The House Help

Growing up in a variety of different cities, states, and even countries, there have been numerous people who have been key influences on my life. Of all the individuals I have met along the way, there is one person who has had the most profound effect on my life. This woman has taught me the true value of hard work, perseverance, respect, and a sense of home. Jummai is our cook and house help in our home in Nigeria, West Africa, where my parents and I have lived for six years. When she first came to us asking to be hired, she spoke only 2 of the nations languages, and she spoke little English and could not read or write at all. Because I was homeschooled for my first year in Nigeria, I used to get up and finish my work quickly so I could sit in the kitchen, listening to stories about Jummai’s childhood in the village, and help her make lunch that day. Leaning over a hot pot of jolof rice or egusi stew and breathing in the pungent aroma of the spicy traditional food, I learned more about real life than I had as a kid living on a college campus in New York. Not only would she tell me about the good times, she would tell me how she had to fight with the other children to ensure she didn’t go to sleep with an empty stomach that day; and the beatings she would receive if she messed even an insignificant chore. All this Jummai told me while bent over a broom, working as hard as ever until she slept. Little did she realize she was teaching me valuable lessons in all of this, giving a literal example of the values my parents had taught me. She imparted her knowledge in anecdotes about how she had to fight to be truly safe, how she persevered to give her children the life she didn’t have, and about the loving family she found in her new family, us. She taught me about life, and I helped her learn to read and write. Every word she carefully sounded resonated within my heart how lucky I was to live the life I had. She didn’t have to go the extra mile, but she did it because she knew the respect it can earn you. Those days when I sat in the kitchen, speaking to her in a jumble of Hausa and English were good ones, and as her English progressed, so did my Hausa. After that first year in Nigeria, I started going to Hillcrest School, a private Christian school. I still came home with the same enthusiasm, and as I got older the impact of her lessons only became clearer to me. She never complained, she only told things the way they were. In my mind, she is the pinnacle of womanhood; she is the person we all strive to become: modest, determined, and strong.

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