November 12, 2010

The Life of a Domestic Worker

Having recently read “The Help” (a great book, if you haven’t read it) and now enjoying the privilege of full-time domestic help here in South Africa, I feel compelled to share a few observations on this topic.

My maid – again, the correct South African term is “domestic worker” or simply “domestic” – is absolutely wonderful. She has been a blessing, which is why I’ll call her Sibusiso, Sibu for short. Without her, you wouldn’t be reading this blog post, because I actually wouldn’t be writing it. Instead, I’d be busy cleaning showers, washing the laundry, ironing school uniforms, picking up after the kids – you know the spiel. And my house would still look messy, whereas now it is spotless. But of course this is all only possible because her services are affordable from our perspective, and if you’re in any way human you cannot help but try to look at it from her perspective.

Your best resolve to not become personally involved will melt away over time, and you will find yourself with a small humanitarian project of your own. How could you not? How could you not finance (a loan for the time being) the extension of her house, when you hear that soon eight people will be living in its three tiny rooms? How can you not pay for a doctor’s visit when she complains of abdominal pain and tells you she’s never had a pap smear, especially if you just spent that same amount on a new but not entirely necessary tennis racket for your daughter? How can you not rush out and drive your leftover antibiotic ointment to her diabetic mother whose infected finger has become so painful she can’t sleep at night? How can you not contribute a few hundred Rand to pay for the funeral of yet another family member, at which possibly a whole cow will need to be slaughtered?

I also find myself competing of sorts with her previous employers, although I’ve never met them, who it sounds from the stories I hear were very generous. This might be unreasonable, but it gives you the urge of wanting to “keep up with the Jones’s.” I realize there is an element of hypochondria – I’m relegated to stories of aches and pains and sleeplessness regularly – and there also has to be a limit, as I only have so much patience for other people’s stories, and that includes my own kids. Still, it’s a worthwhile cause, and it gives me more opportunities for first hand field research about life in South Africa, which is what this blog is all about.

So we recently set out to compare prices of building materials to commence with the house expansion project. Sibu already had a quote from someplace else but wanted to check out this outfit, at my urging, actually. At first we just had one sales clerk looking up and quoting prices for bricks, cement, and corrugated iron sheeting. Sibu would tell him what she wanted, adding “the cheap kind” after every item. The clerk wasn’t sure about the window frames, which brought the help of a second guy. Had we thought about timber beams for the roof?, he wanted to know, and proceeded to draw a diagram of the planned structure with Sibu occasionally throwing in a measurement. The ensuing picture was a revelation to me. I had assumed she would simply add on to her house by tearing through one of the walls, but it turns out bureaucracy stands in the way of the obvious. She lives in what is called government housing, i.e. a free plot of land with a house, walls and roof only, three rooms at about 3x3 meters each. Tiny, in case you’re wondering. Government housing is reserved for people of very low incomes, and they can only apply if they can show proof of previously living in a shack (to thwart people who have a perfectly fine house elsewhere, I assume), which in my mind will never stop the cropping up of those so-called informal settlements the government is so hard at work to eliminate. After the end of Apartheid, the new government inherited a backlog of over 2.2 million housing units, and they’ve worked hard at making a dent, but with still so many settlements lacking water and electricity after 15 years, the population is growing increasingly impatient. At any rate, owners of government houses have to abide by the rule that you cannot alter them without the housing agency’s approval. Which might take you years to get, and cost you as much again as the entire expansion in the first place. Needless to say, inventive people have found a way around this by building their new rooms as free-standing structures, thereby not altering the original house. I’ve since then noticed these “rooms” everywhere!

We’re still in the home builder’s store, and by now we’ve attracted a crowd of four or five guys, customers and store clerks alike, who are all busy giving their advice on Sibu’s project. Everyone is chattering away in Zulu and I nod knowingly, as if I could understand a single word. Imagine this scene for a moment. There is no better picture of the African mindset than this. One person’s need becomes everyone’s problem, although we’ve never before seen these people, and they are quite willing to give freely of their time, without any benefit to themselves. I cannot help but think that if I was in line at the help desk at Home Depot, waiting for this woman to get through her list, I would be rather annoyed with the delay and tapping my foot impatiently, glancing at my watch ostentatiously to attract someone’s attention to help ME with MY very important errand. Nothing would be further from my mind than finding out what she needed and offering my help! But here in Africa I’ve seen this happen again and again. Is it because, in an underdeveloped world, you have to rely more on the help of others? Where obstacles have to be tackled jointly, like a tree fallen onto the road, before people can proceed? Or is it a world where time has a different rank in people’s lives, or where – I hate to even say it out loud – they might simply have nothing better to do? Maybe it is a bit of all of that, but I think there is more. From what I’ve seen, Africans have a larger sense of community, and also a need for it. What we are taught as little kids about being nosy is completely natural to them; in fact it would be rude not to take a genuine interest in other people’s affairs. Family is very important, but then everybody is family, brothers, uncles, aunties everywhere. Funerals are big affairs, celebrations even, with huge crowds streaming into the townships on weekends to pay their last respects. Accompanied, as mentioned before, by the slaughtering of cows and possibly other rituals I dare not enquire about.

We finally tear ourselves free from the crowd of well-meaning would-be homebuilders, Sibu having realized that this store was way more expensive than her original quote. But we aren't done yet. This was just the brick and window frame place, but apparently sand and possibly roofing is best gotten somewhere else entirely, so she guides me there next. I should mention that whenever I’m on the road with Sibu, I am treated to all her local knowledge of shortcuts, which in the end invariably seem longer to me, let alone painful to drive due to pothole-lined streets you’d suspect in Mogadishu, not Johannesburg, and a million left and right turns. This new hardware store definitely has a low-end feel, kind of like the Sam’s Club of building supplies, and I honestly cannot wait to get out of there. Let me just say that I do not like hardware stores, and I also hate mass discount stores of any kind, so putting the two together in one is almost too much for me. But not for Sibu. She strolls down each and every aisle, eyes shining, appraising and comparing water heaters and corrugated iron, as if we’re in an art gallery. She insists I look at the tiles as well, since in her opinion I should see what I am paying for and that it will all be a good investment, and then the beams of timber, which come in a gazillion different lengths and thicknesses, all of which we duly record prices for.

Our next stop is her house, so I can see that as well, but also to deliver her new trash can – you may remember that in an unexpected stroke of luck I’ve become the proud owner of a second one? This is where her excitement starts to make sense to me. As I’ve already said, the house is tiny, but you can’t imagine it until you’ve seen it. Having it crammed full of everything Sibu has ever been given or scooped up at a bargain doesn’t help to make it look any roomier. In fact, I count five TVs, some small, some huge, and some frankly quite new, which is more than we own. She is extremely proud to show me her home, and I have to say it is very neat and taken care of. But oh so small. It is very easy to forget, in the cocooned lives we lead, that people like us, with our Western lifestyles, use up a ton more physical space – and energy – than the huge majority – 95%? – of the world’s population!

I’ll keep you posted on the progress of Sibu’s  new “rooms.” So far, I’ve already been asked for an extension on the loan, which prompted me to teach her some basic computer skills including the virtues of an Excel spreadsheet for budgeting purposes.