Slaves at home, slaves abroad
The ordeal of the victim and the cruelty of his torturers were shrouded in secrecy until it became known to the public when the Nigerian-British couple were jailed for six years each. They were indicted for keeping the Nigerian immigrant as a slave for more than two decades. Emmanuel Edet, 61, and Antan Edet, 58, were sentenced at Harrow Crown Court in northwest London two weeks ago after being found guilty in November of child cruelty, slavery and assisting in illegal immigration.
The couple brought the man to Britain in 1989 when he was 14 years old. They told the teenager they would educate and pay him but they forced him to work long hours for no pay and threatened him with deportation if he tried to escape. He received no education and had only very limited contact with his family and the outside world after the couple took his passport and failed to process identity documents for him.
The victim, now 40, was forced to cook, clean, garden and care for the couple’s children without any pay for up to 17 hours a day. He had to eat alone and typically slept on the floor of the hall. The Edets told their captive he would be arrested as an illegal immigrant and deported if he left the house and contacted the police. He believed them and felt trapped.
Perhaps, our response to the incident betrays a certain predilection that lurks in the dark recesses of our minds. Thus instead of taking umbrage at it, we felt that the best way to respond to it was to ignore it. After all, many Nigerians who live in the cities have helps who are rather identified by the glamorous appellation of domestic staff whom they have turned into slaves. He or she is overworked, starved and ill-clothed. The males in the home, including the husband and the sons, and sometimes the females, including the wife and daughters, sexually exploit him or her.
So that the help would not be idle any moment after finishing his or her domestic chores and taking the children to school, he or she is forced by the master or mistress of the house to hawk pure water or any other ware in the sun. Some helps are promised money to settle into business after serving their masters or mistresses . But shortly before the seven or 10 years that the agreement would be in force, the help is sent away on the pretext of his or her being a wizard or witch, lazy, stealing or trying to seduce the madam’s husband or the master’s wife.
Apart from the regulations of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), most countries of the world like Nigeria have their own laws that seek to protect the child . However, such laws in Nigeria are often observed in the breach. This is why our busy roads in the cities are strewn with children who are hawking when they ought to be in school. If the law is really in force, why are the parents of such children not arrested by the police? It is only recently that some states like Kaduna are trying to sanction parents who do not send their children to school.
But even if the Federal Government can muster the will to enforce the laws, it cannot go far. This is because of the poor state of the economy. Some poor parents would still defy the laws and give their children out as helps in a bid to improve their material condition. Until the laws are fully enforced, those who have helps should spare a thought for them. If they make promises to the parents and the children before taking them, they must fulfil them. They should ensure that the helps are not overworked. They should create a conducive environment for them to develop themselves. They should not strive to replicate the 17th and 18th eras of slavery in the United States when the slave holders feared that the ultimate threat to their prosperity was the education of the black slaves.
This was a time that the South believed an educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro. To be sure, the South was not entirely wrong. For as William E.B Dubois notes, “ education among all kinds of men always has had, always will have, an element of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent.” This was why black slaves who, despite their excruciating drudgery found time to learn how to read, always found a means to escape from slavery.
Except in the rare case of Olaudah Equiano whose master gave him an opportunity to learn how to read, almost every slave had to resolve on their own, with dire consequences if caught, to learn how to read. Some hid themselves in the attic to learn how to read. Take the case of Frederick Douglass . He learnt how to read even though “ nothing seemed to make her ( his mistress) more angry than to see me with a newspaper.” To Dougalss’s mistress, education and slavery were incompatible. And because the black slaves knew that education was an escape route to them, they did everything they could to learn how to read. Again, take the case of Douglass. After teaching himself how to read, he became exposed to the possibilities of self-realisation. And this made him to stand up to his master who was always maltreating him. And from that day, his maltreatment stopped.
Indeed, helping the domestic staff to develop themselves and charting a post-service course for them should be done out of an enlightened self-interest. This is because, while those domestic staffs who are helped to develop themselves become part of the families and they remain eternally grateful, those who are neglected ceaselessly haunt their oppressors. It is the latter who collude with armed robbers to attack their oppressive masters and mistresses and kidnap their children. And there is a worse consequence. The children of parents who think that they can exploit other children while theirs are pampered and educated eventually end up as derelicts of society.