Abi Daré on the Questions That Sparked The Girl with the Louding Voice
The Girl with the Louding Voice, our Fiction Book of the Month for October, is a powerful story of ambition and hope, told through fourteen-year-old Nigerian girl Adunni, who is tied to domestic servitude but driven by her desire for education. In this exclusive piece, the author Abi Daré looks back on her own childhood in Nigeria and talks about the circumstances and questions that fuelled her extraordinary novel.
For most of the years I spent growing up in Nigeria, there were always young girls and women who came to work for my family, or and for the families around us in our middle-class neighbourhood in Lagos. These girls were called housemaids or house girls. They were often brought by one of their family members acting as an agent, and worked with us for a year or two, sometimes longer. The older girls who lived with us would sometimes share, often in broken English, their need to escape poverty, their sadness at missing home (which was usually a village or a neighbouring country), their desire to go to school or to start a trade.
I remember a girl called Mariam, who worked for one of our neighbours. One summer, when I was around thirteen and she was around eleven, Mariam and I became friends. Mariam was small, had a shaved head, and when she laughed, which was often, the house would seem to vibrate from the joyous sounds from her mouth. I had no sister, and I found one in Mariam. But Mariam was not like me. She worked. She swept and cleaned and dusted and tidied. Every time I was asked to join Mariam in doing some chores, I always came up with an excuse not to help – that I had homework. Mariam had no excuse: she didn’t go to school.
When I returned to school at the end of summer, I remember watching as tears ran down Mariam’s face. Six weeks later, she was gone, sent to work for another family. Like the maids before her, she was quickly replaced. I never saw her again. But I never forgot her. Often, she would peek out from where she had stayed hiding in my memory. At night, I would lie awake, wondering, is she all right? Where is she? Sometimes I would hear her laughter. Other times, her eyes, wide and bright, would light up the dark recesses of my mind. Maids were girls like Mariam. Many of them were dressed in tattered, dirty clothes with unkempt hair. They would stand behind a family of well-dressed, well-fed, well-spoken children. Their heads bent. Silent. And in silence, I later understood, many of them suffered physical and sexual abuse. Even as a young girl, I wondered why they were made to feel like outcasts when without them, homes simply wouldn’t function? I had questions, questions I never voiced: why were they not allowed to watch TV? Wear nice clothes? Go to school?
But while I often asked myself these questions, it wasn’t until I had my own children that I began to reflect more deeply on this aspect of my childhood. When my daughter turned eight, I asked her, as politely as possible, ‘Will you help me load the dishwasher?’ Her response was a series of moans. She wanted Haribo sweets before she would lift a finger.
‘Do you know that there are girls like you, probably working for families like ours in Nigeria?’ I asked.
She was surprised. ‘Working in an office?’ she asked, ‘Do they get paid? Are they rich? How cool!’
I explained that it wasn’t an office job. It wasn’t cool.
Work meant chores.
It meant no holidays. It meant, for many girls, no school, and no TV and no nice clothes. My daughter was shocked, and then saddened. Looking into her face, the horror of what was the norm in my childhood hit me. This was child slavery. That night, I started my research and discovered that the ill-treatment of young girls was still an issue in Nigeria. I read and absorbed every piece of literature I could find, watched every harrowing video on social media that had documented abuse. The use of underage girls as domestic servants is a common occurrence in many parts of the world, and Nigeria is no exception. According to the International Labour Organisation, the number of working children under the age of fourteen is estimated to be as high as 15 million, but as there is a lack of clarity around the minimum age requirement, it is impossible to give an accurate number. Despite the creation of an anti-trafficking agency by the Nigerian government (NAPTIP) in 2003 in an attempt to tackle trafficking of persons across the borders, the issue still persists. And as a practice that is deeply ingrained in our culture, it is often difficult to challenge.
It was an article about a thirteen-year-old girl who had been scalded with boiling water by the woman who employed her that fuelled my desire to start writing. The horrific injuries reported in the article were distressing to read, but I found myself most deeply affected by the fact that her face was blurred out. Almost like a deliberate act to disconnect her from the world. As if to say, here is a nobody. Another statistic to report on. I wondered, who is the maid in this article? Where has she come from? Does she have a family? What does she want out of life? What are her hopes and dreams? What were the hopes and dreams of the girls I grew up with? What were Mariam’s dreams? Where was Mariam now?
The Girl With The Louding Voice was born out of my desire for answers. I was desperate to tear away the veil from these young girls who had worked so hard for so little, but above all, I was eager to shed light on this issue, in the hope that we can all start a conversation together that will drive us, collectively to take a step towards positive change.
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