Houseboys

EVEN BEFORE I ARRIVED in Nigeria, I took a solemn vow not to have a houseboy. True, you could hire one cheaply, but that would be exploitative, I thought, and a dreary echo of colonial times. As a young, vaguely idealistic American, I hoped to set a better example than the Brits and show a democratic regard for an individual’s self-respect. I might have made good on the vow, too, except that I underestimated the number of unemployed houseboys around. Any white man without a servant was presumed to be in need of help or desperately eccentric, and since my eccentricities were still under wraps, the applicants kept flocking to my door at St. Andrew’s College, Nnewi.

They came from all over the Eastern Region, sometimes traveling forty miles by mammy wagon merely on the breath of a rumor that there might be work. Usually they were grown men rather than boys, and often twice my age. The most serious candidates, who had some actual credentials, presented letters of recommendation from their last employer, fondly recalled now that he’d left West Africa and retired to Bournemouth or Surrey. They recited a list of the “European” dishes they’d been taught to prepare, a Yorkshire pudding or a beef Stroganoff the brigadier’s wife had been fond of, and though they added other qualifications as well, I turned them away, one after another, until I realized houseboys would rain down on me forever unless I reneged on my vow.

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