In yesterday’s post I talked about some of my past experiences with having house help, and today I’m going to share some of my observations on the issue:
- She’s intimidated, I’m intimidated! These girls are coming to work for a “rich white family” (from the eyes of their culture) and so many things are new, different… strange to them! Generally speaking they want to do their best in order to keep their jobs and provide for their kids/family. They also may not realize that this is all new to me too, and that it can be very awkward! I have to be bold enough to tell a complete stranger in my own house what to do, when and why. It’s bringing the unfamiliar and often uncomfortable scenarios right into your kitchen/living room! What do you do when she forgets to clean the bathroom mirror? Do you just let it slide because you don’t want to make her feel bad? Do you tell her that you want it done before she leaves?
- As I mentioned yesterday, you often have to train your house girl “from scratch” on how you want something to be done, cooked, cleaned, folded. That can require a lot of time and energy! At first you may think it’s easier to just let them do it how they want, because you avoid confrontation, but it’s not fair to them if they’re doing something wrong, and you, their boss, would prefer something else.
Think about it: growing up you watched and learned how your Mom cleaned the kitchen sink, how she scrubbed the toilet, cut potatoes, and so on. You take those basic ideas and adapt them little by little, over time, developing your own household routine. Then maybe you get married and your husband prefers that you fold his socks a certain way, or that you cook things a little more like this or that. Then another routine is formed. Now, here you are, living in a context where, outside the walls of your home, things are done differently. Women sweep the dirt, clean and cook fish like pros, and many use traditional brooms and cook with charcoal. How do you take this routine that you’ve developed over the years, the daily cleaning habits that the Africans use, and find a common ground so that the person you’re paying to work in your (essentially Western) home, can both understand your cleaning and organizational principles, and do a good job at it? It’s not easy task! You basically have to decide: what are the areas where we’ll just let her do things “her way”, and what are the areas where we want her to do things “our way”?
You can’t forget the possible language barrier, depending on their level of schooling/ French, making the whole explaining and training process even more challenging!
- You learn a lot about trust! Sometimes we’re gone for the day and we leave a key with Mami. We have to trust her. We have electronics sitting around the house, and she could easily snag them for herself. We’ve had a few situations, as I mentioned yesterday, where we had to confront someone about stealing from us, and believe me – it’s not easy! Once we caught a girl stealing chocolate from our fridge. (Girl! You should know better than to touch another girl’s chocolate!) There’s a saying in French that says, “He who steals an egg will steal a cow.” It rhymes in French so it sounds so much cooler, but the point is this: it starts small. If you can’t trust someone with a Snickers bar in the fridge, how can you trust them with the keys to your house?
- Having someone work for you is also a good opportunity for friendship. Mami has no family in this area. Now she’s pregnant and alone. It’s true that you can’t be too “buddy, buddy” because you still have to tell her what you expect of her, but why not be there for her? Why not show her that you care for her, appreciate her and want to help her when and where you can? Along those same lines, because she is around us all the time, even though she doesn’t understand us when we’re speaking English, she’s observing how we respond, when we’re mad, she sees us laughing together, and we pray that through those times of observation, she will see Christ in us.
- Because of my social status of being a white foreigner, I’m expected to have some form of house help. Families here, African or not, if they can afford house help, they have it.
- Someone from the outside may look in and think that we’re not paying Mami enough, but there are days when she only works from 10-2, times when we help pay her medical bills and help out in other ways. At the same time, our courtyard neighbors have a house girl and she works, oftentimes, from sun up to sun down, and I doubt that she is paid very well at all.
I’m glad that Mami is here to help me sweep up the layers of dust off the floor, help haul water in a home where we don’t have running water, and cook lunch for us, enabling us to spend our time focusing on the ministry, and on other things that need to be done. It is indeed a very peculiar boss/friend relationship that formed when two different languages, cultures and worlds collided within the very walls of our home.
Sharing with you another aspect of life in West Africa,