How Reading Nigerian Fiction On Domestic Work Helped Me With My PhD

Art by Nicholle Kobi. Source: Pinterest

It was quite hard to write this post as I’m getting a little personal, but only a little. This month (March) makes exactly two years since I finally said bye bye bye to my PhD. In that time I still stick to a few things:

1. The PhD is damn hard.
2. I am stronger than I think.
3. I am so glad I never have to do it ever again.

Well, after almost two years of ignoring my PhD monograph, at the beginning of the year I decided I was actually going to pick up my thesis and begin thinking about doing something with it. First, I wanted to pay homage to the role Nigerian fiction played in my thesis. A teeny background before I begin.

My thesis looked at the everyday lives of male and female domestic workers in Lagos – a labour force that, while somewhat ‘hidden’ in public policy terms, is a significant part of daily life in Nigeria. These women and men perform different jobs, such as caring for children, keeping homes (and surrounding compounds) neat and tidy, washing clothes and/or dishes, driving people around, and keeping homes safe and secure. Yet, they often remain invisible in Nigerian society, and in most cases are treated with very little respect and dignity, and face multiple and varied forms of abuse and discrimination. In my thesis, I was interested in understanding the terrain of struggle and negotiation in the places people work, live and move through on a daily basis – particularly in a context such as domestic work, where unequal power relationships are deeply embedded within these everyday situations. I was also interested in how these experiences are shaped by factors such as gender, age, occupation, living conditions (living with employer or not) and so on.

Now that's out of the way ....

When I first started working on my PhD, one of the things I found frustrating (and trust me, there were many) was that while (as mentioned earlier) domestic work was an important part of daily life in Nigeria, I really struggled initially to find information surrounding details of the employment in the country - even in terms of numbers. With time I did find some papers and texts on the subject and my interviews greatly helped, but it was tough in the beginning.

On many occasions when I was frustrated with my PhD, or just felt like giving up, I would turn to fiction – as a way to escape from my thesis. If I’m honest, it was also a way to procrastinate and ignore it all together. I never even intended (or thought it was possible) for fiction to play a role in my PhD. More than anything, what it ended up doing was giving me the confidence to continue writing about a topic I felt needed to be researched. It also made me realise that while I had to follow certain rules and regulations regarding how a PhD is written, I could also write it in a way that was not too rigid. A way that enabled me to tell a story – because ultimately I was telling a story of the lives of men and women who worked, and sometimes lived, in the homes of middle- to upper-class Nigerians.

While I did not read these novels as the bearer of truth for all things on domestic work in Nigeria, it was great for someone like me who was arguing about the somewhat invisibility of domestic workers in Nigerian public policy to see that fiction writers had taken the time to write about domestic workers in some shape and form. There were, of course, different portrayals and experiences of domestic workers in these stories I read. 

There was Chinua Achebe’s (1966) A Man of the People, which portrayed African men in the kitchens of the missionaries or other colonists as cooks and stewards, as well as Buchi Emecheta’s (1994) The Joys of Motherhood, where the father of the female protagonist, Nnu Ego, sends her to Lagos to marry a man, Nnaife, who earns a living as a ‘washerman’ for an English family. Then there was Flora Nwapa’s (1966) Efuru, a novel about an independent, but ‘cursed’ woman living in a village in colonial Nigeria.  I remember reading it back in 2013 and getting to the section where Efuru asks her mother-in-law to help her get a maid to help her look after her baby. Her mother-in-law found her a ten-year-old girl, who was the daughter of her mother-in law's cousin, and this was the conversation that ensued:

‘What bothers me now is a maid. I want a maid to help me look after Ogonim while I trade with my husband.’
‘A maid? You want a maid to look after your only child? She will kill her. I advise you not to have a maid. You will regret it.’
‘I shall get a good one. I want to help my husband. We have been losing much money.’
‘What is that to you? What is money? Can a bag of money go for an errand for you? Can a bag of money look after you in your old age? Can a bag of money mourn you when you are dead? A child is more valuable than money. So our fathers said.’
As if these were not enough, Efuru’s friend began to narrate all the atrocities of maids.
‘You know Nwanta, don’t you?’
‘You know that her first son is blind in one eye.’
‘A maid was responsible for it.’
‘How?’ Efuru asked in horror.
‘The boy was playing with a stick. The maid saw him and did not take it away from him. So the stick went right into his eye and now the poor boy is blind in one eye.’
‘You know Nwanyuzo, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I know here very well.’
‘You know that her daughter has a burnt face. And I don’t know who is going to marry a girl with a burnt face. It was a maid who was responsible for it too.’
Efuru did not ask her how that happened this time. It was not necessary. ‘I have maids no doubt, but I know how to treat them with an iron hand. I do.’

I also read about domestic workers in contemporary Nigerian novels, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s (2006) Half of A Yellow Sun through Ugwu - Odenigbo's 'houseboy', Abidemi Sanusi’s Eyo (2009) where a young girl is trafficked to the UK, where she initially works as a 'domestic servant', and Chika Unigwe’s (2012) The Night Dancer, where Ezi's husband has an affair with their young maid, Rapu. 

Short stories, as well, such as Life During Wartime: Sierra Leone, 1997 by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published in 2006 in The New Yorker online, where Adichie writes about Fide – a ‘houseboy’ from the village, who is described as  ‘backwards’ because he had never seen a refrigerator, spoke a rural dialect of Igbo that was not Anglicised and chewed rice with his mouth open. There was also the short story, The Housegirl by Okey Chigbo in Chinua Achebe and C.L, Innes’ Contemporary African Short Stories

I even read about domestic workers in places I least expected – it was like subconsciously I was looking for it everywhere. I once randomly found a collection of stories by Steen Marcusson  on his life as an expatriate in post-colonial West Africa with an excerpt on Hausa ‘maiguards’ (security guards). In one section, Marcusson (2003) writes:

‘How did the numerous thieves get into the store? Easy enough. 'The two devious night-watch-men were the ring leaders of the thieves!' It was clear to a blindman that our problem was an “insider” job or more correctly “insiders”. You never spotted signs of break-ins or forced entry … My first initiative was to replace the two Yoruba night-watch-men with 4 huge and powerful Hausa men. Hausas from the North are big, often 6’6” and more, and strongly committed Muslims. Hausa security guards from Kano were the right answer to security in “Yorubaland”. With Hausa night-watch-men any possibility of collusion was blanked out.’

I did read beyond Nigeria, such as Ferdinand Oyono’s (1990) Houseboy - set in colonial Cameroon, and Amma Darko’s The Housemaid set in Ghana, but through these works of fiction I found a space to begin to tell the story about domestic work that I really believed needed to be told.

Fiction also enabled me to improve my skills in writing, find my voice, and write my PhD in a way that was comfortable for me and true to who I was, as well as the women and men I interviewed (without losing all the academic rigour and so on that was necessary). Really, it gave me the confidence to own my PhD topic and realise that (to a large extent) I can be in control of it - instead of my supervisor. And l like I said earlier, it offered me a space to escape from the thesis when I needed it the most.

Blogging also helped me write my dissertation – and one day I may write about that. For now, this is a little thank you to fiction from me and my dissertation. Now, I’m off to find new inspiration and motivation to actually turn into it something beyond a PhD monograph. Wish me luck! 

12 African YA Books

Source: Illustration 315

My how time flies! Almost six years ago, I put together a list of 21 Young Adult African Books, including Nnedi Okorafor's Zahrah the Windseeker and Akata Witch, as well as Yaba Badoe's True MurderSince then, there have been even more YA from Africa - and with the recent release of Tomi Adeyemi's Children of Blood and Bone, I thought it was time to update the post. 

Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orisha) by Tomi Adeyemi

Zélie remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. When different clans ruled – Burners igniting flames, Tiders beckoning waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoning forth souls. But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, anyone with powers was targeted and killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope. Only a few people remain with the power to use magic, and they must remain hidden.

Zélie is one such person. Now she has a chance to bring back magic to her people and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must learn to harness her powers and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good. Danger lurks in Orïsha, where strange creatures prowl, and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to come to terms with the strength of her magic – and her growing feelings for an enemy.

Aluta by Adwoa Badoe
For eighteen-year-old Charlotte, university life is better than she’d ever dreamed a sophisticated and generous roommate, the camaraderie of dorm living, parties, clubs and boyfriends. Most of all, Charlotte is exposed to new ideas, and in 1981 Ghana, this may be the most exciting and most dangerous adventure of all. 

At first Charlotte basks in her wonderful new freedom, especially being out of the watchful eye of her controlling and opinionated father. She suddenly finds herself with no shortage of male attention, including her charismatic political science professor, fellow student activist Banahene, and Asare, a wealthy oil broker who invites Charlotte to travel with him and showers her with expensive gifts, including a coveted passport. But Ghana is fraught with a history of conflict. And in the middle of her freshman year, the government is overthrown, and three judges are abducted and murdered. As political forces try to mobilize students to advance their own agendas, Charlotte is drawn into the world of student politics. A heartfelt story told with uncompromising honesty, about what happens when youthful idealism meets the harsh realities of power.

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars by Yaba Badoe
Sante was a baby when she was washed ashore in a sea-chest laden with treasure. It seems she is the sole survivor of the tragic sinking of a ship carrying migrants and refugees. Her people. Fourteen years on she's a member of Mama Rose's unique and dazzling circus. But, from their watery grave, the unquiet dead are calling Sante to avenge them: A bamboo flute. A golden bangle. A ripening mango which must not fall...

... are these the missing pieces of the jigsaw which will tell Sante's story?

Crooks and Straights (Crooked World Book 1) by Masha du Toit
Gia's brother Nico is different from other boys. And being different can be dangerous in Gia's world. Cape Town is no longer the haven for magical refugees that it once was. The Purists want to get rid of all magic and the newspapers are full of dreadful stories about the Belle Gente, the magical terrorists.

None of this concerns Gia, until the Special Branch— police who investigate the illegal use of magic— come knocking at her door, looking for Nico. When Gia turns to her parents for help, she finds only more secrets. Then she realises that she was the one who put her brother in danger. 

Wolf Logic (Crooked World Book 2) by Masha du Toit

Never trust a werewolf. 

That's Gia's first lesson as she enters the wolf cages at Special Branch, the police force that deal with the illegal use of magic. But working with the tracker-werewolves is not the greatest danger she faces: Gia is a spy. She risks torture and death if her secret is discovered. 

Then Gia receives shocking news. Her little brother has disappeared, taken out of his bed, in the middle of the night. She doesn't want to believe that Special Branch is responsible, but who did take Nico? Could it be the magical terrorists, the Belle Gente? Or is there another, even stranger explanation? 

Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen
Sarah has always been on the move. She's grown up lonely, longing for magic. She doesn't know that it's magic her parents are running from. When Sarah's mother walks out on their family, all the strange old magic they have tried to hide from comes rising into their mundane world. Her father begins to change into something wild and beastly, but before his transformation is complete, he takes Sarah to live with grandparents she's never met. Deep in the forest, in a crumbling ruin of a castle, Sarah begins to untangle the layers of curses affecting her family, until she discovers that the curse has carried over to her, too. The day she falls in love for the first time, Sarah will transform into a beast...unless she can figure out a way to break the curse forever.


Empty Monsters (Books of Oreyn) by Cat Hellisen 
Aden Onnery is the eldest son of a family of midwives who use their power to eradicate magic. As a boy, he was never meant to take on the Onnery mantle, but an accident of birth has left him marked and strange. His whole life he has believed that the Onnerys destroy the monsters that will bring the end of his people, until he is forced to enter into a bargain with a magical survivor. 

In order to save his sister from the harsh law of the colonial powers, Aden chooses to enter the world outside his experience and go against everything he has been taught to believe. He must help save the very thing his family are meant to exterminate—a magical lineage in his people. In doing so, Aden will confront the truth that the monsters are his own family.

Deadlands (Deadlands Book 1) by Lily Herne

Welcome to the Deadlands, where life is a lottery.Since the apocalypse, Cape Town's suburbs have become zombie-infested Deadlands. Human survivors are protected from the living dead by sinister, shrouded figures - the Guardians. In return, five teenagers are 'chosen' and handed over to them for a mysterious purpose: this year, Lele de la Fontein's name is picked.But Lele will not stick around and face whatever shady fate the Guardians have in store for her. She escapes, willing to take her chances in the Deadlands. Alone, exiled and unable to return home, she runs into a misfit gang of renegade teens: Saint, a tough Batswana girl; Ginger, a wise-cracking Brit; and handsome Ash, a former child soldier. Under their tutelage, Lele learns how to seriously destroy zombies and together they uncover the corruption endemic in Cape Town, and come to learn the sickening truth about the Guardians . . .


Death of a Saint (Deadlands Book 2) by Lily Herne

Lele, Ginger, Ash and Saint - aka the Mall Rats - are hiding out in the Deadlands, a once-prosperous area of Cape Town, now swarming with the living dead. Exiled from the city enclave for crimes against the Resurrectionist State, the Rats face a stark choice: return and risk capture - or leave Cape Town and go in search of other survivors.

But what if the rest of South Africa is nothing but a zombie-riddled wasteland? Now Lele has discovered the truth about why the lurching dead leave them alone, she can't bring herself to tell the rest of the gang. And she's not the only Mall Rat harbouring a dangerous secret ... Can the friends' survive on the road if all they have is each other? Or will their secrets tear them apart?


The Army Of The Lost (Deadlands Book 1) by Lily Herne

It's been eleven years since South Africa was ravaged by the walking dead. Johannesburg's impoverished survivors are ruled over by a minority of rich self-serving bureaucrats. As the remaining Mall Rats confront the dark heart of the twisted political system - in another part of town, Tommy dreams of joining the Army of the Left, a radical organisation intent on fighting for freedom.

While Ash is forced to face his traumatic past, and Ginger struggles to regain his sanity; Lele goes head to head against a powerful foe, and Saint is dead set on a mission of her own: a fight for survival. Welcome back to the Deadlands ...

Akata Warrior (Akata Witch Book 2) by Nnedi Okorafor
A year ago, Sunny Nwazue, an American-born girl Nigerian girl, was inducted into the secret Leopard Society. As she began to develop her magical powers, Sunny learned that she had been chosen to lead a dangerous mission to avert an apocalypse, brought about by the terrifying masquerade, Ekwensu. Now, stronger, feistier, and a bit older, Sunny is studying with her mentor Sugar Cream and struggling to unlock the secrets in her strange Nsibidi book.

Eventually, Sunny knows she must confront her destiny. With the support of her Leopard Society friends, Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha, and of her spirit face, Anyanwu, she will travel through worlds both visible and invisible to the mysteries town of Osisi, where she will fight a climactic battle to save humanity.

Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi
In the walled city of Kos, corrupt mages can magically call forth sin from a sinner in the form of sin-beasts—lethal creatures spawned from feelings of guilt. Taj is the most talented of the aki, young sin-eaters indentured by the mages to slay the sin-beasts. But Taj’s livelihood comes at a terrible cost. When he kills a sin-beast, a tattoo of the beast appears on his skin while the guilt of committing the sin appears on his mind. Most aki are driven mad by the process, but Taj is cocky and desperate to provide for his family. 

When Taj is called to eat a sin of a member of the royal family, he’s suddenly thrust into the center of a dark conspiracy to destroy Kos. Now Taj must fight to save the princess that he loves—and his own life.


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