John, The Steward
June 1982 – April 1983
John, our steward in Kano, was of the Ibol Tribe and from the southeastern part of Nigeria. He spoke an excellent English, was a good cook and certainly saved me from completely falling apart from culture shock when I walked into what we were to call our home for the next few months. Nigerians categorized themselves in terms of black, brown or yellow. John was what the Nigerians would call “black,” at least that is what he told me. My first impression of John was a greeting at our arrival at the door to this new home. He was quite stocky, just a little taller than I am (I am 5ft 1 in), and smiling. He was barefooted, wore a light blue and well worn jacket and matching pants very frayed at the hem. He greeted us, “Welcome Massa and Mata.” I later learned that I was Mata and my husband was Massa.
John rarely wore shoes. He tried to wear shoes – actually, they were slip-on sandals – when he remembered, but quite often the shoes remained at the back door while he padded around in the house and out in the garden, and the gravel driveway on bare feet. The soles of his feet were so thick they resembled a thick layer of rubber; he did not really need shoes, but wore them as a sign of affluence. Maybe he decided not to wear his sandals because they did not fit. In Nigeria you tended to buy shoes – one size fits all. Some Nigerians wore shoes too small, but mostly they had shoes which were too large, because then all the members of the family could take turns wearing them. I’m not sure which was the case with John. I am also sure that no matter how many pairs of sandals we could have bought him, he would just have sold them and kept the profit.
John had worked for a French family and a Danish bachelor before he joined our family. I spent a lot of time talking to John and learning about the Nigerian people (primarily the Igbo), their customs, and their tribal and civil laws. John was a Christian, that is to say a Christian in African terms. I learned through the course of our stay that a lot of the African and Christian beliefs were extricable. In John‘s case, he was still somewhat superstitious and also followed many of the Igbo tribal laws. He was an elder in his community and often met in a council to determine the punishments and/or rewards of his fellow Ibo tribesmen. John was very practical or was he cunning – when the Igbo culture suited him, he applied it to his daily life, otherwise, there was Christianity and the civil laws of Kano which came into consideration if that was more expedient. To this day I am not quite sure, because he still clung to many superstitions and tribal customs, but I learned later in life, that Africans easily combine their tribal customs and culture with Christianity. The Christian beliefs just slot in where they fit and the same goes with the tribal culture. We had many interesting discussions where we learned from each other and laughed a lot.
He was ever so pleased that we had two boys in our family and proceeded to completely spoil them in a matter of days. Especially our youngest son who was only five years old, blond, lively and friendly. Our older son was almost nine years old and a little more discerning in his evaluation of this new addition to our family. Because that is what John came to be, a part of our family. John somemtimes complained about our older son as he felt our son did not convey the appropriate respect and/or courtesy due to John.
On that first morning and every morning thereafter, John cleaned the house before any of us got up and usually had breakfast ready to serve in the dining room. He just knew what to do. What a blessing, because I didn’t have the vaguest idea of how to train an African steward or even how to deal with one. On our first morning in the house, we were served bacon, eggs and toast. And from where, I don’t know, John produced a wonderful cup of coffee. I looked around for the toaster and when I could not find one, John informed me with his usual laugh that he placed the bread under the broiler until it was toasted. Bread!?! Where did he get the bread? Oh, I had so much to learn. I asked if it was possible to get some yoghurt? Of course, off he went on his motorbike and returned with a small container of natural yoghurt. I later learned to make my own yoghurt, but until that time, John always had a yoghurt in the fridge. Of course, he loved it when I gave him the plastic bowls in which the yoghurt appeared.
We were served French food and Danish food, courtesy of former employers. I’m not sure what he learned from me, but I did learn early on never to let him touch my electrical kitchen equipment. That man could break anything. On the other hand, he could fix most anything as well – almost. Maybe he had broken the doors to the refrigerators and freezers of which I had three. One door of one refrigerator was held in place with a chair, the other fridge had a large rope tied around it to hold the door shut and the door to the third refrigerator, if I recall correctly, actually stayed shut on its own. Even Felix, Mr. Fixit, couldn’t salvage the refrigerators and finding or buying a new one required an import license and transport from Europe.
I had a large pantry which I kept locked. I found out quite early on, after comments of “This is too nice,” that I could lose up to 5 lbs of sugar, rice, flour, potatoes, onions, coffee, tea, oil and dishwashing detergent in one week. How anyone could go through one liter of oil in a week and one large container of dishwashing liquid in one week was beyond me. The simple remedy was to just lock the storeroom and give John the supplies he needed for each meal or each day. I noticed that he always took out the garbage while we ate, and I think that is how my supplies disappeared.
Now you may think that I was rather stingy, but actually, it didn’t matter how much or what I gave John, he always needed more. In his eyes, and from his observations, if we ran out of an item, it was magically supplied again. The more supplies I had in the store room, the more John felt he could use (abscond with). Most stewards lived off the compound, but in his case, we provided two houses and a toilet with shower for John, his wife and six children. John received a sufficient salary to afford to send all six children to school. When John’s older son completed his education, my husband helped him get into an apprenticeship program.
We had a small orchard in our garden with papaya, oranges, grapefruit, lime and lemons. The trees were actually planted in rows with a small built-up earthen wall around each tree, so that the trees could be watered and the termites had a more difficult time attacking the fruit trees. I found John’s children out there one morning collecting the fruit from our trees. When I asked John about this, he told me that his orchard (we had provided him with a small orchard), had no fruit because the trees needed watering. I told him his orchard was his responsibility and he should water his trees, not neglect his orchard and then take our fruit. He watered our trees every day, but he or his children never watered the trees in their little orchard. We thought we had been rather generous in providing him with free accommodation, modern toilet and his own fruit orchard. I learned that although John managed our home very well, I needed to take charge of his home. Of course, he couldn’t water his trees, as he was “the man in his house”, and his wife was not very firm with the children. It was a complicated situation which I actually never really solved, although I did continue to try. Fortunately, we never completed the chicken coop, as I am sure there would never have been any eggs and, probably, the chickens would have disappeared on a regular basis.
John and I baked cakes. I would prepare the batter, he would light the gas oven with a match, turn up the flame, stick his hand into the oven and tell me when he thought the oven had reached the correct temperature so I could place my cake in the oven. He always laughed and danced a jig when we baked a cake, because he was so impressed with these cakes. His usual comment was, “Mata, this is too nice.” He loved the orange, apple and chocolate cakes I managed to concoct, and of course, liked it even more when I sent some home for his family Wonder if his family ever saw any cake. I mean, the path from our house was just long enough for John to polish off the cake and crumbs before he reached home. Finding all the correct and necessary ingredients was sometimes quite a challenge, but the resulting cakes were greatly appreciated by family and friends.
Anyway, apart from cleaning the house, doing a little food shopping, washing and ironing, John prepared our three meals each day, except on Sundays when he had off – to go to church? Actually, he quite often had Saturday afternoons off as well, because we tended to go on excursions to Tigga Dam on either Saturdays or Sundays. Sometimes we had picnics in the bush with friends, had people over for barbecues, or watched movies In those days it was videos which we rented or bought from a Lebanese lady called Lila. Lila managed to smuggle in these videos, but sometimes the start of these videos was surprising. A lot of them started with the local news. We also went to the British Motor Club or out to eat at the Lebanese Club, which we dubbed the “Bornholmer Club” or The Chinese Pagoda, the only Chinese restaurant in town. The Lebanese Club had the best schnitzel in town! It was the only restaurant which served schnitzel or any other Western food for that matter. The local swimming pool had dried up a long time ago – actually, once the British left Nigeria, a lot of places just disappeared.
We relied very much on the expatriot community. We found that the greater the hardships in a country, the more closely knit the expatriot community was. We had some very good friends and that is what made the challenging life in Nigeria possible.