Monday, February 11, 2013

Everywhere, there are Somebodies, Nobodies, and Bodies.

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Sunday was a pretty busy day for me but I did manage to read Adaobi Nwaubani's NYT piece, "In Nigeria, You’re Either Somebody or Nobody". I agreed with her on the unfortunate class situation in Nigeria, and that the petty struggles to pull rank on each other affects the long-term progress of individuals and the development of the country as a whole, but I was turned off by the tone and most of the content of the piece. It sounded unrepentantly callous and there seemed no teachable moment contained in it.

We also had domestic servants growing up but my parents never made it seem that the people who lived with us were forever doomed to poverty, while we were guaranteed continuous and everlasting comfort. Our househelps, most older than me, are all married now and still in contact with my parents.  Some of them lived with us for over 10years before moving on to other things. A couple of them who joined my parents as 12/13 years olds, went on to become graduates, another is a certified secretary.

While they lived with us, they went to school, watched TV if they wanted to, they sang, they disciplined us, ate with us, went out with us as a family, went on holiday together, taught us to keep house, wash, cook and clean. So, I don't know about "feral scents" and "melancholic singing". Maybe Adaobi should ask her parents questions, or try to come out of the "Somebody" bubble she lives in, rather than trying to impress us with how heartless and disparaging she can be with words.

Seriously, have I heard about domestic servants or poor people in general behaving badly? Of course I have. I also have heard stories of poor people who were seemingly angels, or as close as we humans can get. I have worked with, lived with, played with, and learnt from poor people, some of whom saved my life or opened doors of blessings or opportunities for me.

And who says children of middle and upper class families do not also turn out bad? Cultists back in my university days were from such homes, as are most of today's leaders, and the level and extent of their corruption and the calamity they bring to Nigeria continues to boggle the mind.

I will try not to go on because in preparing to write this blog post, I wanted to see what other bloggers had to say, and I saw this wonderful piece by Imoteda, which says more than I could since she is currently living in Nigeria and has also lived in Canada so can compare both places accurately. Read an excerpt below;

... there are Somebodies, there are Nobodies and then there are Bodies.

See when I lived in Canada I was a "body", I had my little job that paid most of my bills, took care of my daughter and made sure I didn't starve to death. I voted when elections came around, paid my taxes and lived a nice peaceful existence. I was harassed occasionally by bill collectors due to my irritating habit of forgetting to pay bills but as I wasn't Somebody no one rushed to put my name is the papers with the big red words "CHEAPO" underneath. If I died suddenly, I would make the papers, somewhere on page 12, below the fold.

In Canada Stephen Harper is Somebody. He is well known, as is fitting of the Prime Minister, he is a person of consequence. If he dies today he would make the papers, Front page news, above the fold.  The homeless man I occasionally give a dollar too on my way to my car, he's a nobody. He dies today and no one but other nobodies care or notice even. Maybe a small independent paper might carry the story. Someone might take up the cry about the lack of proper care for the homeless and his dead image (a tasteful one though) might become the banner for that. Regardless he is still dead and a nobody.

In Nigeria, by association with my parents I am a Somebody. This is not to say that I have the power to do what they do or that I have earned the recognition I get but the fact remains I am a Somebody and so is Afam and so is Adaobi and so are the thousands of other children lucky enough to have been born into money or into families where the parents worked their way into money. As Adaobi stated:

"The average Nigerian’s best hope for dignified treatment is to acquire the right props. Flashy cars. Praise singers. Elite group membership. British or American accent. Armed escort. These ensure that you will get efficient service at banks and hospitals. If the props prove insufficient, a properly bellowed “Do you know who I am?” could very well do the trick."

I have never needed to walk into a room and yell "Do you know who I am?!" but if I did and got the chance to tell who I was someone in there would accord me respect. Mostly it shows on me that I am the child of somebody, ergo I am somebody. I speak with a Canadian accent (often mistaken for american).  I carry my head up high and walk into restaurants expecting service. The fact that I walk into restaurants alone in Nigeria cements this fact. If I die tomorrow, for any reason murder, diabetes, choking on a fly while attempting to board a boat in an airplane hangar, I will make the front page, above the fold and Linda Ikeji and all other popular blogs. There will be tributes and there will be people I never spoke to in life who will help my parents lament my loss. I have seen this play out too often when someone in my age group dies and because they are Somebodies the bodies and nobodies of the world come out to share the grief their parents feel.

The Somebodies in Nigeria are the loudest and most known as Somebodies usually are but they are few, so few that it is not surprising that at every event I go to from art exhibition to book launch to business dinner, it is the same crowd I see over and over and over again. People say Lagos is small. With 18 million people how can Lagos be small??? It is small because our circles of Somebodies and Somebodies' children make up less than 1% of Lagos.

There are Bodies in Nigeria this is true but they are few and far between, perhaps the teller at the bank, the No-level* worker at a Brewery company. Perhaps these Bodies make up 25% of the population of Lagos. I truly believe 25% is high. It's probably more like 17%.

Then there are Nobodies. From your random shop girls, despite having a job they are still nobodies, to the beggar on the street who sleeps under the bridge at night, Lagos is filled with Nobodies. Every where you look, you glance past Nobodies until your eyes hit the Somebody you were looking for. Your waiter in a restaurant is a Nobody. I never thought about waiters till one night I was leaving Lagoon restaurant pretty late. My date and I practically helped them sweep the floor. On our way out I noticed men putting out mats on the stairs and outside the gate. One of them was the man who served us. I immediately stopped and asked him why he was preparing to sleep outside the restaurant he works at.

His first response was that a lot of the waiters sleep there overnight as it is late and they didn't want to travel home late. See most of them live in the less desirable parts of Lagos, deep in the crevices of Ajah, areas with names like Ajangbadi and Okokomaiko. If you live in Ikorodu that's a two hour public transport journey that no sane person will attempt to undertake at 2am. The buses themselves, not the drivers, would mock you. Laughing loudly through their exhaust pipes held on with wires and the gaping hole in their windshields. Because I clearly have a death wish, I generously offered to give our waiter a ride home as I did not want him to sleep on the floor only to hear "Me I don't sleep here because my house is far o. I no even get house sef. I stay here and baff in the bathroom then I go work."

You may wonder why he is homeless when he has a job? Turns out his salary is 15K a month. We had just spent about 25K on food and drinks for one night and the guy serving us our 2500 cocktails makes 15K a month. That guy in Nigeria is a nobody. He is part of the Nobodies that make up 75% of the population of Lagos that I constantly overlook while my eyes search for the Somebody in the room.

See in North America and Europe and other "westernized" countries, you can simply be a Body and exist from day 1 till day 0 of your life. You will die and make the paper, page 12 below the fold. These are choices that you have because there are systems set up to help you be a body, the welfare estate, workplace equity laws and the like. Most people In North are simply Bodies. When Afam walks into a restaurant in London he is not a Nobody, he is a Body.

In Nigerian you truly are either a Somebody or a Nobody, because Bodies are few and far between. And this is what needs to change. We need more Bodies and less Nobodies.


  1. As much as I disagree on some arguments Adaobi raised, there are lessons to be learnt. In every society, enequality exists and forever will be.
    I can only say here it will make sense if we address another the way we want to be addressed and treat another the way we want to be treated.

  2. I came across the article, half way through i *zoned* off. I did not care for her tone. Then again she might have intended it that way. not all househelps are treated that way. Majority though but not all.

  3. I also zoned off. Adaobi came off to me as someone without proper home training. After all, she treated her domestic staff the way her parents treated them. We had domestic staff in my parents house. They disciplined us at will, taught us to cook, we went to Mile 12 market with them (once we got older) and we ALL did the laundry together. They all went to school or learnt a trade, if they wanted to. In other words, in my parents home, our helps were family. Simple. I can understand that her parents were one of the bad 'masters' though. She need not write very far. I understood her loud and clear.

    1. did you even get the point of the article?

    2. The point of Adaobi's article? Reading comprehension has never been my forte, maybe you can break it down to plain English? :/ She lost me when she said 'BIGOTS and racists exist in America, without a doubt, but America today is a more civilized place than Nigeria. Not because of its infrastructure or schools or welfare system. But because the principle of equality was laid out way back in its Declaration of Independence" LOL. Is she kidding me? So Hurricane Katrina, the school system, the absurd wealth inequality, Chicago crime et al are evidences of civilization? Her father is obviously one of the 'Somebodies' pulling rank on the 'Nobodies.' So apparently, she did the same. Home-training. Simple.

  4. "I don't see our staff members as being connected to me in anyway. I do my own laundry, drive myself, answer the door for my guests and when I do need them to do something (like clean my forever messy car) I pay them out of my pocket. But mostly I just ignore them, they have no consequence to me. If they all disappeared tomorrow I would be mildly annoyed that the pool was dirty but then I'd simply clean it myself."

    Maybe I'm missing something here but I don't care for Imoteda's tone in this piece either. I guess the 'nobodies' should be grateful a 'somebody' occassionaly graces them with curious questions fueled by 'a sucks to be them' attitude.

    What we need are less somebodies living off stolen wealth meant for everybody. And at the end of the day, in whatever self-imposed/imposed category all of us fall under, it's still six feet deep and worms in case the somebodies need a reminder, don't discriminate.

    1. FYI Not all somebodies live off stolen wealth mean for everybody.

    2. I think perhaps you are but that's okay. Perhaps you might try reading my article again with an open mind. There is nowhere I mentioned that they should be grateful to me or that I had a sucks to be them attitude. My parents employ the staff and pay the staff, so I do not presume to use them unless I am paying them extra out of my pocket.

      Not all somebodies are alining off stolen wealth meant for everybody. To suggest this is insulting and defeatist and one of the problems Nigerians have. My father worked hard for himself in various random "careers" including making and selling coconut candy to get to the place he is today. You need to respect the fact that some "Somebodies" are somebodies because they make it happen. They do not need a reminder because they already don't discriminate.

    3. I guess I should clarify that I do agree that not all somebodies are living off stolen wealth. In the spirit of getting along and moving on, we won't talk about the overwhelming numbers of the somebodies who do versus does who don't. And to those who make it happen with clean hands, without stepping on bowed heads, more blessings to their hustle.

  5. Growing up, our househelps main jo was to cook lunch on school days. All the chores were divided among all the girls (3 of us). My parents bought same kind of wears for me, my siblings, my cousin and our househelp. We ate together and slept on the same bed. As an adult, my helper, went to private schools and you couldn't tell that she wasn't my niece. There is really no justification for treating your fellow human being contemptuously.

  6. I have been following you since you started this blog and sometimes, I have been turned off by your tone. However, I have always made it a point to step back, re-read and see where you are coming from. Flippant words don't always equal detachment, they could just be a mask. It was brave of Adaobi to use her father's attitude towards househelps as a example, and she never stated that she agreed with it. I told my friend the other day about my father's masked tribalism - he claims to be a one nigeria person yet here and there, he would say "awon Ibo" in a derogatory tone. I don't agree with him and I have been able to make him see things differently.
    For every Nigerian who writes in defense of their own parents' own treatment of their househelps, there are three Nigerians who had a different experience.
    We are all focusing on the househelp issue but there is a bigger angle to the piece and that's what the focus should be on.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I expect people to call me out on my writings, and when and if I have something to add, I will state it too. Adaobi herself focused on the house-help issue to the detriment of what should have been the core of her piece. Like I stated at the beginning of my piece, I agree with her on the premise of inequality and underdevelopment. It is unfortunate that she flippantly used her biased experience with helps to try to make the case.

  7. I agree with Anonymous 7.20pm above, I did not get the impression that Adaobi was being callous or condescending in her tone, I took it as a matter of fact attitude, maybe because my experience with house helps in our house was somewhat similar. My parents disciplined us and the house helps the same way, and they did go to school. However, I remember some of them smelled God forgive me, and we had to educate on the use of deodorant and stuff. It is neither here nor there, because I remember as a child, i thought lots of old people had a smell too. So it was not a way to discriminate or look down on a person, i just took it as fact. Interestingly, one of the reasons I have been grateful for coming to the States is that it made me experience not having much and made me more sensitive to the less fortunate. In Nigeria, I had been numb, it seemed beggars were a fixture of life not beings to be rehabilitated. It seemed like house helps were a part of life, I never thought about what dreams they might have wanted to accomplish. I truly wish there were more "bodies" in Nigeria, instead of the huge divide of somebodies and nobodies, and may we all teach our offspring to appreciate the humanity in everyone they come across.

  8. Myne quite an article. As you've said and some of the comments have said-Nigeria will need to work on its welfare system. So that we won't have a situation of nobodies and somebodies but a place of somebodies and bodies. So that Nigeria can become a place where Almajiris will become a thing of the past. So that ready recruits so serve the wimps of just any politician will be cut off. Because when someone cannot have a place to sleep-he becomes prone to social vices. Let those money stolen by corrupt individual be returned and instituted as part of the welfare pool. Hence, giving those who aren't opportune to be blessed an opportunity to aspire to be blessed. Hence through this they can have the resources to bless others.

  9. Adaobi's writing about the house helps in her family home simply shows the way people treat house helps even till this day.It is highly unfortunate but it has come to be in this country (Nigeria). There is absolutely no welfare system in place. I hear people abroad complain about paying tax etc do you guys realize we do same here in Lagos (especially). People pay as much as N1m on tax, yet we get absolutely nothing. I wonder why the reference to development in Nigeria always has to do with road construction!!! Why cant we copy the white man's welfare system since we are so good at copying every thing foreign. This somebody and nobody tag is one that really pinches me. We are all equal in the sight of God. People should learn to treat the less privileged with respect and dignity.

    I do agree with the comment above that majority of the so called "somebodies" live off ill gotten wealth. Be it business means, politics,etc in business they cheat to get the wealth (remember the oil subsidy saga) yes! those are the hardworking so called business men around. Wealth in Nigeria is synonymous with Oppression. Who made you kings over the poor?????

    I am just so tired of it all, i live here and i see it every day, every minute infact i am TIRED.

  10. Too lazy to write something new. This is what I wrote on Prism's page

    Now i understand why her tone hackled many..maybe she didnt sound apologetic enough 'as a member of the oppressor family' or remorseful enough? Maybe through her prism, the helps were still a sub-species of human beings (that stigmatising 'we' and 'they'). Shrug.

    Sadly her opinion will resonate with more than a few Nigerians. Did she lie? No. If her father's only problem with helps was the singing then he is blessed. We know families where helps have designated toilets, cups, spoons etc.

    My problem with her writing was it begs the question 'to what end is this opinion piece'. 'Is she saying stop?', 'Carry go'? Saying that her efforts to be nice was not rewarded means what? That being human to helps is a waste of time?
    So yup, i have some issues too with her 'view point' or how she was 'unable' to put it across.

    Imoteda did a better job of 'shock', 'self accuse', compare and bring it all together. Good job!


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