A recent article revealed that a Nigerian American woman is being charged with human trafficking and subjecting two young Nigerian women to modern day slavery (http://edition.cnn.com/2011/CRIME/06/13/georgia.human.trafficking/). Even before the link to the article appeared on my Skype chat with a friend, I knew what it was. I knew that “modern day slavery” by any other name, especially as the perpetrator was a Nigerian, was just a case of house girls transplanted to a new nation and regularly accepted practices converted into irregularities as they crossed the seas.
Housegirls and houseboys are a regular commodity in Nigeria and many other developing nations. In fact, one of the reasons why most dread going abroad is the lack of this luxury, which we consider a norm. In the States there is a general “Do It Yourself” attitude that the individualistic nation upholds. Since the end of their slavery, the rights of all individuals, rich and poor, are protected by many policies and procedures. They may not have perfected the treatment of justice and liberty for all, but they certainly make a valiant attempt. This means if you want a maid, a cook, a cleaner, etc you will have to pay an arm and a leg to engage one, pay them by the hour, and say goodbye to the notion of getting an all-in-one individual.
Therefore the lack of this support service in first world countries proves a difficult adjustment for many Nigerians who are used to it. I am not opposed to the idea of having domestic staff that help with various tasks: cooking, cleaning, child rearing, driving, etc. Where my opposition lies is when domestic staff become domestic slaves, as they so often do.
This Nigerian American woman beat her two housegirls, made them sleep on the floor/couch, bathe with a bucket (laughable, I know), did not allow them to eat what they cooked, did not pay them wages and made them dependent on her for basic necessities. There are many parallels here, many of which transplanted into the Nigerian context of housegirl-to-madam relationship would appear regular. However, this woman could be facing up to 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and may be stripped of her American citizenship.
This begs the question – did she mistreat these young women? Most definitely! What it comes down to is the value of the individual. Just because someone comes from a poorer background and may not have been afforded certain opportunities, they do not deserve to be treated as a lesser human being – for they are not a lesser human being. Respect for those around you – whether employed by you or “saved” by you from a worse existence – is essential. Housegirls and houseboys have rights too, or at least they should. The treatment of these two young women is the norm in some households here in Nigeria and other nations across the world, and this is both sad and wrong.
Karma has a way of creeping up on us, whether we are able to connect the dots or not, and since “whatever we do to the least of Christ’s brothers” we are doing unto him, we should be ever conscious of our interactions. A popular test used to judge character is the “waiter test.” How do individuals treat someone who is in a position of service to them, someone who they do not have to put on airs for or have any incentive to impress? This can be applied to domestic staff. How does one treat those that are clearly subordinates in an unspoken class system where ill treatment is permitted and at times promoted? This is of utmost importance.
There are many cases where housegirls and houseboys receive a better life, an education, and opportunities to advance themselves and their families – God bless those who are catalysts in this process. However, there are those cases that are similar and worse than the one orchestrated and now faced by this Nigerian American woman. It is a reminder, be mindful of your actions, be aware of your interactions, be considerate in your treatment of others.
One does not know the day or moment when you will be called to stand trial. What charges will your accusers bring against you? Will they be your opposition or will they support you during times of trial? The tables have a way of turning, and as power shifts and you are at the other end – will your ill treatment of others backfire against you or will you reap the seeds of goodwill you have previously sown? The choice is yours, and the strength of character you choose to develop will surely play a crucial role at one time or another. Beware, be careful, be who you are comfortable with and can willingly answer for.