My neighbour - do i love thee?
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One from my archives - first published in Feb 2010
I wrote this originally at the height of the debacle and power struggle to identify who was in charge of the country while the late President Yaradua was ill in Saudi Arabia.
Following the recent proceedings at Aso Rock and the frustrated commentary of Nigerians on various media, I asked myself this question – who is my neighbour? Now you may wonder, what the link is between the recent events in Nigerian Politics and the question “who is my neighbour?” On the face of it, the link might seem tenuous but indulge me for a moment.
The greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”. The second greatest commandment is to “Love your neighbour as yourself”. And all laws and commandments are believed to hang from those two.
Thinking about this, and if you are anything like me, we like to think that we do the first commandment well but the second not so well. But in truth, you couldn’t do the first without doing the second and vice versa. This is because, the main way we can outwardly show that we love God is to love our neighbours. After all, we can pray and praise God and give the largest financial donations and offerings to the church but if we are rude and abusive to our neighbours, are we not being rude and abusive to God.
You are made
Which brings me to ask the question – who is my neighbour? Now if you live in Ikoyi, Lekki, Victoria Island (in Lagos) or any of the other overpriced suburbs anywhere in the world, your ‘neighbour’ probably lives in a eye-wateringly expensive house; drives the latest model SUV of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and their sports equivalent; wears the latest fashion trends and thinks nothing of spending thousands of dollars/pounds sterling/Euros on ‘designer’ bags and shoes; and travels to Barbados, or similar locations twice or thrice a year for holiday.
Their name probably starts with Chief, Otunba, Alhaji, Chief Justice, Dr, Barrister, etc (woe betide anybody who dares to address them as Mr) and ends with letters like BSc, MSc, PhD, etc. They probably go to the same church/mosque as you do or another well known church/mosque. In church, they probably occupy the front rows and are described as elder this or that. In your offices or places of work, they are referred to as Oga, Sir or Madam.
Isn’t it great to have neighbours such as these? Because if you lived or worked close with any of these people described above, then it is quite likely that you are one of them. That means – you belong. You have arrived. You are made. Well done for achieving that status.
Now go back again to those suburbs and think again about other people who live or work within them. There are the drivers who ferry the children to school, take ‘madam’ to her coffee mornings/shopping trips and drive ‘oga’ to work every day. There are the gardeners who make sure the gardens and lawns look immaculate. There are the shop assistant girls or boys at the supermarket who help to take your count-less bags of shopping to the car. There are the house-helps who clean and polish the houses until they look like show-homes. There are the cooks who make whatever meals required at any time of day. There are the messenger / office clerks who run around doing your bidding all day. Then, there are the nannies or child-carers who make sure your children are well taken care of in your absence.
All these people live and work in your wonderfully expensive suburbs and swanky work-places too. Are they not your neighbours too?
Treatment of Domestic Staff
I bring this up because my brother told me a story about how a lady had contacted my sister-in-law requesting help to find a house-help urgently. My sister-in-law eventually found someone, a young man, who had to travel all the way from Ogun State to Lagos State. This was his first visit to Lagos. He couldn’t afford the cost of the travel, so my sister-in-law had to foot the bill for his inward journey. But on arriving at the Lady’s house, she promptly rejects this young man and practically throws him out of her house without any further thought to his wellbeing. Please bear in mind that the only reason this young man was in Lagos was to see this lady, on her request, and had no means of getting back to his hometown without financial help.
So you can imagine my sister-in-law’s fury, when she receives a phone call from the young man saying that he was stranded as he could not return to where he came from. My sis-in-law had to call the lady and vent her fury on his account and I totally agree with her actions.
Don’t get me wrong. The lady was within her rights to refuse the young man if she did not feel he was suitable for the job. But kicking him out and leaving him stranded was callous and appalling. She treated him as if he didn’t matter – as if he was sub-human. The least she could have done was given him money for his return fare to Ogun state knowing there was no other way he could get home. Did she even care if he ended up sleeping under the bridge, or worse still being attacked by area boys? I don’t know the answer to that question but if I were to hazard a guess, I would say, she didn’t care, due to her behaviour.
Whatever her intent the lady displayed a behaviour and attitude which, unfortunately, is rampant in the Nigerian society and needs to be checked. People believe because they have money in their bank accounts it gives them the right to treat their domestic staff, or any other employee, atrociously. In fact, the level of abuses have being so awful that in some cases, it has resulted in the death of domestic staff. While those cases might be extreme, they are a visible symptom of a disease which eats at the heart of the Nigerian society.
How large is your bank balance?
Another anecdote from my brother involves him making a phone call to his account officer in one of the biggest banks in Nigeria. The conversation starts like this:
Account Officer: ‘Hello’.
My brother: ‘Oh hello. Is this Ms Bright?
Account Officer: ‘Y-Yes?’ She replies hesitantly, sounding as if she was being disturbed from more important activities.
My brother: ‘this is Mr Johnson. I am calling with regards to the account being opened’
Account Officer: ‘Oh Mr Johnson. Good afternoon sir’ and she suddenly perks-up and responds with courtesy. She goes on to deal with the query.
But her actions raise some questions in my head. Why did she have to wait until she established who was calling before she responded with courtesy? The call was made during banking hours to a bank telephone number. Surely, regardless of who you are and whether you had N1,000, N1,000,000 or N1,000,000,000 in your account, when you contact the bank, the response should be the same ‘Good morning/afternoon, bla-bla bank, Ms or Mr bla-bla speaking. How can I help you?’
You might say this was simply a case of training need for the bank. The bank should have trained their staff better. But I think it goes beyond a staff training issue. I think it is a status issue. In Nigeria, as in almost every other country in the world, status matters. Status is derived from several factors; it could be academic qualification, professional achievements, etc. But, in Nigeria especially, the biggest sign of your status is your financial worth. This is made visible by the houses you live in, the cars you drive, the clothes you wear, the holiday destinations you go to. Money is also what determines how many hangers-on you have and ultimately your level of influence and power.
And as such, we all strive to increase our bank balances. Now, this is a good thing when it is done legally. I love the fact that Nigerians are successful in their fields of expertise and financially aware. We work really hard to attain the levels of success that match and sometimes exceed our peers. To enable us to attain the heights of success we seek, we employ people who don’t really have any other choice but to come work for us. These people who come to work for us as house-helps, nannies, cooks, drivers, etc free us up so that we could do the things we think are important like; thinking of new ways to expand our businesses, running multinationals or managing government contracts/departments.
As I see it, these employees are important. We take them for granted because we think they don’t have any other options but to work for us, for ‘peanuts’ in some cases. We need a re-think.
Domestic/manual staff on revolt
Imagine for a moment, and this might be stretching the imagination, you had to get to the office early. On the way, you were going to finish off your presentation for an important deal on your laptop in the car. But the driver, whom you always snap at, or verbally abuse, hasn’t turned up for work and there is no one else available at that short notice. So you have to drop off the kids to school, and end up arriving late at work and not being fully prepared for the presentation. Where would your high flying job be then?
Or imagine still, the inconvenience, if the cook is off sick and you had to prepare dinner for important business partners and their spouses. Or even, and this is a shocker, if you house-help batters or does worse to your children because of your cruel behaviour towards him or her. I mean, do you seriously think that if you are abusing your house-help, that it isn’t possible for them to abuse your own children? On this, several proverbs come to mind “what goes around, comes around”, “the sins of the father shall be visited onto the children”. Need I go on?
In any case, do we not have a duty of care for these employees? Anyone who has ever managed staff in a corporate environment has probably being on several courses on how to manage and motive staff. We understand that it is important to reward excellence and discourage negative behaviour and that as leaders, it is important to lead by example. So if we practice those policies in our places of work, is it so difficult to practice them at home with our domestic staff? As leaders at home our children and domestic staff learn from our behaviours. So what legacy are we leaving behind?
What is your legacy?
Are we teaching our children to be rude and abusive to the domestic staff? And by the way, one day those same children will be rude and abusive to us because that is what we taught them. Are we teaching the domestic staff that those who are rich and powerful are depraved and have the right to behave anyhow because of their wealth? And if so, why are we then surprised that the richest and most powerful people in Nigeria, abuse and ride rough-shod over everybody else? The recent nefarious events at the highest seat of government, a prime example of this - A select few people thinking they can get away with anything without thinking of the impact of their actions on the rest of the nation.
So if we really want things to change in Nigeria, we need to start asking ourselves, ‘who is my neighbour?’ Because unless we start treating everyone as a human being and hence start loving our neighbours the way we should, things are never really going to change in the country.
Copyright 2010. All Rights Reserved.