Part of living in virtually any part of Africa is the expectation that you will employ house help to aid in the running of your home. No matter your socio-economic circumstances or class, the chances that there will be someone less fortunate than you are always extremely high. In the absence of a formal employer-employee arrangement (such as the one I am involved in now), many African families will barter shelter, school fees or a chance to get out of the village by “hiring” out children to more fortunate family members in metropolitan areas. It’s a sort of foster care arrangement and gives the child an opportunity to work, get an education or see life outside of the village.
It sounds idyllic, but these arrangements can frequently go badly for the child or young person involved. Benefactors emotionally and physically abuse their needy wards with more frequency than we on the continent care to admit. Hunger, name-calling and physical violence are all methods used to control and incite submission in the recipient of the arranged benevolence. It breeds mistrust and creates negative attitudes around the employer-employee relationship, often resulting in a master-subject paradigm instead. What often happens is that once the former subject grows or is promoted out of that station and now has the opportunity to lord over someone else less fortunate than them, the cycle of work and relational abuse continues. This happens in homes, offices and commercial spaces all over Africa. Ask yourself why the security guard at your local bank has the confidence (and gall) to shout at you as you park your car. It’s because he has been given a little bit of authority and because he was never given respect in his formative years now feels it imperative to demand it. Now a man, it’s his way of retaliating against oppressive authority figure(s) that he was not equipped or permitted to in his youth. This is why the bible tells us not to promote our children to wrath: they grow up to become unreasonable watchmen and bank tellers.
I may have mentioned some time ago why one of the reasons I’m thrilled to be back on the Continent is for the simple reason that I have so much help around the house. I believe every woman should have a wife, and if she cannot get a wife then she must have a housekeeper. I LOVE my housekeeper. She keeps our house spotless and she always comes ready to retell the craziest stories about life in the Crags, the themes of which generally center on death, destruction and witchcraft. She looked after us during our 3-month visit to SA in 2011 so it was a no-brainer that she would do the same once we moved here in 2016 if her schedule permitted. She’s still as efficient as ever, but has slowed down considerably –as she put it – over the past five years. We asked if she needed help with the work, but she declined; I suppose out of fear that another (younger) woman would eventually take her job from her altogether. However, the house we’re renting is fairly large and a LOT for one person alone to look after. How could she keep her job (which was never in jeopardy) AND stave any competition? Enter: her destitute niece from Oudtshoorn. This was someone our housekeeper could control and boss about in that typical African auntie fashion.
Woohoo! I’m a feminist in the big city!
Oudtshoorn is in the Karoo, which is an aberration of a Khoi word meaning ‘desert’. There’s nothing in Oudtshoorn but some heat, some rocks, some ostriches, racism, unemployment and liquor. Lots and lots of liquor. It is from this backdrop that this niece (let’s call her Shelby) arrived. She is a coloured girl of 23 who lived on a farm with her next-door neighbor because her mother has been a drunk for the majority of her life. For her, coming to Plett had the same effect as Mary Tyler More arriving in New York. The world was big, bright, fast moving and exciting. Unfortunately, unlike MTM, Shelby did not immerse herself in work or hatch schemes that would eventually make her a woman of the world. She has made a series of poor decisions that have landed her in a pretty bad situation with dire consequences, one of which is the eviction from her aunt’s house, and consequently the loss of her employment at our house.
Four months passed without Shelby working alongside her aunt, and it was clearly very hard for her. Our housekeeper recruited a cousin to come and work with her, but the woman only lasted a week. When it became obvious that our housekeeper couldn’t handle the workload, she coaxed Shelby back, saying that I had requested her return. (A lie.) En route to our home last week, she then told my husband that I requested him to pick up Shelby because I wanted her to return to work. (Another lie. I said we’d discuss it; nothing was final.) It was against these untruths that Shelby returned to our employment: under the assumption that I desperately wanted her back in my home, when in reality it was her aunt who could not get on without her and was too proud to admit it.
I let it all slide, and that was my mistake…one that could have been potentially lethal. Fortunately, I have a bit more sense than what my face lets on.
In addition to getting Shelby her job back, our housekeeper wanted me to take on the role of counselor. She wanted me to talk to the girl about her life choices, her responsibility to her children, her colon health… Ugh! This was all too much! But this is the rent one has to pay when you have help in the house in Africa. Their problems become YOUR problems, whether you want it or not. So I did as I was requested and had a big girl talk with Shelby with the aid of some friends who spoke Afrikaans. The poor girl was reduced to a watery heap by the time we were done. The singular question: “Are the lifestyle choices you are making now helping you to become the woman you told us you want to be?” seemed to be enough to set her mind right. She has thrown herself into her work in the days since that chat on Friday.
I thought all was said and done until our housekeeper pulled me aside and began whispering to me this morning. It seems I had left something undone.
“Nehna*, you promised me last week you would shake Shelby, and you didn’t do it!”
I was utterly confused. “What? What are you talking about.”
“I ASKED you to search her and you said you would. The talk was fine, but you must also search her Nehna.”
I was about to object, but she cut me off.
“No. Please! You must do it for me! You must search her so that she feels afraid. You MUST shake her!”
I sighed and said I would. I am always doing things for my housekeeper out of obligation. But this didn’t sit well with me at all. This wasn’t a cake for her grandchild or a ride to Pick n’ Pay. What she was requesting was a violation of this young woman’s privacy based on a suspicion that I didn’t harbor in the first place.
If you are confused about my ambivalence, allow me to explain. What she wanted me to do was pat this girl down, feel through her clothing and rummage through her handbag if she had brought one. I was to do the same to her, so that it wouldn’t look like she was being singled out. Her rationale?
“I see the way she looks at the things you have brought for the kids from America. All these nice panties and clothes. I think maybe she’s going to steal them, because she has this boyfriend and she wants to look nice for him. Always she’s watching these things, and that’s why I can’t leave her to clean alone in the house. You MUST shake her, Nehna!”
Holy Christmas. Sweet Father! This was just ridiculous. After I thought about it, I was certainly not going to pat another grown woman down for any reason, most certainly not over some used tween draws. If my housekeeper wanted her niece searched, then she was going to have to do the deed herself. I was not her errand girl for this one. I had another plan instead. And at 4pm, when my housekeeper whispered that it was time for me to pull them both aside and execute my search, I informed her that she was not going to like what I did next.
A worried look clouded her face. “Hai, Nehna! You cannot ask me to pull down my pants and remove all my clothes!”
“Hei,” I grunted. “You asked me to do this thing. You can’t now tell me how you want it done. Even if I ask you to remove your underwear, bend over and cough, you must do it!” I demonstrated all of the movements for emphasis.
She laughed nervously.
We went to my crafting room – as my housekeeper had suggested – and I turned to face the two women.
Feigning confusion, my housekeeper asked, “Oi! Shelby…what does this lady want? I wonder if everything is okay?”
Shelby shot me a worried glance.
“Everything is fine,” I assured her. “Have you decided you want to come back here to work? Do you want to keep this job?”
She nodded that she had. I smiled at her.
“Good! Then in that case, I wanted to give you something.” I produced a new packet of ladies underwear from Woolworths wrapped in a gift bag. “I picked this up for you today. I also made these for you.”
I pointed to a pair of earrings made from shweshwe that I’d sewn and assembled after my conversation with my housekeeper.
“You can have one – or both. It’s up to you. It’s just something to say welcome back, and to tell you I trust you. If there’s anything in this house that you want – or need – in this house, don’t just take it. Ask me, and if I can get or give it to you, I will. ”
Shelby’s face broke out in the biggest grin I’ve seen from the girl in the 6 months I’ve known her. She thanked me and picked up the pink earrings. Then she thought better of her choice and took the two.
My housekeeper began applauding, admonishing her niece to take note of how good of a woman I was.
“You see the sort of woman she is, Shelby? You see?”
I waved the compliment away and told Shelby to have a good night. She made her way toward the gate with her aunt at her back. I stopped her. She had a smile plastered on her face.
“Oh, Nehna! I love the way you did that! If not for God’s wisdom, you wouldn’t have done that!”
“Listen to me,” I seethed, cutting her off. “If you don’t trust her…if YOU suspect her of being a thief…then you can’t bring her here any more.”
“I just see the way that she looks at the things…”
“I get that. But you can’t ask me to search people that you have brought to this house because you suspect them of being a thief. If you want to search your niece, you will have to do it yourself from now on.”
She bristled. “Ok…But can we go in the room and close the door while we talk?”
I shook my head no. “Nah. We gon’ talk right here out in the open. I’m serious. If you don’t trust her, then she can’t come work here. You understand?”
“I will watch her,” she said, nodding her head.
I hated it. I hated that whole event. I know several women in Ghana specifically who would have relished the chance to force that girl to undress herself and dump out the contents of her bag in hopes of finding evidence of theft. Finding none, they would still boast to their equally privileged friends about how they “shook” the maid.
It’s good. It’s good! These young girls from the village, you can’t trust any of them. They come to the city and their eyes become wide…
What I hated even more than all of this was how my housekeeper, whom I have trusted and have much affection for, would use me as a pawn to carry out a deed with the aim of denigrating her niece because she was too cowardly to do the act – or just talk to the girl – herself. That made me feel sullied. My sister, Ngosa put it best.
Alas, this is what it means to be a ‘big woman’ in Africa: to be cruel, unreasonable and unrepentant about it. I am not naïve. I know that giving Shelby new panties and custom earrings won’t necessarily prevent her from stealing from us if she wanted to. Kindness if often rewarded with treachery. But feeling her up or shouting curses at her is no guarantee as a guard against theft either. All I know is, offering kindness allows me to sleep much better at night, and I will choose kindness wherever possible.
Are you still here? Great! Talk to me about your experience with Big Women/Men either as someone under their authority or as one yourself. How do you relate to people who are in less fortunate circumstances? Do you browbeat or kill ’em with kindness?
*Nehna is the pet name my housekeeper assigned me in 2011.