I’ve been working on this piece for about a year. Why so long, you ask? Laziness and lack of motivation was not my sticking point. At issue was the content; I wasn’t quite sure how to share my thoughts in a way that balanced information and entertainment on the one hand, with cultural sensitivity on the other. In essence, I didn’t want to come off sounding like a total a-hole. Here’s my best shot…
We have two full-time helpers; a stewardess (house cleaner) that works Monday through Friday, and a driver that is available Tuesday through Saturday. This probably seems decadent, and it is, by Western standards. But for Lagos, employing two full-time helpers is the norm, and not just for Expats. A local family with means would add an additional layer of help to the roster; a nanny or two to tend the children, and a full time cook devoted to shopping and preparing meals would not be uncommon additions to the domestic help line-up.
And let’s talk about what full-time means. For a Western Expat, full-time is a familiar 40-hour week. If your stewardess must stay late to clean up after a party, she is entitled to overtime. Same arrangement for your driver. A late dinner out or driving on a scheduled day off is remunerated accordingly. In contrast, the expectations of a local family translates closer to 24/7 availability. This practice is supported by a traditional employment benefit of providing boys quarters or onsite housing which may consist of a small bedroom in the main house, but most likely is a detached, one-room structure on the property. Time off is periodically granted for travel home to visit family.
Salary and benefits is another point of departure. Western Expats pay a significantly higher monthly salary, as well as extras. In our case, we give an annual housing allowance to compensate for not providing boys quarter, a quarterly medical allowance, and we give an extra summer bonus in addition to the standard bonus given at Christmas. In short, we knowingly over pay. But a walk beyond our tall walls brings understanding of the precarious state of survival for most Nigerians, so if we pay a bit more, so be it. We consider a generous salary a form of tithing. But instead of dropping dollars in a weekly collection box, we bypass the middle man and give directly. In this way, we are able to support two large, extended families. But this generosity comes with a price; domestic help that have been employed by expats are considered unemployable by locals due to the different expectations for salary, benefits and time off. It’s a bit of a catch 22.
Regardless, I would be remiss if I pretended that the motivation for hiring domestic help is grounded in altruism. The reality is that I take great joy in not doing the dishes during the work week. Our stewardess takes care of rounding up the sundry basics on the grocery list during the week, and I use weekends to engage in specialty shopping as an excuse to get off campus. I haven’t ironed a shirt or washed the bedsheets once since arriving in Lagos four years ago. If something needs to be fixed in our flat, our Stewardess is home to open the door, and the repair is complete before we get home. And while I do all of the cooking, my vegetables are sanitized and individually bagged. On the rare occasion I do want something prepped, I simply leave a note to boil and peel six eggs, or peel and grate a bowl of carrots. And while there is a certain amount of quality control one gives up when delegating daily tasks to another, I appreciate the time saved so I can focus elsewhere.
Having a driver is likewise a bit of a double edged sword. Not dealing with driving or parking renders Lagos traffic bearable; we pull up to our destination, jump out, and our driver deals with the rest. When it’s time to go, a front door pick-up is a quick phone call away. But it’s more than convenience that makes having a driver in Lagos a good idea; it’s simply safer. Expat drivers are targets for random police stops and if we were involved in an accident, the injuries and costs to the other party would sky rocket. This rings true in other parts of the world but for different reasons; Greg had a driver in Egypt (I used public transport during my time in Cairo) and we had a driver in Indonesia, but more to deal with the traffic then corruption. We drove ourselves in Mongolia and Bolivia, and while we were taking our lives into our hands, we greatly enjoy the freedom; Americans are addicted to driving their cars.
It’s absolutely true that our driver and stewardess help to soften the rough edges of daily life in Lagos and for better or worse, have made the long hours spent at work possible. But having help is not without it’s challenges.
It seems about once a year, our stewardess and driver get grumpy with each other. Sharp words and cold shoulders bubble under the surface, eventually breaking into confrontation with accusations and tears on both sides. These annual disputes culminate in a serious talk brokered by Greg. The specifics of the injury varies, but usually boils down to a perceived encroachment of carefully tended and protected job-related territory. In other words, use of the vehicle and where it goes. The reality is that our stewardess makes use of our car and driver more than we ever will. Grocery shopping in Lagos is an exercise in equal parts stamina and patience, and I will admit that I have little of either. A typical grocery run requires multiple stops at different venues and there’s no guarantee that an item will actually be in-stock or of adequate quality; I opted out of most grocery shopping soon after arrival.
But here’s the sticky point; our driver is responsible for the car, and he protects it’s use as if it were his own. Disputes predictably arise over the number or location of stores visited when shopping, with past accusations of frivolous or unjustified stops of a personal nature. Our driver is also in charge of the physical upkeep of the vehicle, including maintaining the exterior and interior. The purchase of a Dust Buster and a day spent waiting to drive somewhere makes for a clean car; the fading paint on our old Toyota Four Runner is more a result of excessive washing than age. So it’s probably no surprise that it was an accusation around damaging the interior of the vehicle that caused perhaps the most memorable flare-up between our stewardess and driver.
I actually missed the entire thing. In Amsterdam at a conference, I heard the tale second-hand from Greg who had to step in to resolve the conflict. The details are outrageous and perhaps better left unspoken; let’s just say that a lack of discretion in the passing of…gas…led to accusations of damaged upholstery on the one hand, and counter accusations of likewise poor gastrointestinal health on the other. Incredulous, Greg simply stated that they either get along, or they would both be finding new jobs. Point made, it’s been all quiet on the West African front since.
The ins and outs of domestic help is not unique to Lagos. The Patron system in Bolivia found us employing our first, full-time helper. Long past the age of retirement, a portion of each day was spent napping in the sun on the back porch with a broom in one hand and the dust pan in the other. But age is not always the limiting factor; our very young and very inexperienced cleaner in Indonesia found it impossible not to turn Greg’s white shirts pink, and our first cleaner in Mongolia broke nearly every dish she picked up. But despite the occasional frustrations, we are simply blessed to have two people who’s job it is to help make our time in Lagos a bit easier, and it’s a luxury that will not be replicated once we move back home-home.
Will I miss having a cleaner and a driver when we leave Lagos? As someone that grew up doing chores from a young age, I can honestly say that I prefer attending to the daily tasks of my life rather than out-sourcing the details. I love the warmth and fresh smell of clothes pulled directly from the dryer, and I enjoy ironing a shirt until it stands crisp at attention. I appreciate the symmetry of a straightened bed cover, and I feel satisfaction from a cleaned and sanitized kitchen. I am confident that I will have no problem once again taking on the sundry and necessary domestic tasks when we leave Lagos for home-home But, I also know that when we go back overseas, I’ll have no problem hiring another helper or two, to help make wherever we live next just a little bit easier.