03 February 2014

Why We Have House Help

Over on Facebook some friends requested a little more information (or shall I say justification?) about why we have house help.  I totally understand what it sounds like: privileged American goes overseas and hires some uneducated woman to do all the things she doesn't want to do while friends and family back home work their butts off to help support said American in her "work."  Especially difficult to understand might be that 90% of the time I'm working from part-time from home, which, in theory, should mean I have plenty of time to keep house, care for my kids and get my work done.

First of all, I should start by saying that pretty much every woman I know, whether American or African, either has house help or is actively looking for good house help.  The nature of housekeeping here is such that if you can't dedicate most of your time every day to keeping on top of things, you find yourself in the weeds very quickly.  Here's why:

1. Washing clothes

All clothes washing is done by hand.  If you're well-organized and a good planner, you remember to soak the clothes the night before to loosen the dirt.  We're a relatively easy family to wash clothes for because Fred doesn't do much manual labor, so he rarely has packed on mud from farm work or walking muddy roads.  Still, with two adults and a toddler, she washes about every five days, by hand using powdered soap.  Wesley likes to "help" which means getting as wet as possible, combining bath time with laundry.  You can imagine the bending over is not comfortable, especially for a 39-1/2 week pregnant woman, although washing clothes is my least favorite thing ever.  I do have to wash underwear every few weeks (I have a lot of underwear because I hate washing it), because it's not very polite to ask someone else, even your paid help, to wash your "personals."  She does wash Wesley's, though, which is awesome, since he's kind-of, sort-of potty training, and every now and then poops in his underwear.  After washing, she'll hang the clothes and sheets on the clotheslines, then later bring them in to fold.  She has to keep one eye on the weather, because if a quick rain blows in off the lake, she has to race outside to collect the clothes before all her work is undone.

2. Collecting water
We are blessed and fortunate to have an indoor tap for water, although the city water isn't on all day, every day, so we have to stockpile water.  It wasn't too long ago that the city water wasn't working at all, so we had to buy water from a vendor - a guy on a bicycle with six jerrycans (those big yellow cans) of lake water.  It cost about 2,500 Tanzanian shillings, ~$1.50, for 30 gallons of water, which would last us about a week.  Now the city water is running, when the power is on and no one has broken or stolen any of the pipes, pump, or generator, and costs us 10,000 TSH (~$6.50) per month.  Each of those five gallon buckets has to be hauled into the bathroom, filled, then carried back to the "water room."  The buckets weigh about 40 pounds when full, and the basins, which probably hold 2.5 gallons, weigh about 20 pounds each.  We have about 15 buckets and eight basins, so a fully stocked supply weighs about 760 pounds.  I'm sure I don't need to mention how hard (and unwise) that is for a pregnant woman to carry.

3. Washing dishes
Speaking of carrying buckets and basins around, all dish washing is also done by hand, naturally.  Adera washes dishes twice a day, usually.  Once for breakfast and lunch dishes in the afternoon, and once for dinner dishes the following morning.  That red basin and white spigot container serve as our kitchen sink.  Fred designed that piece of furniture, which is our only counter top, and our dry goods storage is the second shelf.  The plastic tubs hold sugar, maize flour for ugali, wheat flour for baking and chapatis, rice, a couple different kinds of beans and oil.  The plastic tubs keep ants out of the sugar and cockroaches out of everything else, but unfortunately mites are pretty impossible to fight off, so if a bag of beans or flour sits too long, we get little tiny black bugs in it.  By the way, I made those curtains.

4.  Cooking
All of our cooking is done on that two burner gas stove top.  On the bottom shelf you can see two of the three indispensable additions to a typical African kitchen: the Coleman camp stove, which allows me to bake cookies, cakes and casseroles, and a quality pressure cooker for making beans in less than twelve hours.  The third indispensable item is a nonstick skillet.  Unfortunately the art of using a nonstick skillet (i.e. not using metal implements in it) is apparently a learning process, since our one-year-old skillet is starting to look pretty abused.  Still, it's really nice to not be standing over two open flames three times a day in 90 degree heat.  Adera usually boils water for tea for breakfast and sometimes makes crepes, makes uji (maize porridge) for the afternoon snack, and cooks fish and ugali for (Fred and Wesley's) dinner.  Sometimes she makes chapatis (flat bread) or fresh juice or chips (french fries).  Pregnancy has made the prospect of nightly fish rather unappealing, so I usually cook myself a vegetable skillet with rice.  It's indispensable to have her help with cooking, though, especially since my most productive time of day is late afternoon when Wesley is napping and playing.

 5. Shopping
This photo is of our "pantry" and refrigerator (the major purchase of 2013).  Adera does all our food shopping.  Aside from the dry goods I mentioned earlier, which we usually buy quantities of when we travel to nearby cities, most everything else is fresh and local.  Adera goes to market day every Monday to stock up on our essentials: tomatoes, onions, carrots, green peppers, potatoes and some seasonal things like eggplant or fruit.  About three to four times a week she buys fish.  A whole tilapia fresh from the lake, with scales, eyeballs and all.  It takes her a little less than an hour to clean and butcher the fish, then clean up all the "debris" (i.e. scales and guts).  She also makes a daily trip to the shops close by to buy milk, which comes in un-refrigerated packets like juice boxes, cold soda, and/or boxed juice.  Wesley loves going on these trips, often involving multiple stops for various items.  The major benefit to me is that I don't get the stares and whispers that accompany a pregnant white woman virtually everywhere here.  A side benefit is that I don't pay white people prices.

6. Various other cleaning
There are many other cleaning tasks that she does.  I didn't take a picture of the ratty pink towel that is our mop, but she mops three or four times a week, bent over at the waist, pushing the pink towel around the house, rinsing it out in a basin of soapy water.  She dusts daily, since houses here are not sealed in any way, so we get road dust through the windows and filtering down through holes in our ceiling boards.  She cleans the bathroom, which isn't a pleasant task in any home, but at least we have a Western toilet and toilet brush instead of a squat toilet and twig brush.

7. Caring for Wesley
Adera has been indispensable in helping with Wesley, especially since our solid little chunk of boy has become increasingly difficult for me to carry or hold.  Aside from a rare "play date" with his friends Daphne or Kaleb, Wesley interacts primarily with Adera and myself.  There are no preschools or "Mommy and Me" or toddler swim classes or parks or story time at the local library (or libraries period) or grandparents to take him for the afternoon or babysitters.  One of the biggest things is that she took over bath time when I got to about 35 weeks pregnant.  Now she's the one who heats water on the stove, fills his bathtub from a 40lb jerrycan, regulates the temperature with boiling water carried from the kitchen, wrestles him into the bath and gets splashed copiously, then takes him out, dries and dresses him, and empties the gallons of dirty bath water into the toilet tank.

Obviously, being pregnant, all these are tremendously important and helpful things, but even not being pregnant, the house help system gives women who haven't opportunities for education and career a chance to make money and support their families (or give them options besides an early marriage) while allowing women who have the resources for a career to do that.  It's very much not a perfect system for gender equality or breaking any kind of glass ceiling, but in a very imperfect system, it helps!

Okay, now I'm off to have a baby!  (Not right this moment, but hopefully in the next 4-10 days!)  Catch you on the flip side!


Liesl said...

This was so interesting and informative, Leisha! Praying all goes well this week with #2!!

Ashleigh said...

Agreed, so fascinating to see greater details of your life in Africa, Leisha! Not sure if you remember from when I was in high school but I love love love anthropology, sociology, etc. and am always interested in seeing what life is like in other cultures. :-) Thank you for taking the time to post this. And of course, we'll all be thinking of you over the next couple of weeks (and looking forward to your next blog post ;-) ).

Lisa said...

enjoyed the look into your daily life! :) And didn't know you were prego again, so that's happy news!

I remember learning (although I can't quite remember it well enough to explain) that there are cultural implications for you (as a white woman) to not have house help. Like it would be offensive to people in your community for you to not be helping the local economy by employing someone.

Anyways, all that to say. Hello! So glad you're well.