When I was 12 years old, my mother handed me over to an agent. I was crammed into a truck and taken from my home in Benin and across the border into Nigeria. I was crying and scared. I didn’t know where they were taking me or why my mother just gave me away to them. Didn’t she love me any more?
I wanted to go to school but instead I became a domestic servant to a businesswoman who beat the other girls and me for little accidents such as breaking a plate. We didn’t sleep in beds but on the floor and sometimes she didn’t give us breakfast until early afternoon. She was a cruel and heartless woman. I hated it there and wished I could run away.
I worked for the businesswoman for two years and when my contract was up, my mother had the agent move me to another household. Fortunately for me, Mrs. Okoye, my new employer, was kind and treated me well. She was a banker and mother of two. Her husband was really nice too. The other two girls and I liked it there. She sent us to school. I liked going to school. We slept in beds and not on the floor. We were given breakfast in the mornings.
I didn’t want to leave there. I prayed that I would be able to stay there–that my mother wouldn’t get the agent to send me somewhere else. My prayer was answered. Mrs. Okoye extended my two-year contract. Since she was from an upper-class family, my mother decided that I would be better off staying there. I had to give her all of my salary which was 10,000 naira per month. I didn’t mind. She could take the money as long as I got to stay with my employer and go to school.
Then, a year ago, my mother died and I was an orphan. I had no family. Mrs. Okoye and her family were the only family I had. Throughout the three years of my employment with them, they have been nothing but kind to me.
I’m 17 now. I’m still cooking, washing clothes, cleaning the house and taking care of the children when they come home from school while their parents are working but I don’t mind. At least when I’m not longer working here, I can find a job because I got an education something my mother couldn’t afford to give me. She told me she couldn’t afford to feed or school me. So, she sent me away to work. I don’t have any hard feelings toward her. I just wish she hadn’t sent me away.
A sound behind me interrupts my thoughts and I turn, my heart skipping a beat when I see that it’s Alastair Capell, Mrs. Okoye’s English boss. He’s very handsome. As I stand there staring at him, he smiles and says, “Hello, Binta.”
“Hello, Mr. Capell.” He’s always so well-dressed.
“We’re alone, Binta. You may call me Alastair.”
I nodded. “Yes, Alastair.” He’s right. The family isn’t home. Mr. and Mrs. Okoye are at the office and the children are at school. The other two girls have gone to the market.
“I don’t like you working here,” he said. “You’re a bright girl. You should be thinking about going to university.”
“Mrs. Okoye has been kind enough to send me to school.”
“Yes, that was kind of her but what will you do after you finish school? Continue to work as a domestic?”
“I don’t know. Mrs. Okoye and her husband have been good to me and they pay me well.”
“But, is this what you really want, Binta?”
“I can help you. If you want to go to university, I can help you to do that.”
“I’ll speak to Mrs. Okoye and if she agrees, I will take care of your tuition.”
I stare up at him. “What if Mrs. Okoye asks why you’re helping me, a girl you hardly know as far as she’s concerned. What will you tell her?”
“I will tell her that my sister who’s about your age is going to university in the Fall so why can’t you have the same opportunity? I will also tell her that girls should be in school, getting educated not working as domestics. There are agencies out there which provide such services. Use them instead of exploiting girls and children.”
“It’s very good of you to do this for me because you believe in girls’ education.”
“I’m also doing this for another very good reason.”
His eyes darkens and he holds my face between his hands, “I’m doing this because I love you, Binta.”
My heart melts. It’s the first time I have heard him say that he loves me. I can see it in his eyes. “I love you too.”
He smiles and lowers his head to kiss me. I close my eyes and put my arms around his waist and kiss him back. At the back of my mind I wonder what Mrs. Okoye would do if she knew that he and I were lovers. We have been since the first time we met which was just after I celebrated my 17th birthday. He’s much older than me, of course, but I don’t care. Age is just a number. Mrs. Okoye would probably be shocked that an affluent man like Alastair would become involved with one of her domestics. It was unheard of in her circle.
When he breaks off the kiss, we hold hands, leave the kitchen and head for my bedroom. We make love and an hour later, he leaves. I return to my baking, dreaming of the next time when we are together.
True to his word, he spoke to Mrs. Okoye and it was arranged that I would go to the university of my choice and he would take care of the tuition. He promised to get her a replacement from a reputable house help service. The other two girls who were domestics in the Okoye’s home were were provided vocational training in skills at an educational facility for Girls and Women. I had mixed feelings leaving the Okoyes because they were so good to me but I was happy to go to university.
I’m attending the Baze University and studying Business Administration. Alastair and I are living together. He has a housekeeper who does what I used to do. No more domestic work for me. He wants me to concentrate on my studies and after I finish with university, get a job. We are engaged but he says that after I graduate, we will get married. I can’t wait. He’s the best thing that has ever happened to me. Some good has come out of all of this and I thank God everyday for His mercies. He got me through those dark, difficult days. I pray for the girls who are sent away from their homes like I was and that someone will help them like I was. They deserve to have an education which will make it possible for them to have a good life and a good future. Everyone wins when a girl is educated.
Binta’s Story is fiction but it is based on real stories of girls who are sent away by their parents who cannot afford to feed or school them, while others provide for their families – sometimes acting as the main breadwinner. Some are abused, cut off from their relatives, denied an education and left with nowhere to turn. Binta’s story is based on Titi who was handed over by her mother to an agent at the age of 10 and taken from Benin to South West Nigeria. In Nigeria, house girls are usually employed by upper and middle-class families with disposable income to spare. Their employers are mostly working women who rely on these girls to ease their domestic load while they focus on paid jobs.
These girls should be in school, getting an education and not being trafficked by unscrupulous agents who take a cut of the salary as commission and like to move them regularly from one household to another because of the fresh commission it generates, and the higher wages they can demand. And these women who need house-help must stop exploiting these girls by going through these agents by going through reputable house help services.
As Chinelo Ezenwa, founder of the project, Abuja-based Literacy and Skills Place which helps female domestic workers to leave a life of servitude by teaching them to read and write, and providing vocational training in skills such as baking and sewing points out, “The house help industry can be a positive thing because you get to help other people who are less privileged, but it should be regulated.” The laws need to protect the rights and futures of these girls.