Remember The Help…

I was reflecting one morning on how I never seem to be able to find a good cobbler around my house. It’s not all the time I want to take my shoes to The Lady Cobbler, especially for small repairs. But, try as I might, I can’t seem to find an aboki’ that’s worth his polish. It made me think of this old cobbler who used to have a shack in front of my house when I was growing up.

I never knew his name. We just called him Baba. He polished my dad’s shoes, fixed the heels of my mum’s shoes, sewed closed our school sandals when they were torn open and even helped to expand shoes that were getting too tight for us. But it wasn’t his work I remembered the most. It was his eyes. He had such kind eyes that were a weird grayish, brownish colour and he always had a smile on his face for us. I remember that he always seemed to speak in gentle tones, never shouting, never fussing. And despite the fact that he barely made a living from his trade, he still fixed our shoes for free most times. I could literally walk up to him straight after school, with an open sole, and he would put the brownish gooey gum between the slit and hold it closed till it stayed.

As kids, and even as adults, we come across people like this – people who for the most part, go unnoticed; people whose job it is to make us comfortable, to make life a little better, easier for us. But it’s so easy to miss the value that they add to our lives; so easy to take it all for granted. As a child, it didn’t occur to me that Baba was doing his own bit to help take care of us. I just thought he was a shoe maker who didn’t have much to do. In retrospect, I realize that the weird colour of his eyes might have meant that he was suffering from an eye condition, and possibly couldn’t see very well. But that didn’t stop him from putting his heart into what he did.

There was also Aunty Agnes. She was our nanny. And I use the word nanny very loosely. She was more like a housekeeper that also looked after us when we got back from school until my mum came back from work. Aunty Agnes taught us to wash our school uniforms and she painstakingly washed them again after we had done a shoddy job of it. Also advanced in age, she moved slowly but still managed to get everything done. And believe me, there was always a lot to be done. The house was spic and span under her deft fingers, and we always had lunch ready and waiting when we got back from school in the afternoon.

It always amazed me how she managed to do the same thing every day – keep our house clean – and yet do something different every day. If she wasn’t picking beans, she was cleaning out the cupboards, or sorting out old clothes, or weeding around the compound. No matter the time, she always had something she was doing. But it didn’t stop her from looking out for us, and scolding us when we got troublesome. And sparing a listening ear when we had silly stories to tell. And making the best ever fish sauce that we used to eat boiled yam. That was Aunty Agnes; present, constant, but quiet.

Then, there was Uncle Richard, or Richie, as my mum used to call him. He was my father’s driver. Uncle Richard came to us when I was 7. And he only left after my father retired from work. I was 21 at the time. Uncle Richard probably spent more time with us than my dad. He always had silly jokes and gave us funny nick-names. On the drive back from school, he regaled us with funny stories and we always seemed to be laughing so hard every time we were around him. But he was firm as well. When we misbehaved, he chastised us without fear. He took us like his own children. Never for once did we feel unsafe around him. He might have been just a driver. But to us, he was family.

And there was Mallam Sambo. An illiterate northerner who was the security guard for my primary school. Tall, dark and wiry, he looked like he might have been a soldier in a previous life. He guarded the pupils with his life. No child was going beyond the school gates unless he recognized the person that was picking them up. And he did all of this single-handedly. Parents could go to sleep knowing that they would meet their wards in school, safe and unharmed. And if they were going to come later than usual to pick us up, we would sit on little benches outside Mallam Sambo’s gatehouse until they came for us. He had a bicycle – a huge bicycle in my child-eyes – which I remember him lending to my dad’s colleague to ride, carrying my little brother to my dad’s office on one of those days when there was mayhem in Lagos, and cars couldn’t move around. It was such a novel experience, and being children, we only saw the fun of it. Somehow, Mallam Sambo had shielded us from the tensions that were brewing around us.

Then there was the old ‘Yellow Fever’ at Acme junction. I swear this man has to be the oldest traffic warden ever. Because, believe it or not, I still saw him sometime in October, still at that same junction, more than 25 years later! That man was a key highlight of our morning rides to school. Uncle Richard greeted him the same way everyday – with a mock salute – either stretching both hands out over the steering wheel, like he was standing at attention, or raising his palm to his temple as if he were acknowledging his superior officer. And the man returned the greeting the same way. It was always fun to watch. The best part was he knew our car, and if he saw us coming, he would keep passing traffic until we went past. My brothers started to greet him in the mock salutes as well, finding it very funny trying to stand at attention in a moving car.

And then, there was Remson, the tailor. You’re probably wondering what role he played in my life. Well it was simple. My mum always made him sew us funny styles that I never wanted to wear. And I, being the creative type, wanted to have my clothes made with a bit of pizazz and not look so dowdy. But momsie would always squelch my protests whenever I tried to make my displeasure at a chosen style known. Bless Remson though, he tried to help. He knew I hated Iro and Buba, so he would try to make it interesting, either in the way he cut the hands of the buba or in the way he finished he edges of the Iro. He would put frills on my skirts and make off-shoulder variations of the blouse that my mum had picked. So when my clothes came, even though they didn’t look so nice (he was just a corner-shop, self-taught tailor), I still felt a sense of pride that I was wearing something different.

And there was Mama Tola. She was a hairdresser, the one who used to plait our hair. When we got the “hairstyle for next week” from school, she was the one we explained it to. And she would make it and make sure we looked pretty in it. If we didn’t have a hairstyle for next week, she would ask us what style we wanted – which was more than could be said for my mum. That one would just say “go and weave all back and let me rest.” Mama Tola’s little hair salon was a 5 minute walk away from our house, so when we went to have our hair done late, she would keep us in the shop with her till she was done with all her customers, and then she would take us by the hand and walk us home. My mum never worried about sending us there. Till date, she still does my mum’s hair. And she’s at our house every Christmas, helping with the cooking and serving of guests.

I can go on and on, if I take the time to think about all the people like these, whom I have come across in my life. And maybe it’s the fact that I’m getting older that’s making me become more reflective. But I realize that these days, it’s very difficult to find kind-hearted ‘help’. For most people now, being a driver or a hairdresser or a security guard is just a means to an end. There’s no heart in it. And for that reason, they don’t make any connections with the people to whom they offer those services.

But worse still is the fact that we don’t seem to be teaching our children to notice and appreciate the help these days. For most children, these people are just another piece of furniture; they have a function they are expected to perform, and it ends there. It breaks my heart when I see children speaking to the help disrespectfully, no doubt echoing their parents’ words and mimicking their actions. It’s even worse when they treat them like they’re not there, until they need something from them. It is said that the way a person treats the help is a good reflection of the kind of person that they are. So, spend some time thinking about how you treat the help around you – the cleaner at your office, the security guard, the house help, the waiter at the restaurant, the parking attendant, e.t.c. Even if you didn’t grow up with such amazing people as I did, it’s not too late to look at things differently. Because you never know. They might come in very handy in a difficult situation. And even if they don’t, you’re a better person for it.

For those with kids, teach them to spare a thought for the help; Correct them if they treat them wrongly; chastise them if they speak to them rudely. Encourage them to leave a kind word, like thank you very much; to make a big gesture, like offering them some of their sweets; to put a smile on their faces, like telling them when they look pretty or handsome.

Remember the help. They were there with us when our parents weren’t. And they’ll be there with our children when we aren’t.

Use the comments section to shout out to those people in your life, childhood or adulthood, that weren’t just the help, but also family.

  • Beautiful piece…… Thank You.

    January 3, 2017
  • Omabee

    This write up is so precise. You couldn’t have written it any better. I am thankful for those Aunties and Uncles that stayed and made sure we did not feel the absence of our parents.

    My Help just left me in December and I was really hoping she was different. That she understood that the right connection could change her life. Despite the constant counselling and resolve to send her to learn a trade in January this year (cos I didn’t want her to be a help anymore after she left me), she left with the excuse that she had a tummy issue and her father has asked her to come home to be treated. She never told me that she was having a serious tummy issue the entire one year she stayed with me.

    This is someone I bent over backwards for. I never allowed anyone (family or friend) talk to her in a manner I did not approve. I kept trying to teach her to see herself as more…. to learn to be more. I so so wanted her to have a better life. But I guess she couldn’t believe that I could be this good a person to want to improve her life. She chose a ‘tummy ache’ over the possibility of one day owning her bake shop and being independent enough to take care of her family. Cos I feel that its just a cover story for her not wanting to stay with me anymore.

    I am grateful for the time she spent with us cos I know she is good at what she does. Hopefully she finds what she is looking for.

    January 3, 2017
    • Larz

      Her parent said might be marrying her off. We had a similar issue happened with us twice. The first time, they lied to her that he mum is ill and was asking for her so she end and they married m her off.
      The second lady knew she was being married off but her family told her to lie to us.

      January 4, 2017
  • I miss Aunty Nneka. I think about her a lot and wonder what’s happened to her after all these years.
    I remember after school I’d take my sister and we’d head over to her school and wait until she’s ready to go home.
    I also remember she used to let me eat the leftover food from the pot ???? Let me not forget the special spinach and egg sauce for yam… magic hands.
    She made hard work fun– like picking beans or water leaf ????. She’d make us compete with one another just to get it done.
    She taught me how to wash; handkerchiefs first, then socks and lighter fabrics. After a while I could wash my siblings clothes while she handled the parents.
    I remember the first time I made garri (or tried lol) because she was late coming back from church (was 4 or 5 y/o then). And even though I’d managed to muck it, she got home, fixed it and told me where I’d gone wrong. The next she made me do it again.
    It’s funny how I have more childhood memories of Aunty Nneka than of my own parents. Such a sweetheart– mummy and daddy in one. And then one day she was gone. When I asked they said she had to go (worst reason ever!)

    If only she knew how bad I want to say ‘thank you’ *sigh*
    But I know she’ll always have a special place in my heart and memories ????

    January 3, 2017
  • Out of all the maids we had growing up, Aunty Lawunmi stands out. A lot of the staff in my primary school thought she was our aunt. At a point, some thought she was my youngest brother’s mum (because she will strap him to her back right from when he was born when coming to pick us from school).

    She taught my younger sister and I how to wash clothes at about age 7. Our weekday afternoons was a routine. We would wash our uniforms and socks (she always washed them again). Next was lunch, followed by home lesson, then homework. We were not allowed to watch TV until we had completed the homework given to us by the lesson teacher.

    She left immediately I gained admission into secondary school. She was about leaving the country when she visited my parents and asked that she wanted to see me in the boarding house. I remember vividly telling her when she came to my hostel; that I did not know how to wash a towel. She said put it in a flat bowl of soapy water, use your feet to wash it, then get a friend to hold on to one end while you hold on to the other end to wring it. I used this method to wash towels till I left secondary school.

    I cried when she told me that day that she was leaving for Paris with her fiance. I wish I could still connect with her. We still have pictures of her in my brother’s baby album. She definitely had a huge impact on my life.

    January 3, 2017
  • Ife

    “But I realize that these days, it’s very difficult to find kind-hearted ‘help’. For most people now, being a driver or a hairdresser or a security guard is just a means to an end. There’s no heart in it. And for that reason, they don’t make any connections with the people to whom they offer those services.”
    You couldn’t have been more apt!
    It’s not as if people are wicked these days, but as Yorubas would say, “Eyan buruku ti ba Eyan rere je”…
    I remember Aunty Tawa. I was very little bit can never forget her name. She took care of my sister and I like we were her own.
    Then Amina. Amina was from Niger State. She started working with us at about age 13. Left at 15 to be married to anot old man. My sister and I cried when we found out. Since then my mum stopped getting helps cos we got so attached and couldn’t deal when they left.
    God bless All the Aunties Nneka, Tola, Yemisi, Amina, Tawa, and so on out there.

    January 6, 2017
  • Hephzibah

    We had a cobbler like yours too. For a moment there I thought it was him you were describing. His eyes are brown and he had such a charming smile that makes the corners of his eyes wrinkle. And he did the repairs with all his heart. Whenever I was sent out to repair a shoe, it had to be him and no one else.
    #precious memories

    January 17, 2017
  • Tee boy

    This is a beautiful topic @misso and I think it came from a deep place of gratitude and a good chunk of thought has also gone into it.
    Talk about the things we take for granted.
    Nowadays, parents tend to yell and insult the people who help out with the house chores a whole lot and I have seen kids do same.
    I saw an expatriate boy telling (shouting) his Nigerian nanny that she must not tell him what to do that she is not his daddy while the parents watched. I had already spanked the boy in my head….
    The bond is not as good as what it used to be too. It’s a lot more of “take the money and run”

    Uncle Saka…my dad’s driver was a good one he taught me to drive in JSS 2; he boosted my confidence on the wheels and he’d let me drive to school.

    February 3, 2017
  • Joko

    Lawal. That’s his name. The petty trader “mallam” of a restaurant 60meters away from our home back then. Well known by my parents and siblings. See…he wasn’t just a security man, he was family.
    I remember him having my back when some boys tried to bully me on my way back home from primary school. How he would give us anything we needed and allow us pay at a later date. I mean anything – no matter how expensive. How he would give my sisters candies on their way back from school. All these was some 20 odd years ago.
    I drove past my old neighborhood late 2016 and saw him in his “stall”. I came down from the car with my wife and kids. He couldn’t recognise me anymore but I told him he is someone I can never forget. Told him almost everything he did for me and my family back then. He couldn’t remember, but you could see the tear in his eyes that someone had such wonderful memories about him. I introduced him to my wife and kids, stayed a while – both of us reminiscing on the neighborhood.
    It was time for me to return the favour, and I did. He was worth much more, even if he didn’t remember most of those things.
    Thanks for the memory again @misso
    Beautiful piece.

    February 4, 2017
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