Layo Bright shared a few posts on her Instagram page that triggered my personal memories of the word ‘aunty’ and its usage from an early age. The posts were about an installation titled AUNTY, which was presented as part of her Master of Fine Arts projects at Parsons The New School for Design in New York.

Within the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, the word ‘aunty’ became the foremost sign of showing respect for a female person older than yourself and it carries with it memories of being reprimanded for addressing persons in such position simply by their first names. One grows up to have many categories of aunties as one navigates through life and seeks certain doors to open. At some point, it becomes more of an endearment than its original use, which is to show respect.

The word aunty or auntie was originally used to address relatives only. It took on additional usage in the late 18th century when it was used to address elderly slave women in the south of the U.S. or as a kindly gesture to an older woman. How it became the word used to address female persons in similar working situations in Nigeria is unclear, but it must have been one of those things we borrow without knowing its origin. Although colonized by the British, we have more social behaviours traceable to (African) Americans.

At some point, the usage of the word ‘aunty’ extended to primary schools in Nigeria, where pupils call their teachers aunty or uncle. If I recall well, however, it did not become a trend until the late 90s.  While there is still a discussion going on whether it is a proper way to address a school teacher, it is worthy to note that most children in Nigeria address a lady or a woman who is slightly older as ‘aunty’. She could be a real aunt, a house help, or just someone living in the same neighborhood, as Bright also notes in her project.

In the narrative on the project, Bright explains, “This work is a representation of a visual dialogue that addresses the power dynamics that are evident between house helps, nannies, their madams, and the children. The texts which are used points to differences in social strata, economic power, and dominance. The use of one word (per speech bubble) connotes the “instructional relationship” that exists especially between the madam and the house help. Although playing an important role in the rearing of the children or upkeep of the home, the role of the nanny or house help is not an advisory one as they are told what to do. Growing up the children become aware of the differences in their social and economic dominance over the house help in this regard, and become inheritors of this power from the madam. Nevertheless, in Nigeria, ‘aunty’ remains in use to refer to women that are older than the person who is addressing them. This is meant to be a sign of respect. From a young age, I have been taught to address all the house helps we have had as ‘aunty’, a sign of respect for them since they were always much older than me. However, I wonder at the use of this term as aunty connotes a familial relation to me. These women are not family and often time are not treated as such. As a result, I came to view the term “Aunty” in that sense as a feigned respect, and a succor. The speech bubbles in my work indicate the “call and response” that occurs between the madam and the help. Upon giving an instruction or task to be carried out, the help is expected to respond; the response carries with it both affirmation and respect. It is the acknowledgment of the power of the madam in the home.”

From the power dynamics described above, ‘Ma’ is another word that becomes part of one’s life to show respect in everyday communication. ‘Ma’ represents someone in a position of authority, from one’s parent to a boss. It transcends the informal ‘house help to madam’ context to more formal settings such as a corporate workspace. Here, aunty is replaced by ‘ma’ and other body movements to show respect.

The other words in Bright’s installation, such as Paulina, Ada, Moriamo, Taiye, and Nike, are names peculiar to housekeepers in Nigeria. It must have been designed by some strange hand that they have these peculiar names. Words associated with their daily experiences are ‘market’, ‘cook’, ‘wash’, ‘iron’, ‘dust’, among others. Washing was one of the top reasons people hired house helps then. As for myself, we had a number of housekeepers when I was growing up. Back then, it did not really matter if you were rich or not. As an average or near middle-class family, you could take on a young keeper in exchange for a small pay and /or the promise to train him or her in a vocation. My family had a housekeeper named Taiye and until today, long after she has left us and became a married woman with four children, we still call her Aunty Taiye. She is the only house help I remember fondly and that I truly respected. The others are now, I am a bit embarrassed to say, just names and faces of the small number of house helps my mother hired and trained.

Bright’s work also addresses “labor, dignity of the human person cultural norms and practices (in terms of how respect is shown or given) and a controversy around hiring helps in Nigeria.” She discovered that there are other cultures around the world that have similarities with according respect to nannies and helps, yet realizing the differences in economic and social power.

Interestingly enough, of course, as you become older, not only does the list of aunties grow, but the circle of respect comes back to you too. You will be an aunty too. And you will either accept it out of indifference or triumph and may even scold younger ones into addressing you as their ‘aunty’.

Top image: Layo Bright, Aunty, 2016 (Term Project MFA Parsons The New School for Design, New York) |Source: Layo Bright