The Star (Nairobi)

1 December 2012

Kenya: In the Pink - Interesting Dynamics of a Ugandan Househelp

Interesting dynamics of a Ugandan househelp.

I have employed several housekeepers to date, and, sadly, three of them lost their mothers. In fact, one of them lost her mother twice.

You see, this is a common exit strategy for them. They have a friend ring you up to say your housekeeper's mother is either at death's door or already through it.

You give her leave to go to the village to mourn or tend her mother, as well as some extra cash to help with the crisis. Either you never hear from her again, or you find out she is working at another house in the next neighbourhood or 'married' to some young fool and breeding children. It took me a while to figure out that all these ailing village mothers were imaginary.

Here, we get domestic help from the villages. If you are lucky, the stranger you are about to entrust your home and safety to will be trustworthy and capable.

She should be a decent cook, hygienic and organised. Of course you do not want her to be too organised or clever - those are the ones who will end up robbing you. If you manage to get this minimum package, and stay on the right side of age 18, then you have yourself a housekeeper.

Usually, the ideal candidate received a little bit of learning, but was unable to go further and has been keeping their (ailing) mother company in the village.

They are excited at the chance to come to a big city and make some money - any money, really - and that is where the problem is. People pay these housekeepers peanuts, mostly because you are feeding, housing and treating her.

However, even with the free housing considered, a lot of these girls get paid barely enough for a one-way ticket to their villages. And eventually they figure this out, and they start to resent their bosses for paying them peanuts.

On the other hand, though, if you have no training in a particular field, how do you expect to bargain for any meaningful pay? Most of these girls come as raw as a green mango - you have to show them how to open taps and turn off light switches, let alone how to cook and clean.

So how do you value your training services? The girl will leave your home with a lot more knowledge and ability than she entered it with.

And sometimes, she will take this training to your very bad mannered neighbours, who will have whispered over the fence to her that they can pay her a few more shillings than you can.

This year I have been lucky to have one who cannot cook to save her life, but is very hardworking and cheerful. She also has an extremely child-like spirit, and can often be found playing hide and seek outside with our son.

That suits me just fine, because the most important thing for me is his wellbeing. However, we are also aware she deserves a chance in life, so instead of keeping her working for us, we'd like to send her back to school. But that will leave the dilemma of where we get another housekeeper.

It would be wonderful if people actually trained to be housekeepers, instead of viewing it as demeaning menial work for failures. I would happily pay a salary to a trained housekeeper, secure in the knowledge that she knows what she is doing, has references and is bound to me by a contract - not subject to the whims of the fourth untimely death of another imaginary mother.

Unfortunately, for the majority of homes here, housekeeping is a temporary gig for women (and men) passing through from desperation to whatever short-sighted goal they have in sight.

For some, it is to make enough money to buy a mobile phone. For others, it is to find 'love', which is usually preceded and sealed by an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. Some are saving up to go back to school. Very rarely do they come to stay with your family through thick and thin. In fact, the average time they spend is six months.

When their expiry date is drawing near, you will have more unfinished work, sulkiness and weird attitudes. Then you start making phone calls round to anyone who might be going to the village to keep their eyes open for a new maid. And then one morning, the housekeeper will come to you looking very sombre and you'll ask - has your mother died?

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