In most countries having domestic servants is a fact of middle class life. So why do we Seattleites have such a taboo against it?
Upon signing up for a two-year work contract in Nairobi, I mentally prepared myself for faded, ill-fitting shirts and stiff bed sheets. Having already lived for five months in a suburb of Kampala, Uganda, I reckoned I had it all figured out: set aside twenty minutes for hand washing underwear every three days, 2 hours for clothes on Saturdays, and 2-4 hours for sheets as infrequently as possible.
Domestic help was something I neither deemed as necessary, nor imagined I would ever pay to have (unless, many years down the road, I decided to adopt 15 children and could not function as a normal human being without assistance).
Upon settling into life in East Africa’s most populous city, my current home away from Seattle, my expectations were straight up wiped away by none other than my intentionally hired house help.
The Kenyan government and other groups estimate that out of Nairobi’s population of just over 3 million, 1.15 million households employ nannies, cooks, maids or gardeners.
“Here, everyone has house help the minute they can afford it,” explains Jane Gunningham, an American friend born and raised in West Africa who has lived and worked in East Africa for the past seven years. “They are often seen as an extension to the family.”
Swahili songs made into cell-phone ring tones echo throughout my second story flat as Scholastica Anduku (Schola to most) is too busy washing, scrubbing, hanging, and folding to answer. The incessant rings are evidence that, even apart from the two eight hour shifts she spends cleaning my space, Schola is swamped.
A giggling wife and mother of two, 37-year-old Schola is her family’s only bread-winner.
“My husband has been unemployed for five years. It is me who pays for everything — food, rent, school fees… even medical bills,” she explains.
When her husband lost his previous job, Schola left her small roadside fruit business in search of more money. In 2005, she accepted her first house help position. She has since worked for five different employers — some good and some bad.
Schola is one of many bread-winning Kenyan wives and mothers, earning their share via variety house help jobs.
According to a report by the Global Network domestic workers in Kenya play an important, though vulnerable and rarely acknowledged role in the country’s economy.
Though she is thankful for the income, Schola recognizes that her work is not valued equally by all of her employers.
“Some people may see me as less. But when I have a good employer, I just feel okay,” Schola says with a sense of acquired confidence — one that she’s developed over the years to overcome insecurities.
Like most Kenyans, she sees a great potential for a mutually beneficial relationship between house help and their employers. It’s a kind of relationship that might be unfamiliar — or even uncomfortable — to most middle-class Americans.
Growing up in a middle-class California family, my generous mother washed and folded my clothes all the way through high school (thanks, Mom) and we never hired any cleaning assistance.
Once a month my family would hold an ‘M&M Chore Gathering.’ Sitting around our kitchen table (more importantly around a large bowl of M&Ms), my siblings and I would fight over the next month’s chores. Somehow, I was always stuck with scrubbing the porcelain bowls, which paid the handsome wage of 75 cents each.
From my experience, taking care of the home was something the Ranck family could handle on our own, without spending any extra money.
But growing up in wealthy Santa Barbara I knew many a family that could readily afford such help. And with the large houses they lived in, hired help appeared nearly unavoidable. I’m sure the same is true for many wealthy households in Seattle.
“In the U.S., we assume you deserve house help if you are powerful or have money,” says Gunningham, who’s lived extensively around Africa as well as in Seattle.
But in Kenya, the mentality is very different.
“Some people have money and don’t have house help — [Kenyans] might say they are mean, because they don’t want to help others who need a job,” expresses Schola. “Instead of women just sitting there idling, house help is something that keeps them busy. It is good.”
However, Schola would be the first to admit that it isn’t always all that good.
“Some treat you well and others treat you like a stranger,” Says Schola describing her past employers, “They are violent and do not let you eat food in the house. You cannot go to them when you have problems. But every employer is different.”
According to the Solidarity Center, a large number of Kenyan house help are subject to physical, sexual, and verbal abuse from their employers — and they’re often paid far below the 87.4 Kenyan Shillings per hour minimum wage (equivalent to roughly 1 USD per hour).
“House helps are some of the most badly treated people in Nairobi,” Grace Wangari, a witty middle-class mother, wife, and Nairobi local, tells me. “Some are viewed as slaves or servants and most of them have to work very long hours for a very minimal pay. It doesn’t mean much on the status of the person.”
But she describes a much better relationship with her own former housekeeper.
“I was able to stay with her for close to four years. I guess it’s because I treated her well (good salary, took care of her medical bills, supported some of her children’s school fees),” Wangari says. “She still comes over once in a while – we have become good friends.”
Even if that feeling of a close, familial relationship doesn’t exist with hired help, a sense of mutual respect is vital.
“My house help here, or in the U.S., is a full person with a complete life, of which I am a single part,” Gunningham explains. “I depend on their assistance to improve my quality of life, and I owe them pay and respect.”
Donna Taylor, a U.S. citizen now living in western Kenya, says she never developed anything more than a cordial, professional relationship with her housekeeper back in the U.S.
But things are different with Eve, the house help she employs in Kenya.
“Eve helps me better understand things about living in Kenya. She helps me with market vendors, cooking local foods, connecting with neighbors,” Taylor says “She helps me feel more comfortable about doing life in a new place.”
For me, after a year in Kenya, residence card in hand and public transportation down to a tee, I like to consider myself a local.
Despite my initial skepticism of the system, I’ve come to realize that, in contrast to how domestic help is treated in the U.S., Nairobi house help and their employers have a much higher likelihood of a symbiotic relationship.
It’s now my honor to employ, share life with, and have my all-too-dusty floors scrubbed twice a week by hired help. It may have taken a year, but I never second-guess paying for Schola to clean our apartment.
I now view her as more than a stranger who makes sure our space looks tidy (and my towels get washed more than once a month). Schola is my friend. When it’s been over a week since I’ve seen Schola, both she and I readily express our joy to be reunited.
Though it’s possible I’m becoming too used to having her around – whenever I return to the motherland, I will greatly miss both Schola and my perfectly made bed.
Sitting together on the spotless floor of my quaint bedroom, Schola describes to me an ideal scenario where her employer sees her as a part of the family.
“To the people who employ house help in Seattle,” she says, “I would advise them this: sit down with your help, that you can know one another. Even though you are different people, you can agree together. When you share like brothers and sisters, you will learn to help each other.”