Thursday, 6 February 2014

12 Eons a Slave

As we drove off, my wife and I looked at each other and shook our heads. From the reflection of the street lamps on her face, I caught a tear-drop sliding down her cheek. She shook her head again and remarked with a tinge of pain in her voice, “We all are hypocrites!”

The day did not begin on such a name-calling note. In fact, it was a happy day for both of us as it was her birthday. I had bought her a gigantic red-velvet cake and a gold Tissot and had planned to spend the evening with her in the quiet of our apartment, reminiscing on the past year. But, at exactly a quarter to six, two friends of hers came knocking on our door. They were shocked to find us not dressed and ready to go out to mark her birthday. They compelled me that my 'husbandly' duties were not complete without taking all of them out. We settled on going to watch a movie at the Filmhouse Cinema on Adeniran Ogunsanya Drive. At the movie theatre, they perused all the movies on the brochure and decided to see the 12 Years a Slave. I tried hard to convince them that Hobbits 2 would be a more interesting movie. But, the birthday girl who had had a crush on the main actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, from an earlier movie (I should add that it was before we ever met), was allowed to carry the day.

I bought 4 tickets, 4 bowls of popcorn and 4 bottles of soft drink and we made our way into the theatre. Barely fifteen minutes into the movie, the entire hall was spellbound! As it progressed, there were sighs, grunts, swear words, curses and even tears. It’d been a while I saw a film bring out a gamut of emotions from moviegoers. All through the screening, my wife firmly held my hand. But, by the time the plantation-owner was brutishly flogging his female slave, she could take it no more, she buried her face in my shoulder and I felt it get wet. As the movie ended, everyone pensively filed out and made for the parking lot.

On our way home, my wife’s friends continued analyzing the film. The first one was so angry at how the slave drivers treated Africans; she raved and cursed at them. The second took it a step further and rained her profanities on the brothers, fathers and rulers that sold their fellow African brothers into slavery; for pecuniary gains. It was a funny sight to watch from the rear-view mirror of our car, because I am sure the present-day African-American, whose forbears suffered it all, wouldn't employ the same invective. I was glad that we were nearing their house and that they would soon alight.

As I drove into their compound, I mistakenly pulled up beside a puddle such that the leg of one of the women ended in the mud, as she was stepping down. She begged me to wait while her houseboy fetched water and some soap for her to wash. “Emeka”, she called out with a ringing voice. “Bring water and Omo make I wash my leg”. A minute later, Emeka emerged and as he ran towards the car all I could think was, “How old could this lad be? Ten? Twelve?”

Then he handed the woman the contents in his hands. Out of the blue, the woman landed a knock on his head. “Where is the soap I asked you to bring?” (pronouncing asked as axed). The knock was so hard, that the boy staggered backwards in a daze. I could almost see the stars swirling around his small head. “Run back and get the soap before I daze you!” she added, before turning to me and asking for my patient understanding for the clumsy rat. The other woman reminded her that she was always too soft on the boy and that no useless houseboy dared behave like that around her. My wife and I were speechless at the horrendous scene that just played before our eyes.

Nothing could aggravate our shock more than the fact that we had all just watched a movie depicting man’s inhumanity to man. These same women, just a few moments ago, were ranting about white slaveholders! Did they not just see themselves in the slaveholders? Or did they think they had the right to act as they did because they were dark-skinned? Didn't they know that just as it felt right for them to maltreat their houseboys, it also felt right to the slaveholders?  Society did not frown at it then, not even the religious institutions just as neither frowns at the women's deeds today, but does that make it right?

The transatlantic slave trade has been abolished but intra-community slave trade is still very much thriving. In many homes, houseboys and housemaids are treated as subhuman. In some homes, they are given separate (and inferior) dishes and cutlery and they dare not use any other. In others, they are given mats, placed on the floor, to sleep on while everyone else cuddles up in their beds. Some make these poor souls keep working as late as 12 a.m. after which they are allowed to take supper before dropping onto their thin mats. And what is the supper even made of, if not some meatless (protein-less) dish? Children that should be in school and minded by their parents are put through the mill and asked to look after children like themselves. We don’t think it is wrong; in fact we justify that we are helping to support their poor families with the monthly payments we make. Society doesn't think it is wrong; it actually justifies it and makes it a status symbol to have one or two in your house!

And it doesn't stop there; we carry it over to our offices and businesses. We treat subordinates and employees as slaves, just because we pay their salaries. The high unemployment rate doesn't help either, because if they dare complain about the maltreatment, there are a-million-and-one unemployed persons whose résumés state that their skills include: Ability to work under the cruelest conditions. My friend was complaining bitterly the other day about her boss. Even though she is a university graduate and mother of two, her boss’ disregard has no bounds. When he wants to eat, he asks her to go to the restaurant to get the food. When she asks what dishes to order, he says she should call him from the restaurant. On the phone, he asks her what and what is on the menu and after dilly-dallying for some time instructs her on what to buy. The moment she sets the dish before him, he asks for his change; he never says Thank you. “I am tired”, she lamented, “but there are no jobs”. Oftentimes it appears that we are so frustrated that slave trade, which began in the 10th century, has been outlawed that we now ensure its perpetuation in our homes and businesses.

The movie ended with the actor gaining his freedom through a sheriff and it also pointed out that many never regained theirs. Today, we have labour laws that protect the downtrodden but the court processes are either tedious or costly but certainly they are very unfriendly. But, we don’t need any laws before our milk of human kindness can flow. Rather, we need to take another look at our employees (house-servants inclusive) and take just one minute to imagine that we are them; then ask if we would pray for employers like ourselves. If your answer is NO, you need a change of heart and attitude because slavery chains the slave owner as much as the slaves. And if your answer is YES, I am happy for you and while I rejoice with you, I pray that a century from this day a movie may be recorded depicting how you treated your house-servants and employees. Amen.