The #NairaLife of a Housekeeper Who’s Tired of Suffering

December 5, 2022

Every week, Zikoko seeks to understand how people move the Naira in and out of their lives. Some stories will be struggle-ish, others will be bougie. All the time, it’ll be revealing.


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The 45-year-old on this week’s #NairaLife moved to Lagos in 1997 to be a housemaid. Between then and now, she’s been a tailor, shop attendant, cleaner and housekeeper. 

But after 25 years of work, her family still lives from hand to mouth. And she’s exhausted. 

Tell me about your earliest memory of money

It’s when I was 12 and decided to work for my own money so I could afford Christmas clothes. Before then, my dad always got all of us Christmas clothes, but I wanted to buy my own things. So I started selling efo yanrin (wild lettuce) I got from my dad’s farm and keeping the money until Christmas. 

How much was a bundle?

I can’t remember o, but I know the money used to be a lot at the end of each year. Maybe like ₦200 — I’m not sure. But I wasn’t making money selling only vegetables. My dad was majorly a tailor, but he had a big tobacco farm. He had workers who processed the tobacco before he sold it in bulk to white people, but he also had 12 children who helped for free. As the eldest, I approached him and said he needed to pay us too, and he accepted. So that also added up to the ₦200 at the end of the year. 

Every year, I used the money for new Christmas clothes, shoes and underwear. 

You grew up with 11 siblings?

Yes. It was normal for one man to have many children. My dad married two wives. I’m the first child of the first wife. I have four siblings from my mum; the rest are from my stepmum. But I didn’t grow up at home. I don’t know if it was a tradition, but both my stepmum’s firstborn and I lived with our respective maternal grandmas. 

When were you born?

1977. I’m 45.

Can you tell me what growing up was like?

I enjoyed my childhood. I never heard anyone complain about lack. We always had food. We lived in Saki, a village in Oyo state, but we didn’t feel like we were poor or villagers. Even when I hawked shea butter for my grandma, it was fun for me. 

Did you go to school?

I finished primary school in 1991 and secondary school in June 1997. After one month of staying at home to wait for WAEC results, I started getting worried I was waiting too long. I was also scared of going to university because of talk about cult killings. So when I heard people were going to Lagos to find work, I started thinking about it.

What type of work?

Housemaid work. I didn’t want to leave my parents, but after my friends encouraged me, I decided to go. My parents agreed. 

So you just came to Lagos yourself?

No o. There was a woman who took people from my village to Lagos. That’s what she did for business. A few friends and I met her, and in July 1997, she brought us to Lagos. Omo, we got to the bus park in Palmgrove and couldn’t stop crying. It was like a dream. I wanted to go back to my parents. But I was already here. We were taken to a house, where we met other people waiting for work. 

I’m curious, what would you have studied if you went to university?

I wanted to be either an accountant or a customs officer. Accountant because I was good at accounting and economics in school; customs officer because I heard they got a lot of free money from travellers. WAEC results eventually came out in January 1998. I failed, so university was off my mind. 

What was the process of getting a job like?

Someone looking for a maid would contact the woman who brought us to Lagos, and she’d bring them to the house to inspect us and select who they want. For me, it was about a week after I got to Lagos. A woman came and selected two people; one for herself and one for her daughter. I worked for her daughter from July 1997 to April 1998. 

How much did they pay?

We didn’t talk about pay. They had that conversation with the woman who brought us to Lagos. Whatever money they gave to her was given to us at the end of each year. Me, I didn’t get my money until April when I was travelling to visit my parents for Easter. 

How much?

She first took me to Eko Idumota market. I bought like four lace and ankara materials and some jewellery. Then she gave me ₦20k and put me on a bus home. At the time, I decided I wasn’t returning to Lagos to work for that woman.

Why?

It’s not like she treated me badly, but food wasn’t always available. Many times, I had garri for lunch; I don’t like garri. But I heard stories about how other people treated their maids, and I was happy I was one of the lucky ones. For example, one of the people I came to Lagos with was sent to hawk pure water in traffic and kept getting injured by cars. Others lived with people who beat them. 

After a few days at home, I decided to return to Lagos. I hadn’t learnt any trade and didn’t want to stay at home idle. It just seemed like the best option for me, and that’s what I did. 

Did you go back to work for the same family?

No. I just went back to the house in Palmgrove to wait for a new person to show up. And three days later, they did. One of the friends I came to Lagos with had worked for their family between 1997 and 1998 and also returned home, so they were looking for another maid. The woman of the house, a mother of three, came to pick me up, and I moved in with them. 

Were they nice?

They were great. Even though I did a lot of work — cleaning, cooking, and caring for the children — I wasn’t made to feel like a maid. I worked for them from April to December, then requested to go home for Christmas. 

How much did they pay?

The woman that brought me to Lagos paid ₦30k, but the family I worked for gave me some extra money and foodstuff to take home. 

Before I left, they asked if I would return. My answer was no. The woman was heavily pregnant, and I didn’t want to become a housemaid plus nanny. After begging me, they offered to pay for me to learn a trade if I returned. My answer was still no. 

Back home, I told my parents I wasn’t returning to Lagos to be a maid, but they were against my idea of staying. Then I told them that the family I worked for had offered to pay for me to learn a trade. I expected them to say no, because they could pay for me to learn a trade in Saki. Instead, they even used it to persuade me. So it seemed like I didn’t have a choice but to return in January 1999. 

In January, I started learning tailoring. But this meant throughout the time I was learning, I wouldn’t be paid for my maid services. 

Huh?

They paid for my tailoring classes, bought whatever materials I asked for and bought me a sewing machine. I accepted the deal. It’s not like I had a choice. 

My boss also had her baby in January, so I had to pause my tailoring school for a few weeks. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this, but on the day of the naming, I cried so much. 

Why?

I just felt like I was making the wrong choice. The fact that there was now a baby to care for made it seem like my life was over. Like I would work with them forever because I now had an extra responsibility. I thought I wasn’t ever going to see my parents again because I was going to be stuck there. I don’t even know where the thought came from because it’s not like they said or did anything to make me feel that way. 

When did you resume tailoring?

Maybe March. When my boss had to return to work after maternity leave, I became the baby’s nanny. Let me not lie, it was hard being a nanny and learning tailoring at the same time. Apart from the new baby, I also had to take care of the other children, pick them from school and cook for them. My progress was so slow! I would see simple styles and wonder if I could ever make them. 

Slowly sha, I got better, and by 2002, I did my freedom. The family threw a party for me, invited my own family from the village and gave me a ₦30k cash gift, clothing materials and a new machine. Then they asked me if I wanted to continue working for them, and I said no. This time, they thanked me for my services and took me back to Saki themselves. 

Did you stay this time?

No. In 2003, I returned to Lagos to stay with an aunt while I saved to get a shop. That year, I earned ₦6k monthly for six months as a shop attendant for a man who sold building materials. I left to learn some more tailoring with a really good tailor I found in my aunt’s area. But she didn’t want to teach someone older than her, so she took me to another woman. I didn’t enjoy my time there.

Why?

She was a Deeper Lifer, so she only sewed Deeper Life styles. Me, I wanted to learn how to sew what was in fashion. I sha stayed there for six months. By 2005, I got my own tailoring shop. I paid ₦30k a year for it from money I’d saved. 

How was business? 

It was okay. I made enough money to feed myself, and that was it. Nothing extra. 

I still kept a good relationship with the family I’d worked for. So I visited them from time to time. But I also had a boyfriend who stayed close to them. We’d been dating on and off since 2002 because I wasn’t sure my family was going to accept him — he’s a Ghanaian. I’d tell my aunt I was going to see the family, but I was actually going to see my boyfriend.  

In January 2007, I found out I was pregnant for him, so we got married in August, and I moved to his place.

Did you continue your tailoring work there?

It was a new area, so I didn’t find a place to work on time. Plus, I was pregnant. After I had my baby, I found a “joinman” job that paid about ₦2k weekly. My husband, who sews aso-oke, was also finding it difficult to get jobs. So we just managed however we could. Times were terrible for two years until the child started school, and I could look for another joinman job. This one paid between ₦16k and ₦25k a month because we were bulk-producing school uniforms. 

In 2010, I had my second child and had to stop working for a while. By the time I was ready to resume work, they’d already hired someone to replace me, so I just stayed at home with my children. 

For how long?

Until 2011. An extended member of the family I worked with heard I was looking for a job. She reached out to tell me her children’s school needed a cleaner. They offered ₦10k monthly. I took it. They also admitted my children to school for free, and the head teacher lived around my area, so we got free transportation most of the time. 

At home, things were still bad. Even if I tried to save out of my ₦10k salary, something would come up. My husband was also struggling badly. We could only afford food. That was it. 

Did things change at any point?

I had to stop working at the school in 2013 when I had my third child. Once I could work again, a friend advised me to put my sewing machine in front of my house and wait. Business would come. 

Did it?

Small small. People who wanted to adjust their clothes occasionally stopped by. If I was lucky, I got a job sewing attires from scratch. I was sha doing an average of ₦1500 to ₦2k daily until 2014, when I went to Ghana to bury my husband’s dad. We stayed there for eight months. 

When we came back in 2015, another extended family member of the family I worked for called to say her friend needed someone to clean their house three times a week. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t do housemaid work again, but we had no money and tailoring wasn’t working again. So I took it. 

How much did they pay?

I asked for ₦15k, but they paid ₦10k. I worked on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. 

That same year, another person called to say they also wanted me to help them clean. ₦8k. I took it. Tuesdays and Thursdays. They increased it to ₦10k later.

By 2017, the original family I worked for called to say they also needed me to help them clean. Friday was the only day I had to rest, but even though I didn’t want to take it, I didn’t want to tell them no. So I took it too. The deal was a full day on Friday and an hour or two on Saturday evening to complete any unfinished tasks. 

They paid ₦15k, reduced it to ₦10k after a few months, and increased it back to ₦15k during COVID. Now, it’s ₦20k. 

Do you still work for all three of them?

I stopped the Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays job in 2021 but got one to replace it. That one pays ₦15k. I still do the other two. That’s ₦45k a month. 

Will you stop anytime soon?

I’ve wanted to stop for a while, but we have absolutely no money to fall back on. My plan is when I save up enough money, I’ll buy a commercial blending machine, put it in front of our house and get customers. I heard it was ₦25k in 2019. I don’t know how much it is now. But how can I save up when I’m the only one bringing money home? 

My husband hasn’t really done much since 2020 because he’s not getting customers. I think aso-oke isn’t as popular as it used to be. I’ve begged him to get a security guard job, but he’s not interested. He says they don’t pay well. But at least, it would put some food on our table na. I feed us, pay the children’s fees, and even recently, the house rent. It’s too much. All five of us live in one bedroom. We don’t have a freezer, so I have to store food in a clay pot so it doesn’t spoil. It’s that bad. 

And it’s painful because I’ve been struggling for so long. When I think of it, is there actually a period in my life when I’ve enjoyed myself? I don’t think so. 

[Editor’s note: Although the interview was already close to an end, I didn’t ask any further questions — about financial happiness and expense breakdown — because the subject was overwhelmed and seemed close to tears.]


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