HOUSEHELP
by Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

I am hiding from my future, from the inevitable pains, the loneliness, the bereavement. The irony is that I know I can’t hide for long. Julie had tried to; I’d been the one to stand guard over the toilet as she crouched, hiding, praying to be left alone, clinging one moment longer to her childhood. But in the end, she’d been discovered and taken.

When she came back last month, she was fatter, taller, and wiser. She’d look at me with that look in her eyes and shake her head mournfully when I asked if she wanted to play at sand castles. Julie is my sister, thirteen years old, but now as aged as Methuselah. They’ve wrung the joy from her eyes.

From my hiding place, I can see Mama start to fidget. Willie has been searching for me, but has not thought to check here behind the clothes line. The woman who’s come to get me has gulped down a bottle of Coca-Cola, is tapping her left foot impatiently, and keeps looking at her fancy watch.

Mama stands and joins Willie in his search for me. I press harder against the white bed sheets, leaving smudges of mud. My heart thumps and is doing that mad dance that tells me I’m afraid, angry, and hurt. The bed sheet smells of coarse soap but to my nostrils, this is the smell heaven is made of. The smell of happiness, of home, of togetherness. The smell of Mama.

But Mama wants to send me away with the woman who’s looking at her watch. Last night, I’d begged, I’d pleaded, I’d wept. But Mama only stood rigidly, her back turned on me. I wouldn’t know of the tears she shed, at least not for years. I wouldn’t know of the anguish, the hot searing pain in her breast. All I would know, all I cared to know was the fact that she was sending me away to Lagos, like she’d sent Julie. Like she’d sent two other sisters before us.

As house helps.

“Maria?”

The call sends jabs of sorrow up, then down my head. My eyes fill with tears just like I knew they would. I’d promised to be good, to work even harder. But I’m only eleven years old, and parents do know better.

“Maria?”

My heart feels turned inside out, like frying meat being punctured by a long fork. I sink to my knees, clutching at the sheets, inhaling this smell I would soon lose.

“There you are.” There is relief in my Mama’s voice, and her steps towards me are brisk and not at all uncertain. “What have you done to your gown?”

I’m wearing my best dress, a cotton smock I inherited from Julie who in turn had inherited it from our eldest sister. It’s dirty from kneeling in the mud. My face, I suppose, is also streaked with dirt.

Mama hisses long and hard. She has a thin, ravished face and when she hisses like this, her cheeks collapse inward, giving her the appearance of a scarecrow. Beneath her gaunt face, her body has solidified into a mass of hard fat, and I’ve never ceased to be amazed at the contrast.

“I told you not to get yourself dirty. And didn’t I tell you not to hide?”

“Mama, please. I’ll be a good girl, I promise.”

Her eyes seem to momentarily lose focus, getting lost in a maze of softness. “You’ve always been a good girl, Maria. The very best, but you have to go.” She pulls me up from my knees and wipes the tears that line my cheeks.

A sob explodes from the cavity in my chest and I feel as if I’m drowning.

“Mama, I’ll work even harder.”

“It’s not about that, and you know it. We can’t keep all of you. The people in Lagos will take good care of you. Besides…”

“What Mama?”

“Nothing.” All the while, she’s marching me to the house, a squat ugly building that is nonetheless home. The home I’d been born in, taken my first steps in, live in, and love.

She scrubs me down for the second time that morning and dresses me in my second best cloth, another hand-me-down with a history almost as old as I am. By the time we’re through, my face is shiny again.

“Remember to be a good girl.”

Realization sets in. I’m going away for good, and no amount of pleading or wheedling would change that. I tremble slightly as she hands me a bag. It contains all that I own in the world. I want to say something, anything, but my tongue is solidified.

Wooden legs carry me to the porch where the woman is still tapping her foot in impatience.

“Ha. I see you found her.”

“Yes, and she’s now ready to go. Aren’t you, Maria?”

I nod because it is expected of me. I want to ask Mama where Papa is, but I know. Each time they come to take another of his little girls, he conveniently disappears. And even though I’m not supposed to, I do know that he’s collected the first batch of payment for my services. For me.

“Go well.” There’s a cloud in Mama’s eyes. I hook into it and plead with my soul. But it disappears as quickly as it had appeared. The strange woman holds me by the shoulders and marches me to a bus I’d not before now noticed.

I refuse to look back at my home, at Mama, at the childhood I’m being yanked from. I make it to the bus, my lips set in a thin frozen line, my heart hammering away inside its cage.

In the back seat, four girls my age group sit forlornly, each holding a worn travel bag, not unlike my own, each pair of eyes mirroring back the despair in mine. Each girl has been sold into slavery, just like me.

***

The journey seems to take forever, the monotony only broken by one long stop so that we could eat, and four other short ones so that we could relieve our near-bursting bladders. The girl sitting beside me confides that she is ten years old and that she is the first in her family to be sent to Lagos. She craves stories about how Lagos Madams are, and needs reassurance that the unknown person she is going to slave for in the coming year would at least be a decent sort.

“If you’re lucky.” The words come from the girl sitting by the window. She looks to be a bit older that the rest of us, and there’s this thing in her eyes, the kind of weary wisdom that had been in Julie’s when she last came home. This girl casts a look towards the front of the bus to ascertain that our conveyor is still sleeping and can’t hear us.

She lowers her voice and we all instinctively move closer to hear her. “Two years ago, I went to Lagos for the first time. My Madam was a very kind lady. All I had to do was look after her two children, sweep the house, and wash the plates. Sometimes I would wash clothes. When I first got to her house, she bought me new clothes, fine ones…the type they wear in Lagos.” As she speaks, her eyes take on a dreamy quality, losing their perpetual pool of sadness. “That year was even better than I’d thought, better than my cousin had told me it would be. When I came home for the Christmas holidays in December, I almost couldn't wait to get back. I…”

“Shh.” The one who wants to know how Lagos is nudges the storyteller and points to our woman escort. She’s stopped snoring and seems to be coming out of her sleep. Quickly, as if we’ve been learning stealth all of our lives, we un-huddle and return to our previous positions.

Five minutes later, she is fast asleep again, and we press close to the story teller. A part of me almost doesn’t want to, but there’s another part that needs to know. The hows, the whys, and the wherefores.

“Where was I?”

Someone quickly reminds Sarah at which point she’d stopped. She grabs a mouthful of air and resumes. “All through the holidays, I looked forward to going back, almost couldn’t contain myself.”

“What happened?”

“I didn’t go back there.”

Something tears the question from my heart even though I don’t want to ask it. “Why?”

“The escort told my mother that she’d found someone who could pay more for my services. So after the New Year, I returned to Lagos but not to my Madam. The person they took me to live with…”

“What happened?”

“She was the most wicked person I’ve ever lived with. Or even met in my whole life. She operated a beer parlour, and would have me wake up as early as four in the morning. I’d wash plates, serve and pour drinks until past eleven in the night. Despite the hard work, she fed me only twice a day. Sometimes once.”

My breath seizes in my chest for what seems like an eternity. As impoverished as we were, I’d never had to go without food. Mama had always ensured that there was food in our bellies.

“I ran away,” The girl was saying, “when I couldn't stand it again, but there was nowhere to go. I didn’t know a soul in Lagos, so after two days of sleeping out in the open, I went back to her. This year, I’m going to another Madam. I only hope she’s half decent.”

I close my eyes and recline against the hard seat. Me too, I pray. Give me a decent Madam or else. But I am unable to complete the thought.

***

My first glimpse of Lagos is that of tall graying, near-crumbling buildings, dizzyingly tall bridges, children hawking in the traffic jam, and noise so deafening I wonder how anyone can stand it. Sarah is the only one of us who’s taking this in stride. The three other girls sit stupefied, their faces long, frozen pictures.

“This is Lagos, girls.” The woman I’ve come to dislike profoundly announces, as if we do not already know. “Tonight, I will take you all to my house to rest off the journey. Come tomorrow, I’ll distribute you to your various madams.”

After another mind-numbing thirty minutes, the bus shudders to a stop outside of a squat brown building. Squat but not ugly, and quite unlike any building I’d seen in my native village. As the engine dies, four people come out of the building. A boy and three girls, all obviously older than me. They have ready, warm smiles for this woman who’s conveyed us from our safe homes into this island of slavery.

“Welcome Mom.” The boy, who appears to be the oldest greets and bounds down the short flight of steps to put his arms around the buxom woman.

We, slave girls a.k.a. househelps, tumble out of the back seat, a ragged bunch of scared little girls, thrust out into the cold unwelcoming arms of life. Fleetingly, I wonder if this woman could send her children off the way my mother had, year after year, not knowing how they fared, if they were well looked after, if they had dinner to eat. But then, I tell myself, she’s not hard pressed for money the way my parents are.

“Looks like a sorry bunch you brought this time, Mom,” one of the girls says as we make our way to the house; respectfully well behind the house-owners of course. Another girl laughs.

Dinner is a rich affair; steaming bowls of rice, large chunks of fish, and fried plantain. It’s been a long time since I’ve eaten such a sumptuous fare, and I suspect it would be a long time more before I do again. I dig in with a vengeance, filling my mouth with spoon after spoon of the delicacy, instead of thinking of Mama’s pinched face, warm smile, and caressing fingers.

I do not think of her. Instead, I fall asleep thinking of my brother’s paper castle.

***

The sun has barely made its ascent to the sky when we set out. Fortunately, I’m used to early hours, but the other girls, excluding Sarah, are not. They’d stumbled bleary-eyed out of the room we’d slept in, ran water over their faces, and still look like overused mannequins. Sarah looks fresh and ready to go but there’s something in her eyes. Anxiety. Maybe a prayer she’d be spared ill treatment this time.

Despite setting out early, Lagos seems to have woken up a long time before we did. As the bus eases into a main road, horns are already blaring. I can even see some young hawkers already setting up shop.

Our first stop is at a home even more gracious than our conveyor’s, with lush green flower beds and three sleek cars parked in the garage.

Lord please let this be my stop, I pray silently but fervently to a God I’m sure must hate little girls so much that he sells them into slavery. The woman of the house looks the five of us over, points at Sarah and observes she seems more mature than the rest of the gang. “I’ll take her,” she says, and my heart ricochets within me.

We leave soon after, decimated, and crushed by the reality that is to become our future. Maybe then next stop will even be better and the Madam will chose me, I console myself then realize I must be kidding. Fairy tales are just that; fairy tales.

At the next stop, they have to rouse me out of a death-like sleep, one filled with dreams of Mama and frying cassava. This house is not grander than the first one, but it’s not worse off either. Here, my prayer is unanswered, and we leave behind a girl who isn’t me.

When we ease out into the main road, heavy traffic has descended upon the highways and we crawl along at a snail’s speed. All the while, my heart hammers away in my chest. The roar of my head fills my ears and my eyes smart from unshed tears. I will not cry, I chide myself. Not now, not ever again.

Two hours later, the bus stops in front of a storehouse so bleak, so cold, it makes my father’s house look like a mansion. My brain reels inside of my skull. Not me, not here, I pray, fighting the tears and the nausea that boils in my stomach.

A grotesquely fat woman emerges from behind the building, wiping her meaty hands off her apron. Before she reaches us, she turns back once and barks several commands at some invisible people at the back of the store. I hazard a glance at the store. Crates of what I suppose to be beer are stacked on top of each other, as are some tables and chairs.

A beer parlour.

“Ha, Mama Ibeji.” Our conveyor salutes the sack of human flesh and smiles a business woman’s smile. “I brought the girls.”

The smell of rotting fish hits me suddenly and the nausea in my stomach threatens to rush to my throat, out of my mouth.

“I hope not lazy ones.” The woman has a voice like a man’s. “I can’t afford to feed lazy bones who don’t earn me a dime.” She looks over the three of us but stops in front of me. “You, what’s your name?”

“Maria.” God please no.

“Can she work hard?” This time, the question is directed at our conveyor.

“Yes…yes. As hard as a mule, if you please. Her sister worked for you once.”

“That her sister can work hard doesn’t mean she can.”

“But she can. Maria, can’t you?”

The tears rush to my eyes now, spilling into two unhappy lines down my cheeks.

“I’ll take her.”

I hear the girl beside me heave a sigh of relief. Better the next person than me. As the bus leaves, I clutch all of my worldly belongings to my chest and will myself to stop crying. This is home now.

“Come on in child. I don’t tolerate criers just like I don’t lazy girls. Here, you’ll work hard and if you’re a good girl, you’ll enjoy yourself. If not…” She spreads her hands in an expansive gesture, tells me where to drop my bag, and finally sends me to the backyard to clean fish in readiness for the pepper soup, and the opening of the parlour to customers.

I think of Mama for one last time then firmly tuck her memory into a very secret place I will hardly visit again in the coming year. This is Lagos, I tell myself, this beer parlour is now my home, this is my life.

I join two other girls, none older than me. Together, we clean fish until the smell of marine blood fills my head.

 

 

***Dedicated to the young rural girls in Nigeria whose parents cannot afford their upkeep and whom they send to the cities to earn a living for themselves.

 

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Folakemi Emem-Akpan currently works as a financial journalist but feels more at home in the persona of a writer. She has been writing since she was five years old, spurred on by the encouragement of her mother, aunts and friends. Her first book, Touch My Pain was published in 2004 while These Issues, her second book, was published in 2008.

In 2006, her story The Deceivers, was adjudged one of the best entries for the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association short story competition.

She lives in Lagos, Nigeria with her husband and daughter.