In America, all men are believed to be created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. But Nigerians are brought up to believe that our society consists of higher and lesser beings. Some are born to own and enjoy, while others are born to toil and endure.
– Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
The Nigerian writer, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is at it again. Her February 9, 2013 op-ed piece in the New York Times (In Nigeria, You’re Either Somebody or Nobody) in which she referred to some Nigerian house helps as “smelly” and “feral” is living rent-free in my head. I wish it would just go away. Nwaubani’s piece, on the fate of “househelps” or “servants” in Nigeria, is a profound commentary on how the West continues to view much of Africa, with the active connivance of many African writers, who traipse the West, hawking tales of grime, gore, wars and rapes – what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story” of Africa in this riveting video. I would only add to Adichie’s profound observations that it just seems that it is mostly African writers propagating the “single story.” Imagine the New York Times publishing a piece by a white author that refers to her help as “smelly” and “feral.” Heads would roll – as they should.
Let me also observe that research would show that the vast majority of essays in Western newspapers written by African writers are narrow in range, oscillating between protest anthems and Stepin Fetchit silliness. Nwaubani’s essay is groveling Stepin Fetchit Blackface pantomime designed specifically to gain space in a Western newspaper – for pennies. It is especially tragic how she has trivialized an important subject. Our writers need to own some responsibility for how we are viewed in the West. Some of that may be changing; many writers are shunning the West and her appetite for silliness, and writing and publishing their own stories themselves. Fame is not everything. Indeed, the writer Teju Cole has distinguished himself by his thoughtful provocative pieces about his world, our world, that display a wide range of interests and anxieties. You may not always agree with Cole but you come away wishing many African writers would look out the window and write about the world as Cole writes in this intriguing piece about the African writer and US president, Barack Hussein Obama and his unmanned drones.
Okay, let me take a deep breath and start over. Generalizations aside, Nwaubani’s essay, as appalling as it is, (yes it is, folks, it is awful, let’s not pretend otherwise) does serve the purpose of depicting much of Nigeria’s middle class as crass, narcissistic and shallow apostles of materialism, mimic people, in the habit of treating “the help” as feral simians, sub-humans not to be allowed in their living rooms, except to clean them, definitely not to be allowed to use their china. Is this a fair assessment? Who knows? Nwaubani may have unwittingly started an intra-class war. On social media, depending on where you end up, she is either an unsophisticated villain according to her literary peers, or a heroine, according to the moneyed class who race to London and America for premium ice cream and return to find that the “help” has made off with their jewelry and Euros. For the latter subclass, you only have to go to Linda Ikeji’s blog (here) to read the comments. In broken sentence after broken sentence, the mostly anti-intellectual crowd (“the thing is too long jor!”) offers high praise and unrestrained their glee at every sentence in Nwaubani’s essay.
How bad is Nwaubani’s essay? It is bad, really bad. Where should we start? There is the naïveté in assigning silly utopian qualities to America:
“Bigots and racists exist in America, without a doubt, but America today is a more civilized place than Nigeria. Not because of its infrastructure or schools or welfare system. But because the principle of equality was laid out way back in its Declaration of Independence.”
You wonder if she deliberately wrote a damning indictment of the Nigerian moneyed class as vacuous, unfeeling and materialistic, considering this stunning line which makes this reader want to scream, you are shitting me!:
My father detested it when our househelps sang. Each time a new one arrived, my siblings and I spent the first few evenings as emissaries from the living room, where our family watched TV after dinner, to the kitchen, where the househelps washed dishes or waited to be summoned.
Then there is the patronizing condescension:
“Some years ago, I made a decision to start treating domestic workers as “somebodys.” I said “please” and “thank you” and “if you don’t mind.” I smiled for no reason. But I was only confusing them; they knew how society worked. They knew that somebodys gave orders and kicked them around. Anyone who related to them as an equal was no longer deserving of respect. Thus, the vicious cycle of oppression goes on and on.”
And then there is this, and words simply fail this reader who gasps, Is Nwaubani for real?
Melancholic singing was not the only trait they had in common. They all gave off a feral scent, which never failed to tell the tale each time they abandoned the wooden stools set aside for them and relaxed on our sofas while we were out. They all displayed a bottomless hunger that could never be satisfied, no matter how much you heaped on their plates or what quantity of our leftovers they cleaned out.
So, yes, I was appalled by what I thought was a shallow, poorly thought out essay that only served to diminish Nwaubani and all those like her that belong in that “high society” class of “the feral help stinks.” However after going through the comments in Linda Ikeji’s blog, I am beginning to think that Nwaubani may have unwittingly started a debate, even as she’s exposed her own narcissism. Everything has to have context. I have been away from Nigeria for decades and each time I visit, I am reminded of that fact. The things I witness when I visit sometimes make me shudder and the things I say as a result amuse my hosts. And their eyes go, “Dis one don loss for America!”
As Ebere Nwiro points out on ThisDay, here, child labor is a huge problem in Nigeria. Nwiro points out that what happens to the children of the poor and the dispossessed in many of those homes like those of the Nwaubani’s is unspeakable.
The Nigerian NGO’s Report reveals that a staggering 15 million children under the age of 14 are working across Nigeria. Many of these children are exposed to long hours of work in dangerous and unhealthy environments, carrying too much responsibility for their age. Working in these hazardous conditions with little food, small pay, no education and no medical care establishes a cycle of child rights violation.
Nwaubani missed an opportunity to showcase to the world the plight of poor children in Nigeria, In Nigeria, millions of children are simply born into wars that they did not ask for. In an unregulated labor market that is generally abusive of adults, children are worse off. Many are beaten, starved, yes, physically and emotionally abused by unfeeling adults. And many of them are fated to attend the schools depicted in this horrific video. Poor adults who serve as “househelps” fare slightly better. Compared to the US, where I could never afford help, labor is cheap in Nigeria. And those with the means take advantage. Drivers routinely ferry the middle class to parties and drinking joints and wait in the cars for hours on end until “oga and madam” are ready to go back home, or to the next joint. As Nwaubani points out, many of these children come from the hinterlands, places of little hope. As horrible as it sounds, for many of them, in a country like Nigeria, ruled by the unfeeling, stepping into the dangers of indentured servitude may be their best way out. Many have struck it rich by stealing from their masters and escaping into the darkness. Labor is largely unregulated in Nigeria and abusive child labor is the big gorilla in Nigeria’s living room. If this was the issue Nwaubani was trying to highlight, she choose a strange way to do so.
Again, if the New York Times had published an essay that described an American socio-economic class as “smelly” and “feral”, heads would have rolled. This is an outrage. But I have us only to blame. Nwaubani is smirking quietly somewhere, perhaps nursing a drink prepared by a “feral smelly help”; she knows the drill. This is all noise-making; it will pass. And she will live to write another silly piece again for the gleeful West. She knows that Nigerians are long on emotional outbursts and chatter but short on enforcing laws and abiding by good structures. In the absence of unenforceable laws, the hell that the dispossessed go through in Nwaubani’s Nigeria will continue. That is how we roll.
This is not the first time Nwaubani has gotten folks baying and howling for her head. She is a darling of Western newspapers because she routinely sends them absurd howlers that exaggerate her intellectual challenges and amplify Nigeria’s woes. Here is a piece she wrote for the New York Times, titled, In Africa, The Nobel Laureate’s Curse, in which she famously pronounced Ngugi, Achebe and Soyinka are certainly masters, but of an earnest and sober style.” As if that was not bad enough, she dismissed Ngugi’s call for writers to write in indigenous languages by uttering this baffling one:
Many fans have extolled his brave decision to write in his mother tongue, Kikuyu, instead of English. If he truly desires a Nobel, I can’t help but wish him one. But I shudder to imagine how many African writers would be inspired by the prize to copy him. Instead of acclaimed Nigerian writers, we would have acclaimed Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa writers. We suffer enough from tribal differences already. This is not the kind of variety we need.
This exasperating opinion inspired vigorous rebuttals like these ones from writers and blogs: Carmen McCain, Chielozona Eze, Chuma Nwokolo, Kinna Reads, Nana Fredua-Agyeman on ImageNations, Kola Tubosun on NigeriansTalk, and Molara Wood. An uncharacteristically angry Eze, seeming to speak for the group railed: “To me though, what began as a promising essay somehow turned into a mishmash of cowardly ideas, the core of which sought to suggest that it is separatist for a writer to write in his native language or even to claim that he is a writer from his ethnic group.”
To be fair to Nwaubani, she does think a lot about these things and she is never shy about sharing her views, as in this piece in the UK Guardian about Nigeria’s reaction tothe BBC documentary on Makoko, that squalid place where some of these “househelps” come from. In responding to the yelps of racism, etc, by many Nigerian intellectuals of stature, she said this:
The Nigerian obsession with image often approaches neurotic proportions. What people think of us appears to take manic precedence over who we really are. You might imagine that the rational response to some of the infamies we are accused of across the globe would be: “Are we really like this? If we are, then let’s do something about it – quick.” Instead, we perpetually harangue and speechify to “correct” the world’s impressions of us. If it isn’t moaning about the depiction of Nigerians as criminals in the movie District 9, it is berating Hillary Clinton for daring to describe the situation in our country as heartbreaking and our leadership as a failure, or boycotting Oprah for warning against Nigerian 419 scams on her show.
When all of the dust settles, it is quite possible that Nwaubani is in her own way, an incredibly honest commentator on Nigeria’s current condition. She had to know she was indicting herself and her family in this shame that is child slave-labor. There is no excuse for what happens to thousands of children in Nigeria daily, none whatsoever. There is no excuse for what passes for democracy in today’s Nigeria, none whatsoever. There may be an explanation; which is that we are undergoing a perverse form of Darwinism, the rich eating the poor. Our ruling and moneyed class is doing to Nigerians what the colonialists would not have dared do to them. Black-on-black crime is what I call it. At some point, the rich will run out of the poor to feast on. Maybe then, like Nwaubani’s America that was “founded” by those who saw the original owners as game to be hunted down and annihilated, maybe then we will all live in peace and liberty and prosperity. For now, the beat goes on.