When my “Western friends” find out that I have a maid/house girl/house helper here in Senegal, they are instantly intrigued (and possibly a little jealous, am I right??), because it’s not something we really see much of in our society anymore. Before living here, I would have also been very interested, asking lots of questions and wondering what it was really like.
When the book and movie The Help came out (yes, the book is naturally more in-depth and also a really good read), the idea of having house help was a topic floating around in many of our minds, and I began to wonder what kind of boss I was, and what it was like to work for me. Was I a slave driver? Was I a Hilly the second? (Lord help me if I was!) Was I too soft, making the situation awkward? Was I too shy to speak up about something that needed to be done?
What I can tell you is that it has been an interesting learning experience, and I can share with you some of my observations, lessons and experiences over the past few years as I’ve had five different house girls. (Yikes! Have I become “that rich lady” that can’t keep a maid?)
The first house girl I ever had was in Guinea where we lived for four months before having to abruptly leave the country due to political unrest. It was an amazing time that really stretched us as people, since it was a time full of “newness” – from exploring new cultures to the idea of having a house maid.
With the first girl we ever hired I had to go back to the beginning and teach her “the basics”, not because she was clueless or lazy, but because life for the average Guinean is very different from what we did in our home. You can imagine how there was a big learning curve for both of us when I had to explain to a girl who had used charcoal all her life, how to use a gas oven. I showed her how to sweep our house using a Western-style broom, and I had to explain (through my broken French), how after washing the dishes, she needed to let them dry (or dry them) before putting them away in the cupboard.
It was very strange for me when she would take things out of our trash and ask me if she could have them! Old tin cans, a cracked DVD case, etc. It clearly showed me that we were two people coming from two very different walks of life.
It was hard having a stranger in my house all morning and afternoon, seeing all of our things, and asking questions like, (holding up a can opener) “What’s this?” To make a long story short, this first girl got caught stealing money from us. She sat in our living room bawling, and even though we caught her “in the act”, she said, “It wasn’t me! I would never steal! I’m a nice person!” It was one of those first big cultural situations where you have to think through how you should handle it, praying for guidance along the way.
We hired a second lady and she also got caught stealing (this time it was food and other items of interest). She was also the daughter of someone in our host church, so we had to be extra careful about how we handled the situation. The third lady was “une maman”, an older grandmother type, which I’ve learned is often the best kind of person to hire since they are working to provide for their children and grandchildren, meaning that they will often take the job more seriously.
Soon after the evacuation we found ourselves in a tiny little apartment in Dakar, and we decided to take a year off from the stresses (and benefits) of having house help, since our place was so tiny, and in the beginning we didn’t know of anyone to hire.
Once we moved to the south of Senegal, where we are now, we knew we were ready to have a house girl again. In fact, the word had spread that a white family was moving in and there was actually a list of women interested in working for us!
To make another long story short, we hired a girl from the cell group knowing that she would be moving in a few months, then we had another situation where a relative of this girl was sort of “placed in our laps” without us ever really agreeing to hire her, so we had to deal with that, and then that brings us to our current house girl: Mami.
Hilly the second