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Teenage managers

Osagie, Alex, Efe and Michele

There are no management books that deal with the particular issues teenagers face when dealing with household staff. While in Nigeria, our kids are learning such people-management skills through trial and error as they deal with our driver, Efe, and our security man, Osagie.

For those of you who don’t live in Nigeria, the idea of having a driver and personal bodyguard (who sits in the front passenger seat) probably sounds exceedingly snobby and quite luxurious. It is rather practical given that we live in a place where security is an issue, where maps and guides are outdated and the street name and numbering system is erratic. With Efe and Osagie we feel safe as we drive around at all hours in Lagos; and if I give them advanced warning, they find the places I want to go to, no matter how bizarre the address. One day, my car broke down on my way to a doctor’s appointment. Within 15 minutes, we all hopped into a replacement car and left the replacement-car driver to deal with the broken car. Now that is luxury.

However, for the kids and I, these two men take up a rather large role in our lives. In planning our daily movements, we take not only each other’s needs into account, but also those of ‘our guys’. I let them know what my intended movements are for the day, and (if I know) for the week. I can change things, but it takes a bit of the spontaneity out of life.

We moved to Lagos from the Netherlands where we had total freedom of movement. There, we shared only one car, but we also each had a bike and access to an extensive public transportation system. We were very aware of the fact that moving to Lagos would impact the sense of independence this freedom gave us – especially for our teenage kids who were just coming into that age where they seek to develop their autonomy,

So we try to lead our lives as normally as possible. Our attempts are hindered, however, by the fact that we are constantly aware of the impact our movements have on ‘the guys’. When I’m out, they wait for me in or near the car (without the benefit of air-conditioning). And if we go out at night, they stay in temporary lodgings because they don’t have enough time to go home before returning to pick up my husband for work at 6:00.

My Nigerian friends tell me that I am silly to feel guilty. In a country where over 70% of the population works in the informal sector and earn less than UDS 2 per day, our guys are happy to have steady jobs with a reputable company. The pay and work conditions we provide are far better than what the vast majority of drivers get. I believe this is true: we offered Efe to show his CV to people we know who could offer him a job in his field – Efe graduated from a Nigerian University in something like shipping. But he never took us up on our offer.

So our children go out in the evenings with their friends, almost like they would at home. Almost, except that they have to not only tell me where they are going and what time they’ll be home, but also tell the drivers where to go and what time to pick them up. And this, to our surprise, has turned out to be more complicated than we thought it would be.

On the one hand our kids are respectful towards Efe and Osagie, as they we have taught them to always be towards adults. They call them Mr. Efe and Mr. Osagie, always say please and thank you, and always ask how they are. On the other hand, our kids are, essentially, the bosses whose requests should be followed. It hasn’t always worked. Osagie has pulled the kids out of parties earlier than I told the kids they could stay, and once refused to bring them to a certain compound on the grounds that the traffic would be too heavy and they’d get back too late.

I had to intervene on both accounts. In general, I have two choices; either I keep control myself and always give directives regarding the children’s movements, or, I simply make it clear that in my absence, the children are ‘the boss.’ In the name of their developing autonomy, I leave them to work it out. It has been interesting to watch how each child has devised different methods of dealing with the guys. My son has developed a ‘we are all guys together’ complicity and asks for their ‘help’ to get where he wants. Our daughter relies on the notion of established timetables, appealing to their sense of duty to get the job done properly. Both children try to resolve issues on their own and call me only as a last resort.

I firmly believe that no one can learn to manage people in a classroom. Good managers have innate people-skills and have experience in dealing with all sorts of individuals. Our time in Nigeria is providing our children with the opportunity to develop their own approaches and techniques to managing people. These are skills that will stay with them forever.


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