When thinking about housekeepers, we might tend to think they have a rather hopeless life. Most of them have come from the countryside, where they either had to work on the family land or, if they had paid jobs, it would have been backbreaking work such as digging terraces or working in tea plantations. And even then, the salaries might often be delayed or paid irregularly.
So they decided to look for a better life in the big city, where often their only option is to become a housekeeper. Yet that too is hard work, and for meager rewards. They are the ones who wake up early in the morning to prepare breakfast for their employers, and spend the rest of the day washing and ironing clothes, cleaning the house, cooking, fetching water, taking care of their employers' children, only to go to bed late at night.
This is repeated seven days a week, the whole year through - with only the occasional break every six months or so to go and visit their family back home. And for all this they are most often paid a pittance, and no social security contribution. The only perks they normally enjoy are free lodging and food.
Yet many of the housekeepers themselves don't look at it so glumly, but rather see it as a period in which their daily sweat can earn them a better future.
Thérèse Mukamana is a good example. She left Tumba (Butare) in 2003 and went to Kigali where she found a job as a housekeeper. It went well until she became pregnant by the houseboy next door, and had to quit her job. So she went back home to live with her sister for a while, until she gave birth to a son. Undaunted, she left her boy with her sister, and headed back to Kigali where she is currently once again a maid.
She is happy to say that her job allows her to take good care of her son because she saves all the money she earns in a Banque Populaire account. "I'm the one who pays for his school uniforms and materials, buys him shoes, pays for his health insurance - as well as for my sister's family."
Her frugal habits also make the family visits a happy time. "Every time I go home, I bring new clothes to my son and my sister's three children. I also gave her beautiful fabrics so that she looked well on Christmas. And I have to bring them a sack of rice. It makes me happy to remember that I'm helping my family, I only regret that I can't be with my child every day."
Rongin Gasarabwe, who came from Gatsibo five years ago, is today a shop owner, but he owes it to his former job as a housekeeper, which over time earned him enough money to buy some goats and pigs. "I bought them because I saw friends making a lot of money from them. They've helped me get a bank loan to open the shop."
It took him three years of hard work as a houseboy to get there. "Today, I'm starting to see the fruits; the harder I work, the more I earn - and the shop keeps on growing," Gasarabwe says, adding that he has already paid back the bank loan.
Another one who has done quite well based on his work as a housekeeper is Assuman Hitimana. For some time, though, it seemed his life was headed for disaster. His mother died when he was still a teenager and he was sent to his maternal aunt. But not only did she sell all his mother's belongings, she also refused to let him go to secondary school, instead forcing him to do the chores at home.
Fed up, Hitimana fled from Rwamagana to Kigali where he found a housekeeping job. He saved his earnings until he had enough money to go to driving school.
"I was enrolled in the same school as my boss's wife, that alone gave me confidence that I'm a person who must be treated with dignity like all others," Hitimana says.
He obtained his license, and today drives his own cab; he's also married and has a little girl. Hitimana finds it hard to believe that he has come so far. "I sometimes look behind and I find it hard to believe that I'm living this rewarding life."