Wednesday, December 24, 2008

spoiled rotten

I lived in Africa for a year, when I was first married, before we had children. Living as an Ex-pat in Lagos, Nigeria is interesting. You are living in a very dirty, overpopulated, under serviced part of the world, yet it is still very much a spoiled existence. For instance, due to safety issues, I had a driver. I didn't really want a driver, but there was no arguing this little perk.

I was told that I would most assuredly become the target of a terrifying swarm of people, if I was ever found behind the wheel in an accident. Apparently, the whole scene is very dangerous, and could turn into a riot. No matter who was at fault, every man and woman within hearing distance, would be summoned, they would swear that the accident was my fault. They would get all of my information, and then go to the company my husband works for, and offer that that the witnesses would all be able to 'change their minds about the accident' if someone gave them a large sum of money.

Nigerian shenanigans, don't just happen through an email. Money is a big deal in Lagos. For some 90-something% of the population, Money is extremely hard to come by, scams and "deals" in daily life, are almost to be expected.

Anyhow, with that little bit of insight, what had at first seemed like a serious affront to my freedom (I don't need a babysitter), suddenly sounded like a very good idea, so I embraced it cheerfully. My driver's name was Dominic, he was a big tall ebony colored man, who wore a gleaming white smile. He would have battled dragons to protect me. I used to get a kick out of being a just little bit outrageous once in a while, just to hear him chuckle at me. He cried when we left Africa.

I also had a cleaner /cook named Justine. While I LOVED having someone clean for me, I refused to let her cook. I was a newlywed, and I was excited by the idea of doing the cooking myself (what was I thinking?), so I gave Justine the job of taking care of my dog, and I took over the cooking.

Justine had it really easy. We had no kids at the time either, so she barely had to work. In fact, she cried too, when she learned we were leaving Africa. She actually let out a primal scream and ran down to her bedroom. I stood there with my mouth agape. I guess we made an impact.

I really struggled when I first got to Africa, with the whole having "servants" idea. I was told to treat the staff like staff, or they would steal from me. I watched some wives take their role as "Madam" far too seriously though, and be overly bossy to their staff it was tough to swallow, or and maybe this is even worse, they would simply disregard the people they relied on to run their lives, as if they were no more valuable than soggy bread.

I couldn't do it. I know I was told not to but, I treated Justine and Dominic like they were family. Especially when I found out how much money they made to serve me. I think it was around about $180 a month ( plus a place to stay in the staff quarters ). They sent most of their paycheck home to their families, who lived in other African countries. This was tough for me, these people, leave their own country for 50 weeks of the year in order to feed their children. I never felt so spoiled.

I was actually embarrassed. I could spend the equivalent of their entire paycheck, in a single trip to the grocery store. I thought of the boating trips we took, and the parties we threw, the groceries which Dominic helped me carry up the stairs, that Justine helped me put away. They would never be able to buy those things. Even going into a bricks and mortar grocery store for a pop, is not something that many Nigerians can afford. Mushrooms for instance, are only imported in once a week, and they cost 15 dollars a basket. (that's fungus I just paid 15 dollars for)

Justine and Dominic shopped at the roadside stands. Rickety wooden tables with everything from eggs to fish laying out in the blazing sunshine all day. The table would often be standing next to an open sewage ditch. And sometimes you might even see a dead body on the side of the road. It was a tough go. How could I possibly flaunt my bountiful lifestyle and not be nice to these people?

Yes, Justine did steal from me in the end, but I didn't fire her as she feared I would. Instead I just told her I was really disappointed and sad. That made her feel worse. She was fiercely loyal after that.

I learned a lot from them too. I would ask Dominic about things that made no sense to me, and he would give his simple yet insightful view to help me understand why I couldn't help everyone I saw.

Seeing the poverty right there in front of me, was an eye opener. You haven't seen poverty till you have seen Africa. I mean I can't tell you how many times I saw little 6 and 7 year old girls, standing at the side of the road begging, flaunting either a disability or a smaller sibling (sometimes an infant) to try and convince people they need money more than the next person begging.

I couldn't believe my eyes, looking at one 6ish girl holding a baby just a few months old. "Where are her parents Dominic?"

Dominic: "They might be fishing, or working."

Me: "who is taking care of that baby then?"

Dominic looked over to her, a skinny little bit of a thing with big brown eyes, and he said " oh, she is old enough"

Think about it folks.

Could you imagine it here in North America? Can you imagine someone leaving their 6 year old standing out on a busy intersection median, holding an infant sibling on her hip, begging for money? There would be so much uproar, it would be over before it started, but in Lagos, its commonplace.

I told Dominic to stop so I could get some money for her, but he kept driving and informed me, "No Madam, if you give her some, then everyone you see here, may come and surround the car".

I looked around at the circus of people in and around the intersection. I and saw more beggars and orphaned children that I have ever seen in one place at one time, and I sat back with a quiet, "Oh".

I guess If I wanted to help anyone, I would have to do it some other way.

Which I did do in fact, but I should write about it in another post, because I have blathered on for long enough now.



kel said...

Wow. Funny how lucky we are and don't even realize it!

rachael said...

We really truly are so very lucky. Thanks very much for visiting kel~!