LOUD WHISPERS: The Equals of the Slave Masters

‘Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves’, Abraham Lincoln.


The headlines are unrelenting:

‘Woman docked for locking maid in the toilet for 20 days’

‘Woman called out for burning 10-year-old housemaid with hot iron’

‘Police arrest madam who brutalized maid, cuts her hand with hand saw’

‘Woman sentenced to 4years in prison for brutalizing 12-year-old niece with razor’

‘Police Officer’s wife tortures 10-year-old niece over missing N30’

It goes on and on. Perhaps because people now know action will be taken against perpetrators, there are now more tip offs from concerned neighbours when they notice something untoward with regards to the treatment of house help or very young family members who live with their relatives. The maltreatment of domestic workers is nothing new, and since we have very poor enforcement of our trafficking laws, impunity continues to reign. Recently, there was yet another headline, ‘Woman locks up 13-year-old maid and travels abroad’. According to a press release by the Lagos State police, one Becky Ifeoma who works for NNPC locked her maid up in the house and travelled out of the country. Acting Police Commissioner Edgal Imohimi led a raid of Ms Ifeoma’s Anthony Village, Lagos, residence. Of all the sensational headlines about the abuse of domestic staff, I found this one to be particularly disturbing. How can someone lock up another human being for weeks and leave them with only biscuits to eat? Most of the cases of the abuse of domestics involves minors. Children who are supposed to be looked after themselves are left in charge of other children. They are tasked with carrying out endless domestic chores, and when they do not meet the standards of their employers, they are beaten and starved. When you deprive anyone of food, they will do whatever they can to survive. The house-help then resort to sneaking food from the house or from neighbours, for which they receive more punishment in a vicious cycle of abuse and neglect.

As Africans, we are now all up in arms about what is going on in Libya, with the open sale of African migrants in Libyan slave markets. We have also been told by some fortunate returnees that they were sold by fellow Africans to the Libyans. One of the pillars of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade which lasted for over 400 years, was the active involvement of Africans who acted as middle-men in the capture and sale of their kinsmen and women. We can argue that the locals had little choice because the Europeans were armed with guns and canons, and if they refused, it would only be a matter of time before they entered the hinterlands and did the dirty work themselves. However, perhaps if there had been less enthusiasm for the trade on the part of greedy local Chiefs and slave catchers, malaria and other tropical diseases could have helped minimize the damage done by the slave trading merchants. At the end of the day, it does not really matter whether they were willing participants or not. The fact is that they played a key role in the capture and enslavement of millions for generations.

When I wonder what could drive sane human beings to acts of such wickedness against children and vulnerable adults, I think about what kept the institution of slavery going for so long. In order for those invested in the slave trade to justify their actions, they had to convince themselves and others that slaves were not human beings and did not have souls. Slaves were merely property, to be bought, owned, used and sold when required. Slaves were on the same level as livestock, and those who received good treatment at the hands of their Masters or Mistresses did so because of the productive and reproductive value they had. If you own a cow and want it to produce milk on a consistent basis, you have to keep it alive and well. Slavery was widely practiced in many of our communities, usually a direct consequence of wars of conquest. However, slaves were not equated with animals, and there are several sayings in our languages that imply that slaves were treated as human beings and some of them even rose to become members of households.  Apart from what we know of slavery from ancient times, before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, there was the Trans-Saharan slave trade, which has not been as widely documented. Just as the Trans-Atlantic slave trade provided the basis for an assertion of superiority over black Africans, the Trans-Saharan slave trade was predicated on exactly the same thing – black Africans were (and still are) considered lower in the pecking order of ‘races’. Going back in history, there has never been any doubt that we are thought of as slaves in those communities because of the colour of our skin, regardless of the contributions we have made in building and running empires that date back thousands of years.

The images of Africans chained and ‘sold like goats’ to quote President Muhammadu Buhari, and the disgusting video footage showing the sexual torture of African women by their Libyan captors, do not belong in a modern era, but the thinking that has sustained the slave trade globally over hundreds of years has never really changed. For the slave trade to work back then, Africans had to be deprived of their very humanity. Today, nothing much has changed. Sadly, a vast majority of victims of the modern slave trade are not those who by choice or deception decided to make the deadly trip to get to Europe via places like Libya. The thousands of very young children who are being trafficked across borders and in-country in West Africa for example, far exceed those in the slave camps in Libya.

A few years ago, I visited the elderly mother of a friend of mine. Her daughter is based in the US, and had sent money home for her mother to employ a maid. I was asked to visit the old woman and help interview the maid. I thought the maid would be at least eighteen and above. It turned out that the maid did not appear to be older than thirteen years old. She spoke no English, French or any Nigerian language. She had been brought in from a village in Togo. I insisted that she had to be sent back to where she had come from. I then threatened the ‘middle-woman’ with arrest by the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP). She scurried off with her young victim and I knew the poor child would end up somewhere else. The middle-woman would be the one collecting the girl’s pay to ‘send to her parents’.

It is rather unfortunate that both men and women are culpable in the abuse of domestic staff and depriving them of basic rights such as food, shelter, education and healthcare. Many domestic staff sleep on the hard floor, most of them are starved and when they are sick they do not get the help they need. The scars on their bodies tell a story of constant neglect and abuse. While sexual abuse and harassment seems to be the purview of the men and sons of the house, the Madam of the house is the enforcer and all kinds of horrors are rained on the bodies and souls of these poor children.

The moment we start to undermine the personhood of others, our own humanity is called into question. Just like the slavers of old convinced themselves that the slaves they owned were not human, those who ‘own’ domestic staff seem to have drawn the same conclusion. A person who leaves another human being locked up in a house for weeks and travels out of the country does not think she has left a person in the house. You can’t even lock up a cat or dog and travel and not be thought of as a terrible human being.  We can rain all the curses we like on the Libyan slave traders and their African collaborators. We need to take a long hard look at ourselves, our neighbours and our friends. How do we feel about those who prey on the poor and vulnerable? Are we different? How do we treat those who work for us? Those who we leave our children with? We have been made to understand that there is a whistleblowing policy at NAPTIP. It needs to be widely publicized so that we can be each other’s keeper. Black people have been enslaved in so many different ways for many generations. It is tragic that we are doing the same thing to ourselves and our children. According to James A. Baldwin, ‘Not only was I not born to be a slave, I was not born to hope to become the equal of the slave master’. It seems as if some of us have become exactly that. Equals of the slave master.


Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com





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16 Responses to LOUD WHISPERS: The Equals of the Slave Masters

  1. Femi Diipo December 4, 2017 at 11:45 am

    How this encapsulate my thoughts lately. I keep wondering how these people justify slavery, how you’d use another human like an animal and subject another soul to the gravest inhuman treatments. I guess truly some of us have become equal with the slave masters. There must be an end to all these somewhere along the line

  2. Dom Dom December 4, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    Truly, the slavers must believe the slaves to not be human who are capable of having similar emotions and pains, to be able to inflict such pain and hardship on others. Before these past couple of weeks one would have thought that this kinda slavery no longer exists but sadly here we are. And this article has really brought it all to the core of consciousness, that slavery exist even domestically and war against this abomination must start from every home, in the treatment of maids, servants and house helps generally

  3. DSEED December 4, 2017 at 11:34 pm

    Only God’s know what this world is turning into. The act of slavery must stop. Slavery of a thing comes in different ways. All I know is that all forms of slavery must be says know to. Thank you mama for also talking about this.

  4. Olakunle Olajide December 6, 2017 at 2:02 pm

    Slavery. It is just so unfortunate that this kind of situation still exists. I just wonder what the true meaning of human being is. So much hatred, crazy believes, undying jealousy and much more. I think the world should be in a better place by now but it is just not happening. So much maltreatment everywhere and the truth is there is no sign of solution in sight. Well we keep spreading the word that will one day bear good fruits.

  5. Zainab Andrews December 7, 2017 at 12:16 pm

    May we learn as a continent! May we reason and be better.

  6. Bolanle Olatan December 7, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    What an exemplary leader you are, Seriously, when we have the mindset of treating people well and accordingly, we wouldn’t have issues in this country and as a continent. We are just extremely greedy and its killing us.

  7. Victoria E December 7, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    Thank you for writing this piece. I have seen cases of maids looking haggard, unkempt and runs a 24/7 service in a house. A little squint of the eyes for sleep it’s cane and severe punishment and I keep wondering what makes us different from the slave masters? What makes us better if we are the one treating ourselves this way?

  8. Josh Amara December 7, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    Congrats on the launch of the book ma’am. I saw it on instagram. This case is pathetic and seriously, slave trade still exists o and we are the ones selling ourselves. Before I get a maid I get to meet her parents, tell them they can come visit their child anytime and she can also go to see them. I also, get to school them. The help I have can speak fluently, in fact she makes beads. I hope everyone can learn to be better and just treat people well. God bless you for saying this ma

  9. veronica Imaseun December 7, 2017 at 12:31 pm

    She locked her maid up and travelled abroad… God! When will we learn to be better. You are right ma, I keep saying we sold ourselves to the slave masters. Our people sold us to them and see we are still doing that. God help us.

  10. colette idris December 7, 2017 at 12:43 pm

    We are hoping that people learn as they read things like this. please, let’s keep sharing this article.

  11. Victor Udoh December 7, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    hmmmm. This is really pathetic and thank you ma for speaking ma. I agree with @colette, we need to share this article.

  12. Maduka Justina December 7, 2017 at 1:05 pm

    We need to make laws active in Africa. We need to make sure we stand against impunity, I watched that video and wept. Nigerians, Ghanaians,Libyans selling their brothers, treating them as slaves. It’s pathetic!

  13. Omilola Adeleke. December 8, 2017 at 2:16 pm

    Even the ones we do to ourselves in this country nko? See some human beings hoarding fuel unnecessarily just to see people go through stress,see pensioners too they have been waiting endlessly for their sweat. God will save us as a continent that’s all I can say.

  14. Loreta Williams December 8, 2017 at 2:22 pm

    Sincerely, God bless you ma. I had a chat with someone who hails from Ekiti and we spoke about you. I saw the wrong notion she had of you and I directed her to this site. After reading, she called me and said, May God forgive her for all she has said and those she has shared it with. I am happy you wrote this ma’am. Thank you for being true to yourself and thank You for being calm, honorable and diligent.

  15. Bisi Alawode December 8, 2017 at 2:26 pm

    @Omilola, You are very right. I will continue to say, we started selling ourselves long before the Whites came! They leveraged on what they saw and we are still doing it right now. Bosses who treat their employees like slaves, Men who beat their wives, maids, etc. Even some religious leaders treat their congregants like slaves. We should flush the mentality off our system! That is the only way this can be genuinely eradicated.

  16. Eric Onuoha December 13, 2017 at 5:53 pm

    An interesting and informative article. I wonder how a human being can treat another human being with such cruelty and not feel anything. Such a person has a heart of stone. I think there should be strict punishment for offenders.
    Nobody is a slave.


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