August 25, 2010

Mr. O

Since moving into the "Nigerian Idol" house, I've been living a life of decadence: sinks with flowing water! Fans that stay on all night! Lukewarm showers!

But there are other realities about life here in the compound that make me less comfortable. When I arrived, I learned that my patron had summoned an elderly housekeeper, Mr. O, to come stay with me. I first met Mr. O scrubbing the kitchen floor in his underwear. I learned he lives with his family three hours away, and on Sunday he left at 7 in the morning to travel those three hours to be with them in church.

The day I moved in, my friend Vocal Slender dropped by and told me he wanted to take me to Ajigule, the slum he grew up in. We were in the posh part of town, amid rows of fenced in mansions, so I figured we’d have far to travel to reach the slums. Instead, Slender took me a few paces from my house, turned down a narrow alley made of planks laid over a sewer line, and led me to the banks of a smelly and polluted river. And there, just on the opposite bank, was the sprawling slum. For 10 Naira (6 cents), a punt took us to the other side. I honestly couldn't shake the feeling that Charon was ferrying me across the River Styx. On the opposite bank was the sort of thing I had expected to see in all of Lagos but had remained hidden until now: pollution, desperation, dirt, smells of cooking oil and petrol. This was where clusters of kids squealed “Oyibo!” and followed me around the streets, where I had a delicious meal of pounded yam for $1 at a chop house, and where I got to hear and record Slender and his musician friends improvise a song on their front stoop. “This neighborhood,” Slender explained as we left, “is where all the staff live for the houses across the river."

I returned home to my mansion. Mr. O had washed all the floors, made the bed, and sprayed my room with anti-mosquito spray. When I asked if there was potable water, he dashed out to buy several liters before I could stop him. At first I felt purely guilty; just because I had wanted a few hours of comfort, I had made an old man toil away all day. Then I thought of Nigeria’s staggering unemployment rate, and I wondered: is Mr. O getting paid tonight when he otherwise wouldn’t have? Does he need this extra money to support his family? And I thought of Ajigule; is Mr. O grateful to spend a night in a cool room, with a soft bed? So have I clumsily benefited him or only inconvenienced him? I've decided, for the time being, that these questions are outside of my control, and for the next few days at least, it's best I try not to answer them.

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