lives in Birmingham, UK, with her two children and her fabulous man, who by the way, prefers that his wife writes down her thoughts than listen to her musings on everything.