In Nigeria, you don’t have to be ‘somebody’ to be treated with civility

By Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu

Some of the most positive lessons of my growing up years were taught me by a lady we grew up calling Aunty Kathy. Stuffs such as the importance of eating with our mouths closed, saying a prayer before every meal, washing and ironing our own clothes, the alphabet and numerals, basic reading, respect for anyone older than us—even if by only a few hours—are some of the positive atributes I and my siblings owe Aunty Kathy.

Kathy was not our aunt in the traditional English sense of that word. She was rather a distant relative that grew up in our house. Aunty Kathy’s words were law and woe unto any of us that dared to go against her wishes. Aunty Kathy had a fearful knock that she rarely used, but the fear of which was enough to keep us on the right path. However, more than fear her painful ‘konk’, we usually found it more rewarding to do what Kathy asked, especially as the reward of good behaviour usually elicits envy from those not deemed qualified to receive it.

These days, even though I am grown and with my own family, I still remember the Sunday-Sunday bottle of Brahma soft drink that we used to wash down our plate of Sunday rice and chicken—Kathy’s way of rewarding everyone for helping her sell the soft drinks she stocked in the family fridge. Aunty Kathy was young then, probably in her mid to late teens and juggled taking care of the house and school—she attended one of those commercial schools that were very popular before the mushrooming of private secondary schools in Nigeria.

Looking back now, I can’t remember me or my sibling ever disrespecting Aunty Kathy, or viewing her as anything other than a part of our family. Being Igbo, an ethnicity that views anybody with a blood connection, no matter how faint that connection is, as a nwanne—a word that translates as child of my mother in English—we, and everyone around us, saw aunty Kathy and other relatives around us as blood, as family.

There was no form of discrimination, nothing. If anything, most of us felt our father loved her more than he did us—probably because she was in charge and he usually trusted her judgement, were our discipline was concerned.

Aunty Kathy was not the only one that lived with us. My father’s business was what they called Patient Medicine Store back then—this is the officious name for what Nigerians call a chemist store—and a number of apprentices passed through that store before the ethno-religious riots that occurred in Kaduna in 2000 removed it from the face of the earth. As I write this, faces float pass my mind’s eye and names readily come to my tongue. I remember these faces and names with respect, for that was what my father, and Aunty Kathy, inculcated in us—respect for anyone older than us, even if by an hour. We knew the apprentices, or boyboys, served my father and not us. So we got to be errand boys for them when the need arose and they had the liberty to discipline us when we mess up. That was how I was raised, to respect others and recognise no social strata.

I never needed to learn how to be civil to people and I never needed to put a false smile on my face when I relate with people.

I never needed to force myself to see the humanity in others and wouldn’t even know how to look down on someone.

There are people out there who think those who are not fortunate enough to have the purchasing power their jobs or their parent’s money bestowed on them are pseudo-humans, not really people, just creations that the god of money created to serve their every whim. For these ones, usually moneyed or pretenders, servants and anyone that can be classified as poor are not worthy of any form of civility. That is why these piteously wicked souls keep servants in their homes—to have people to lord it over, people that remind them how good they have it. These ones usually think themselves akin to the lord under whose table Lazarus ate. They feed their servants or any relative that has the ill luck of sharing their roof leftovers, ensure they use only wooden chairs and forbid them from bathing with soap—so they can have feral scents that leave tell tale odour on the house furniture, to catch their crime of tasting the comfort that comes from soft cushions.

Onyemaechi is a big word in Igbo. It speaks of an unknown future and man’s helplessness where that is concerned. This is why those who derive pleasure in subjecting people to the sort of treatment that any house helps and people of a lower moneyed class go through world over need to check back with their chi. They need to understand that change is one thing that is certain and no one can tell where the wind would blow.

I must add here that we have people like Jaja of Opobo to remind us that the servant can become the master. So before you turn your nose at that door attendant at the Palms, think twice!

4 thoughts on “In Nigeria, you don’t have to be ‘somebody’ to be treated with civility

  1. This is so true, it truly does depends to a large extent on how kids are trained.I for one can never look down on a maid cos I can’t help thinking it cld have been me in that same position if I had been born into the person’s home.

  2. Thank you for showing that there are indeed Nigerians who don’t treat their wards or helpers like animals. The West needs to realise that sometimes stories are told through the myopic sights of some ‘storytellers’ like Miss Tricia Nwaubani.

  3. Peculiar experiences do make d unprejudiced and accommodating individuals a lot of times. Discipline demonstrated by mentor figures a lot of times help 2 shape us into being respectful and undiscriminating of people regardless of whatever their background is.

    Cocky rich brats a lot of times never experienced what it is like 2 stand lacking most of what their friends did have a lot of times while growing up! So its hard 4 them 2 sympathize with those dat don’t have, and grow up snaring @ persons not consider fit 2 mingle with.

    Bottom line: ur background and environment shapes u! Sometimes some kids get lucky having d right hands raise them while still from rich homes. I 4 one wasn’t raised with a silver spoon, but I did get some compensations from older ladies meant 2 look after me after my parents were out, stretch out some pleasurable ‘wrong’ hands down my crotch! And dat was fun 2, believe me, though it got me confused a lot of times!

    But seriously, rich kids or children from comfortable homes miss out on d privilege of having d right hands, dis time, help in raising their ass up! And dat’s a privilege lost forever!

    Quite sad.

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