Maid in Nigeria: A Relevant Initiative Tackling the Inhumane Place of Domestic Workers
Here we examine the role of domestic labour in Nigerian society. We rely heavily upon these people for the upkeep of our homes and the nurturing of our children, while they are often subject to maltreatment and insolence. Essentially, we strip them of their identities, which we replace with monikers. These monikers, though often intended to show respect, frequently become disguised degradation. Despite the neglect and cruelty most domestic workers face, they are at the core and foundation of the family, as they allow us to lead dynamic lives, while they maintain our households. With this curation of various elements of art, we seek to provide our audience with an immersive perspective on these marginalised members in the Nigerian social structure, as this exhibition strives to uncover issues of human dignity and the polarising viewpoints around employing domestic workers in Nigeria. – Ami Sesay, Chief Curator
Ongoing at the White Space Creative Agency, Lagos, Maid in Nigeria is a joint exhibition by multidisciplinary artists Layo Bright and Ajibola, which commenced on May 4 and will run till June 4, 2019. The above curatorial message provides the background for both artists’ need to tackle the infamous and often dismissed humanitarian crisis that is domestic work in Nigeria. Layo Bright works in sculpture and installation to build evocative visual compositions, and has lectured in the Department of Integrated Design at The New School, New York. Ajibola uses photography, creative writing, and installations as devices to invoke introspection through a remembrance of communal-cultural identity, a lens that allows him to explore the complex discourse surrounding societal decisions and choices.
Domestic Work as Oppression
In this piece, we delve into Maid in Nigeria with Layo Bright and Ajibola as they highlight the complex “othering” of domestic workers in Nigeria, their plight, and possible devises that their joint exhibition presents for creating a better standard of life for the lower-class minority.
“It is not surprising to state the widely known poor treatment of, and stereotypes against, domestic workers in Nigeria. The idea is that they are in a position of servitude, and therefore are fully at the disposal of their employer(s). Most employers prefer to have an unrealistic level of control over their domestic workers to ensure compliance at the detriment of their welfare. There is a complete disregard for the lives domestic workers live outside their employment.” – Layo Bright
Walking into the exhibition, striking phrases projected on the white wall as a backdrop welcome the viewer to the installation: “taiye – aunty – mop – yes ma – sweep – bola – market.”
What I found particularly interesting were the little corners with chequered details: the marbled tiles and a collage incorporating both gele and Ghana-must-go bags. These little details hint at the conformity that comes with this line of work; it is rigid and restrictive, with the miniature boxes in the collaged fabric and tiles indicating a form of imprisonment. On one hand, you’re reminded of what middle-class kitchen walls looked like in the 90s (as the Omo and Milo calendar ads signify); on the other hand, it also reveals that not a lot has changed till now in the lives of the people who maintain these walls.
“The gingham (as any uniform) usually works as a psychological device toward depersonalisation of the wearer. In essence, the fabric choice is used as a facsimile for the entire process of (if you will, buck) breaking of domestic help, from the rules in the home that are designed for exclusion— ‘Don’t sit on the couch when Madam is at home. Don’t sleep until everybody has gone to bed.’—to rules that bear a certain weight of consequence— ‘Don’t wear the same slippers you wear to wash the bathrooms around the house. Don’t sweep with the same brooms outside as you would inside.’ So you leave hearth and home behind, most likely because of poverty (I don’t know that there are many domestic help who do the job for the love of it), and then you have this new identity, new rules, and voila (sometimes) new uniform. Hello, gingham.” – Ajibola
Bright, who primarily works with installations, is able to provide the viewer with striking visuals that allow for introspection and consideration of one’s proximity to these issues. “House helps, nannies, and domestic workers seemingly operate as passive bodies, devoid of agency in carrying out expected tasks. Not only do these tasks make life easier and more comfortable for employers, they play key roles in child-rearing and nurturing.”
The body affiliated with domestic work in Africa, the Domestic Workers Organisations in Africa (DWOA) has no record of Nigeria in its report, which further confirms the blatant negligence of the government, as well as citizens, to adequately tackle the injustices that plague most individuals in this line of work.
Introspection and Memory: Keys to Change
The exhibition incredibly incorporates short stories; Hum/She Sang, YOU, Counting Ceilings and Mine written by Ajibola that delve into the perspectives of these workers. As we witness the dichotomy between maid and madam (read: master) in Mine, it is almost impossible to envision these workers as anything but underprivileged. It demonstrates the luxury enjoyed by individuals in charge at the expense of the minority who can’t afford to be in control of their own lives due to financial constraints.
Ajibola shares, “Looking at the entire exhibition as a continuing narrative, where Layo evokes emotion is where I kind of continue as well.” The exhibited pieces accurately portray the ongoing reality of these marginalised people; whether it is a bulk of worn slippers being assembled on bare plywood, signifying neglect, or the cut-out notes from newspapers on the horrors of being at the mercy of your “master,” emotion takes centre stage in the exhibition, as it might be the only thing that provokes empathy. “I try to use remembrance as a device to persuade. Usually when most people try to persuade, they come from a place of accusation or, sometimes, guilt. While those methods may be effective in making us feel like we have gotten our voices heard, they have varying results in driving for lasting change, which is what I am about. Our memories, for the most part, are a place of comfort—even bad memories—because they are what we know. Introspection that is inspired from this place of comfort is more receptive to a change in perspective and eventually a change in choices. In essence, I believe that if I can make you remember, and through that remembrance, trigger introspection, half of the work of convincing you to be a better person is done, by you. More effective, to me, than standing on a soapbox.”
Domestic Work as Modern-Day Slavery
Slavery has long existed across many cultures, nationalities, and religions, especially in ancient African civilisations, even in the precolonial era. Before the slave trade era, Africans were already familiar with trading individuals for property and income. However, the great humanitarian crisis known as the transatlantic slave trade was rooted in hate, race, and Western capitalism and revealed the complex disparities between the Western hemisphere and the Global South. It is interesting to see the numerous ways in which slavery has metamorphosed, with domestic work being the foremost embodiment of modern slavery.
The exploitative relationship between the West and the Global South might be a clue to Nigerian society’s complex relationship with domestic work. This intricate link, owing its roots to a heavily colonial past, has perhaps marred our identity as Africans. “I definitely think there is something to be said about the effects of colonial history on how we have structured our personas, identity, and culture in the aftermath. It is undeniable that the structures left behind may have given an unspoken roadmap to recreating the undesirable aspects of colonialism. It begs the question of what parts of African culture persist untainted, and which have been defined by our engagement with colonialists.” – Layo Bright
Ajibola counters, “I think a lazy answer would be to reach easily for the convenient trope, and say, “Oh well, the white man made us do it.” But did he? Take a quick look at Yoruba history, and you find “the iwofa,” a situation where a parent would borrow money, and in lieu of collateral, their children would work as slaves to the creditors until the debt is paid. This convoluted indentured servitude was pre-colonial. So if we leave the easy (read: tired) answers behind, an alternate theory may be that in human situations in which power structures exist unchecked, there will always be abuse, exploitation, and downright evil. And for us, it is why conversations like these need to be had, so that we know, first, that this power dynamic exists. And second, that this is our place in said power dynamic—either as perpetrator, willing bystander, or unknowing accomplice. There is no middle ground.”
Capitalism and Domestic Work
However, one interesting factor that has always justified this line of work is the issue of money. One must address the capitalism that makes individuals power hungry enough to create superficial hierarchies to exploit human labour. If we must truly move on from this issue of “othering” people because of their social status, we will need to first acknowledge the system that encourages it in the first place. Also, if Africa is always at the mercy of the West due to the uneven distribution of global wealth and power, how does this affect our psyche in the general scheme of things? “I believe a lot of issues stem from the personal, with wider social ramifications; what begins in the home manifests in behavioural patterns that influence social attitudes and behaviours. From a young age, children become aware of the power dynamics in the home—between their parents, between domestic workers and the employers—and are acutely aware of their position in the power relations. For instance, often times a nanny cannot discipline [the children] without reprimand from the employer.” – Layo Bright
How will society learn to remove the prejudices towards these individuals when we benefit financially off their labour? Domestic workers remain underprivileged because exploitation conditions their psyche not to realise that they are suffering, but to think instead that they are actually privileged. Of course, if these individuals knew their work was integral to the household and allows their “masters” to live dynamically, they would charge more, as domestic work might be the most important work of all. In the report A New Form of Bonded Labour, a Durban employer is recorded as saying of their domestic worker, “She is part of our family. We take care of her; her mother worked for us. She gets all the old clothes, she eats all the leftovers, and she has a bed and her own room. When we bought [a] new TV we put the old one in her room. She will do anything for this family. We can wake her up at midnight and ask her to prepare a meal and she does it with a smile on her face.”
The excerpt above highlights the way in which the psyche of these workers is manipulated to benefit their employers. Here, the maid’s work is conceived as destiny, and it is suggested that she is actually in a privileged situation. This faux privilege is presented as being of greater importance than maybe acquiring a higher wage.
Most domestic workers in Nigeria are women. Maid in Nigeria alludes to this fact by featuring mostly feminine names and telling the stories of domestic workers who have been raped and abused—all of whom are women. In a way, the exhibition proposes that a patriarchal society that restricts women will only make them more vulnerable to exploitation. The short stories exhibited will break your heart the most. Counting Ceilings, for example, shows that many of these workers (read: women) are sexually harassed by their male bosses, deemed home wreckers by their madams, and often tossed aside to wallow in shame. The fact that most of them are underage also shows that until Nigeria is able to establish a functional education system, underage children will also be susceptible to this work.
April 08, 2021