Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Her Excellency, Mama Ebe

We all called her Mama Ebe. It was much later I got to know “Ebe” is the abbreviated version of her last child’s name, Ebenezer. She was the cleaner assigned (by the maintenance outfit) to manage and see to the cleanliness of the staircase hall of our end of the office building. A woman of diminutive but plump stature, at an initial encounter, Mama Ebe would come across as someone with not so much of a fascinating personality. However, on a close study I must confess I have met not many individuals like this cheerful, pleasantly optimistic, hardly literate, elderly woman (probably in her late fifties).

The ever-cheery cleaner did not consider it a bother to greet or pass a word of admiration (or prayer) to people, passers-by and colleagues for the umpteenth time within a day. Even when we marched across the floor area she would have painstakingly cleaned during her mopping sessions, she would graciously remove the patches of stains without any complaint, murmur or scurrilous scowl on her face as was usual of other cleaners. Instead, Mama Ebe would step aside with a big, warm, hearty smile on her face to allow passage for the pedestrian and with a compliment to complement (pardon pun):

“Enjinia, iyawo ati omo mi nko? E ya’se o.” (Engineer, how’s your wife? And baby? Have a splendid day at work.)

“Enjinia, Oluwa a bukun fun wa. A o ni p’ofo. Yio dara o.” (Engineer, God will bless us. We won’t be losers. It shall be well.)

“E kaabo. E rora sa. Alaafia o.” (Welcome sir. Peace.)

In her characteristic manner, whether she was cleaning the window panes, sweeping and swabbing the floor, dusting the balustrades or sitting idling in her make-shift abode tucked under the staircase, her sonorous voice could be heard within the vicinity as she either hummed or sang most times, hymns.

Many a time when most of the cleaners had either closed for the day or skulking somewhere (within the premises) avoiding duties, Mama Ebe was customarily seen doing multiple rounds of cleaning even when it seemed not necessary. This baffled me and I made a mental note of casually asking her. The opportunity was made available when I had to make a trip to Mama Ebe’s end of town which coincided with her close of work. In her amiable manner, she asked if I was going her way as I reversed out of the parking lot. Mama Ebe stayed in a semi-slum part, uptown. In spite of the inconvenience encountered navigating through that end of town, I willingly gave her a lift.

After exchanging some pleasantries, I led off the “interrogation” in vernacular as we headed towards the suburbs.

“Mama, hope you had a good day at work. Please if you don’t consider it a bother, why are you often cleaning the staircase hall many times daily even when it appears it is not required?”

Mama Ebe beamed in her typical fashion accompanied by a chuckle that could only come from the depth of a heart that is at ease.

“Enjinia, ise ti won sanwo e fun mi ni mo n’se.” (I’m doing the work I’m being paid for).

“But Mama,” I interjected, “you do it with more than required commitment, at least compared to what your colleagues do.”

She sighed and replied. I tried as much as possible to translate and sum up:

“Engineer, you see, that’s why I’m a cleaner. What you observe as clean is not always so. Often times, though my physical eyes may be feeble, I can observe through my third eye as every speck of dust, every mote of debris travels and settles on the floor or window panes. And since it’s my duty to get rid of these I do it without hesitation. More so, I’ve learnt early in life that never let a mole of task accumulate to become a mountain of duty, which is more difficult to handle. In the same vein, frequent removal of specks of dust will eliminate having to remove almost permanent stains from floors and windows if the dirt is left to accumulate. So you could see I’m even making my task easier when I clean frequently. This I do with utmost commitment not because I’m better paid than colleagues or I seek a wage increase. Neither am I doing this to spite nor put other workers in bad light. It’s a standard I’ve set for myself. It’s my own definition of excellence. After each round of cleaning, I step out of myself and critically look at the work done. I query: If I were the employer, would I be satisfied with the quality of work done? Remember, what’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing well. It’s only at one’s duty post, one could be judged lazy or otherwise.”

As we got to her neighbourhood, Mama Ebe insisted I pay her a visit and more importantly drink a glass of water all to express her gratitude. I indulged her. I parked by the road entrance leading to her quarter – vehicular access was almost impossible. Judging by the avalanche of greetings from various neighbours, Mama Ebe was certainly a well-known and respected figure in this hood. She equally responded with much zest showering her usual prayers.

After opening the door to her apartment, she stepped in murmuring obviously a word of thankfulness to her Creator. I was inquired to take a seat in the living room while she got some drinking water. Obviously, the not too spacious living room did not spell any jot of affluence or form of magnificence going by the scanty furniture, unpainted walls, bare floor and an old piece of electronic. But one could almost grab a feeling of tangible tranquillity and decency. Though the fabric of the curtains and furniture was almost worn out, they were clean and evidently well-maintained. Other items in the room (wall photos and calendars, books, a cupboard and utensils) were also neatly arranged. I took my leave after drinking a glass of water she served in a manner that was befitting only for a king. Unknown to her, this grateful woman had made a lovesome lasting impression on me.

Ergo, months later, it was with great shock and a seared heart I received the news of the death of Mama Ebe as a result of a late diagnosis of severe diabetes conditions. I cried at the demise of a woman who taught me excellence is not copyrighted to the heights or berths of nobility but it can also be redefined and expressed on dirty floors and window panes – the duty post – of an uneducated, benignant woman. Their bona fide “Excellencies” are those individuals – grand or lowly, schooled or crude, enabled or disabled – who daily make every effort to accomplish not just what is obligatory but also go the extra mile in doing more than required in spite of the incentives or limitations.

I also learned from Mama Ebe that fulfilment may not necessarily be experienced through wealth accumulation or possession of goods. Howbeit, it will never elude a self-contented heart, affluent or not.

May her ebullient, contented and excellent soul, rest in peace.


olaoluwatomi said...

There are many Mama Ebes in our country, travelling round 4states over three months has tauhgt me that, people who do their work well without the expectation of a reward which is more often than not the rule these days.

Their reward is certainly in heaven unfortunately since the systems which run in most places is dependent on who you know or what connections you have. In our own little way we should try to honour such people like accepting to drink a glass of water in their homes ie becoming their friends indeed, there is so much to learn from people we give the labels of cleaner, nightwatchmen to.

May Her soul rest in peace1

Adewale Ajani said...

@ Tomi: I do agree with you countless Mama Ebes abound. May we all trail their paths and share their passion.

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