In Ghana everybody has a maid, and it’s not because we’re a country of balers. Everyone has a ‘domestic servant’, ‘house girl’ or ‘garden boy’ because no matter how poor you are, there is someone else who is poorer. Even the poorest of people can hire someone to sweep their compound in exchange for a roof over the even more indigent’s head.
When we lived in Labone, we didn’t have a house girl for many years. We did everything ourselves. My dad cut the grass, we all washed our own clothes, we took out the trash, and swept the compound. Then suddenly I came home from school one day and my parents had hired 2 house girls (Jamilla and Cynthia) and a garden boy (Williams) on a trial basis. Being that each of these people were ten years or more older than me, I didn’t feel right them “house girls”. “House keeper” was an easier title to swallow. I asked my parents why we suddenly needed 2 housekeepers and a gardener when we’d been doing all the house work ourselves?
“We don’t,” they said. “We only need one house girl and one gardener. Williams will probably stay, but Jamilla and Cynthia will have to compete for the position to see who stays.”
And so began my first experience with the makings of a great reality TV series. Watching Jamilla and Cynthia compete for the permanent post of housekeeper was like watching a cut throat African version of “I want to work for Diddy” or “Making the Band 1”. This story is all about Jamilla, but before I get into that, I have to segue and talk about Williams. Williams was a lecherous 30 something guy who used to make torrid remarks about my breasts and butt when my parents were out of earshot. He never did any “gardening” and was eventually sacked 5 months into his employ when my mother ventured into the boys quarters to find that his wall had been plastered with Jet Beauties of the Week that he’d torn from her magazine collection. When my brother told me to go look, I remember being hit by a musty smell when I walked into his room. I couldn’t identify the smell then, but I now know it was the stink of a**. Williams was getting a** from someone; for you see, he was not the type of man to have sex or make love to a woman…he simply wanted to get some a**.
Jamilla and Cynthia’s competition was amusing, but disturbing to watch. The pair of them couldn’t be more different. Jamilla was a sinewy Northerner from Bawku with keen, weasel like features who spoke with a rough tone. Cynthia was a plump Akan who sang hymns when she worked and always smiled and said good morning to us kids. When my mother wanted something done, she would instruct one of us to relay her wishes to the contestants. They were usually both hanging out in the kitchen.
“Hi guys. Mommy said she wants one of you to sweep the living room.”
Jamilla and Cynthia would then tear off to fight for the closest broom and streak into the living to be seen sweeping the floor. The loser would busy herself with dusting, or fluffing pillows or some menial task in an effort to look busy and useful. Events went on like this for about a month until it was time to pick who would work for us permanently. On the night that the decision was to be made, my mother discovered some of her good silverware and dishes in Cynthia’s room in the boys quarters.
“Madam,” she begged and sobbed. “I promise you I did not steal it! I am not a thief!”
She looked pitifully at us children, silently willing us to back her up. There was nothing we could do. The items were in her room, and though I did not believe she was a thief, there was the proof!
“I cannot allow a thief to live and work in my house,” my mother proclaimed. Cynthia was told to pack her things and leave the next morning. Jamilla was the victor. In retrospect, I can say with 90% certainty that Jamilla probably planted the items in Cynthia’s room. She was just that spiteful.
Things began at a new normal at our house thereafter. For anyone who has ever visited the Gyekye household, you know that “normal” is relative in our house. My dad went back to watering and cutting grass. We went back to sweeping and doing dishes, and Jamilla…I’m not sure what she did.
In the beginning she washed our clothes, but then that stopped. And then she would attempt to make us lunch, but then that stopped. We were never snobbish children, so she would sit with us in the living room and watch films all the time. On occasion, she would make a phone call or two. Over time, she was receiving more phone calls than anyone else in the house. Secure in her new position as the permanent housekeeper, Jamilla began to flex at a level I had NEVER seen before or since. Tired of waiting for one of us to pop a video in the deck, she instructed my brother to teach her how to operate the VCR herself. There would be days when I would come home from school and she would be nestled comfortably on the sofa eating jollof rice watching Delta Force while my dad washed his own clothes in the back. After trekking all the way from Cantonments to Labone, I would eagerly go into the kitchen to look for lunch only to discover that she had made enough only for herself.
“You can go and prepare your own,” she declared.
On more than one occasion I overheard her gossiping to a friend about the state of our sheets and pillow cases or other household items.
“These people are so cheap. They are from ‘Amelica’ (she couldn’t say “r”) but look at this pillow case! There is a hole inside!”
On more than one occasion I think she may have snubbed my boyfriend. Eventually she felt so cool and at ease that she invited some guy she had met in the area over to the house, sat him in the living room, served him a drink and popped in a movie in preparation to entertain him. I walked in, took in stock of this “normal” scene and walked silently to my room. I heard my dad’s car pull up and then raised voices.
“Jamilla!” he shouted. “You know I give you a lot of freedom in this house, but that doesn’t mean you can just invite strangers here to watch films!”
As my father boomed on, my sister and I had a giggling fit in the back room. Sami eventually came in to ask if we had heard everything. We cackled with glee. The man left, and after pleas and the typical “I beg you’s” she was allowed to stay.
I went to boarding school shortly after that, so I don’t know if her behavior changed significantly or at all. I just can’t believe that Kwasi Gyekye was content to cook his own food, clean the bathroom, etc, when he had hired someone else to do that, and that his tipping point was another man on his couch watching war films. Does it make sense to you?