“A Week In The Life” is a weekly Zikoko series that explores the working-class struggles of Nigerians. It captures the very spirit of what it means to hustle in Nigeria and puts you in the shoes of the subject for a week.
The subject of today’s “A Week In The Life” is Mercy. She’s a house help in her early twenties. She talks about leaving home to come to Lagos, the difficulties of her job and how bosses can be mean to house helps.
Every day except Sunday, I wake up by 5 a.m. It takes me roughly one hour to have my bath, dress up and prepare to start my day. I live downstairs, and the family I’m working with stays upstairs. Before 6 a.m., I go upstairs, knock on their door, and they let me into their side of the house. And so my day begins.
The first thing I do is make breakfast. I have to ensure that before everyone wakes up, food is ready. Breakfast in this house is by 7:30 a.m. Sometimes, if I’m done making the food early, I’ll clean the house. Other times, I’ll do laundry. There’s a washing machine in the house, but there are some clothes [white shirts, nativewear] I prefer washing with my hand because the machine would spoil it.
Sometimes, if I’m hungry while preparing breakfast, I take out my own food and eat. Then I continue working. If I don’t feel like eating, I cover the food and continue with chores. Before 8 a.m., I’m usually done with anything chores and breakfast, so I go downstairs to rest.
Lunch is by 1:30 p.m, so I start preparing it by noon. We eat swallow for lunch because mummy says eating it at night won’t allow the food to digest. After lunch, if there’s no other work, I go back downstairs to rest.
By 4 p.m., I go upstairs to prepare supper, and I’m done under two hours. In the evening, we eat light food like beans or spag or potato. We also try to eat around 6 p.m. There’s nothing to do after I’m done cooking today, so I go downstairs for the last time. The next agenda is to have my bath and sleep.
I’m thinking about how staying alone downstairs is boring for me. I have nobody to talk to. I’m the only one downstairs, and nobody talks to me upstairs. It’s only when they want to send me on an errand that they talk to me.
I was using a phone that had Facebook. I used it to waste time whenever I was downstairs. But the other day, heavy rain came and I went upstairs to close their windows. By the time I got back to my room, rain had entered and soaked my bed, my phone, everything. That’s how the phone stopped working. I don’t think the phone can be able to on again. I just have one small phone I manage to make calls with.
Loneliness can make someone tired. There’s no one to talk to, no TV to distract you from your thoughts. There’s a TV in the house, but I don’t watch it because how can I say that I’m sitting in my oga’s parlour to watch TV? Even on Sunday, which is my day off, I still can’t do that.
I always remind myself to focus on the work that brought me to this house. I have to remember that I’m looking for something. If I work and exhaust myself, I won’t have time to be thinking too much. I’ll sleep immediately I land on my bed. It’s that afternoon boredom I need to work on because that’s when the thing bothers me the most. Though I don’t mind it much because I always remember to focus on my reason for being here.
I’m in Lagos because I have a plan for my life. I’m a hairdresser; I used to make hair very well. It’s just that I never had money to open my own shop, so I decided to drop out of secondary school and do any job to raise shop money. I was supporting myself through secondary school with the business, and it was barely enough. When I now enter university where it’s harder to combine work and school, how do I want to survive?
There’s no support from home like that. We are six in our family, so whose education will they pay for? That’s why I dropped out in SS 2 to look for money. Let me start my own business. Maybe it can help my future.
It’s not like I’m even perfect in housework. I just know that nothing is hard as long as you put your mind to it. So I spoke to an agent that I needed work. He asked me what kind? I said anyone that’s available. He gave me some options, and I chose housework.
House girl work favours me because I’m not a Lagos girl. I’m a Hausa girl who came to Lagos. If I’m doing work that requires me to enter buses, I can’t survive. Back home in Taraba state, I used to stay indoors. This Lagos that I came, I didn’t tell my parents until I landed.
I like Taraba state because everything is peaceful and the food is plenty. I miss eating fresh yam, fresh corn, groundnut stew. The only bad thing there is there’s no money. The jobs there don’t pay like in Lagos. If I was still in Taraba and someone told me to do house girl, I won’t lie to you, I won’t be able to do it. Me that I was living with my parents and they were feeding me. But since I’ve left home, nobody is feeding me or giving me money, so I have to do the work.
Every day my mum is always crying for me to come because Lagos life is different. She’s always saying that people from the north are dying in Lagos, and they don’t know why. She’s like if I don’t take care in Lagos, she’s not sure I’ll still be a human being.
I keep telling her that I can’t come back home without money. I don’t want to go back home and someone will insult me that I left home and didn’t make anything. I call her at least two times a week so she can be hearing my voice. Today, after work, I plan to call her. I just pray that I don’t sleep off because I’m feeling tired.
The hardest part of being a house girl is being patient. Every job requires some level of patience if you want to get something from it. Another thing is that you must accept that the work will be hard. If it’s not hard, why will my madam bring someone to help her?
You need to have the mind to do house girl work. The reason is that when you’re working for someone, even if something is right and they say it’s not, you have to accept. If the person gets you angry, you can’t show it. If they say you should do something you don’t agree with, you must do it.
I have come to realise that in Lagos, many people who are oga or madam treat house girls like slaves. They talk to you anyhow, and if you try to explain yourself, they’ll say you don’t have manners. Some ogas will call you and on your way to meet them they’ll shout: “I called you since; why didn’t you answer me on time?” When you’re doing a chore, they’ll complain you’re doing it slowly. They take you like you don’t know anything and control you.
You can’t get angry or take the shouts seriously because you can’t get money easily, and to make money you have to suffer. That one is a normal thing.
I like the current family I’m with. They’re nice to me — nobody shouts at me or makes me do stuff I don’t like. I’ve only been in their house for two months, so I’m praying that it remains sweet till whenever I leave. Some people will be nice when you’re new, and when you’ve been in the house for long, they’ll show you a different character.
These people take me like I’m their family member. Everything they eat, I must eat. The mum is so nice. When she buys fruit, she’ll be like, “Mercy, don’t think that the fruit is for only mummy and daddy oh, you can eat out of it.”
Me, I’m scared of eating oh. Especially when I’m new. I don’t want people to say I’m eating eating eating or I’m finishing their food.
These people don’t care if you eat, eat, eat. They’ll say take this if you want to eat. I thank God for blessing me with this very very nice family where no one is shouting at me.
I miss my family. I miss my brothers and sisters. I miss the life I had there before I came to Lagos. Today, I’m thinking about how in Taraba, I just sleep and sleep. In the afternoon, my friends would call me for us to go out — we used to go out every day.
If someone had supported me, I’d have stayed back to graduate because I really like school. I just had to leave home. At a point, while I was at home, my uncle was starting to talk about marriage. The only thing my north people know is marriage, marriage, marriage. You’ll see a young girl like this, and she’s married. Me I’m not that kind of person. Many of them even end up going back to their parent’s house, so what’s the rush?
When you marry young, you don’t even get to know yourself. I tried to explain this to my uncle, but he was just choking me with questions: “Do you have a fiance? Do you know you’re getting old?” Me that I’m just 22.
I want to have my own business so when I’m married, things will not be hard for me. In this life, if you don’t have money, you’re a dry person. Money stops rubbish.
How old am I to be thinking of marriage? Right now, all I’m focusing on is my future.
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