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.