You will please forgive me if I don’t have a completely accurate perspective about this subject matter. I have not had a direct experience with this, so I might not be totally correct. However, permit me to make some sense of the situation and also give my own personal opinion about it. Just maybe we all can make some changes based on the simple principle of do unto others (including housemaids) what you want others (including housemaids) to do unto you. We will come back to this principle shortly.
I didn’t have the privilege, well if it’s really a privilege to grow up with maids, house helps and stuff. So I may be very ignorant. Coming to Kenya changed my personal lifestyle just a bit, ranging from tea drinking even in the hot weather, to wearing double clothes due to cold weather and then the issue of maids or house helps. Particularly because of the rise of the middle class of Kenya, the story of house helps and the many issues that come with that never end. It’s been a constant thing I hear almost everywhere even online. People on social media lamenting about how things are not going so cool between them and their maids. One of my beloved sisters (she knows herself if she reads this and I am sure she will laugh over it) posted recently about how she has trained lots of maids and they just keep going away only for her to start training with someone else again. I am not one of those who join band wagons of popular stories or narratives and then not think through the entire scenario in order to make the appropriate changes needed. The question is what is it really between madams and maids? Sincerely I don’t know this answer, but I think I can try to point our eyes towards something just maybe that might help.
Let me give you a few scenarios.
Some months ago, my wife and I were at the house of one of our sisters (yes, I have lots of sisters and brothers). An amazing sister I will say with an amazing family to match. She and her family were not home but the maid was around. A sweet and loving young woman who always made sure we got something to eat or drink whenever we went. My wife and I had wanted to take her shopping for a while just to appreciate her for her good work in our sister’s house. So on this day, we thought about it again but because she was busy with house chores, we told her we would get the things and bring them to her. She turned down the offer saying that her madam (our sister) would think she stole them from her house. I was stunned by that. She went further to say she has been warned not to even bring a handbag with her when she is coming to work. Sincerely in my head, I was like who cares if you steal everything in the house? What if you stealing my stuff is how God will get to you? Knowing that the goodness of God expressed even in our sin leads us to repentance. We managed to get her some things another way, without breaking the rules of the house. And mind you, this particular narrative of my madam said this and that is almost everywhere when it concerns maids and madams. Please stay with me on this article.
Another aspect is this. Why don’t maids stay? Let me show you another example. My wife and I were at the house of one of my mothers, a retired government official (I have a few mothers). In her house she has this not so young maid that has been with her for about 14 years and she doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave. That really got my attention because I have gotten used to the stories of there is a maid today and in two months time she is gone. So I wondered what she (the madam) had done for fourteen years to keep her maid. I let that day pass without asking her anything.
Another time when we were at the house, I decided to ask her straight up questions about her relationship with her maid of 14 years. Below is the short interview I did with her at the breakfast table.
What has your relationship with your maids been like?
Some of them had very bad attitudes. One time I remember I sent one away, she had slapped the watchman. When I would go away, she would walk out and so this watchman, it was a smallish Maasai watchman, asked “Were you employed to go and talk out there or were you employed to work?” And she said, “Have you been employed to look after maids?” and she slapped him. I said somebody like that, mm-mm. Again her attitude had changed completely and I was imagining how this woman could just set things on fire or something like that.
I had another one, I told her one day we were going to have visitors; she didn’t show up. And so I was here stuck with dishes and I was washing them every evening so that I could finish. And then I asked a maid working for a friend if she would know of anybody, so she brought her (the maid who had stayed for 14 years). That time I just wanted somebody for three days a week. So she came a few days a week, she had good attitude, she could work and then somehow I asked her to come every day. I used to do the cooking myself, but as we went on I saw that she could do it and was somehow willing to learn.
Number two, it is good when she has her freedom and she knows she is going back to her place, she is not in your ‘cage’ the whole time. Then she can breathe and be with people she relates to and maybe complain about how the boss is doing that to her, you know what I mean? I think that’s a very healthy way of doing it. So she has her own place to come and go and she feels she’s coming to a job and she feels proud that she’s coming to a job.
I also treat her well, I think I pay her well enough and I give her leave allowance; I pay her what we call the 13th month. And she’s also patient like when the money is not coming, like these days when I’m not working. When I retired I said do I still need her full time? And then I wondered, am I going to relieve her just like that? I didn’t have to keep her, but I felt I’m going to disadvantage her by taking her off the job that she appears to do very enthusiastically, so I let her stay. So, how do I manage to keep her? I don’t know.
She has her ‘things’, like when she came, the arrangement was that she would have lunch here, just lunch, but now she doesn’t even have breakfast at home she comes to have it here. That one she didn’t ask. It just blended and I allowed it to continue.
It has its ups and downs, whether she should stay long or whether she should go because then she gets to know you very well and if she wants to mess you up, she can do it. But it’s just treating her like a human and the fact that maybe God just had it that we can work together. Like the girl who looked after my mother when she was old – and my mother never wanted maids around – she did the work herself until she was not able to do it and she needed somebody to be with her even at night. And somebody from Busia came (my mother didn’t speak much Swahili) and the girl learnt Kikuyu, they became friends, she used to call her, her granddaughter. And they bonded so much that when she was not there it’s like to her, other people, even us, were not doing that well in our care of her.
They started having some secrets, I didn’t understand because I know how my mother felt about people who from outside, but somehow these ones blended. And she did a very good job.
So does that mean that the older generation has a better way of maintaining relationship than this new generation? There seems to be a divide between these two sides.
Again when you’re older people respect you. When she came I had position, she was also feeling okay it’s good to work for this one. When you’re younger, the maids, if you’ve employed older ones, they think they can mother you, even though you’re the boss. I remember telling some of them I need you to use Harpic in the loo, she would say even Vim can clean well. So there are those challenges of disrespect. Sometimes they also disrespect this young person who has employed them. Earlier on I really never had difficulty keeping people for quite some time, except one time when I don’t know why the house girl had left and I had to get people from bureau, because here I am working and I had no one to leave this one with (referring to her daughter seated close by). That time we had two people, we had a man servant, we were living in a place with more space that needed attention. So I would go and get somebody from the bureau in a hurry and then when they get home I say, “Heh! This one to look after my child?”
So that time I remember, there was quite a lot of instability, they would go and come. I would have to prepare all the meals in the evening and put them in bottles, because I didn’t feel they should prepare it themselves. And then when they left, I had somebody who stayed with us until she was three and therefore able to go to the nursery school, which also helped a lot, she would sleep in the afternoon, so then I pick her up in the evening. And even then I used also wash them all when I came home. I would put them all in the bathtub.
I don’t think I have a problem with maids, they help; but you also have to be patient, because they’ll not exactly do what you want.
And I think this generation they are not patient. They have this thought in their head, I’m the one paying, I’m the boss, you must say yes to me in all things and all of that.
The same way they want to get rich yesterday. You don’t have to quarrel even if somebody does something bad.
So that human side is really important?
It is, definitely. You know it’s interpersonal skills. And you develop them as you grow older for sure. And maybe I’m not so demanding as I used to be. You must know that they are also humans. So treat them as such.
So what would you advise those who find themselves struggling in constant cycles of looking for somebody new?
You have to give them time first. There’s my neighbor here, she’s almost as old as I am and even up to now she has somebody here for not more than one month and they never go without shouting and that’s the thing I don’t feel I like. So I tell her, where do you get these girls from? She says the bureau. I say, if you can’t endure those ones, get somebody who you train yourself because sometimes those ones that have been in the bureau have worked in many places and they think they know the work. So you need to tell them that each home, each job is different, so when you come you learn what happens here. If they were washing toilets with Vim, and I want mine washed with Harpic then you do that, it’s very simple actually.
It’s just about pleasing the master and you know also what God tells you, masters also have to respect workers because they themselves are subject to God. So that’s also important because there are times when I feel I’m going to get fed-up with her then I go back to God and say, and me? And I forget what I was going to do that time. I would advise them to be a little patient, first of all to know that those girls are feeling misplaced and some of them are doing this as a last resort, not because they want to do the work, but because they don’t have anything better, so give them a chance appreciate what they’re doing so that they can also develop their own confidence.
I would tell them to do that and don’t shout.
Shortly after breakfast, my wife had a quick conversation with the maid.
She asked her,
How have you managed to stay this long?
Persevering. Getting to know the person that I’m working for and taking the good with the bad and persevering.
Let’s reason together
The words of scriptures are very clear about human to human relationships, irrespective of what social class they are. And even natural human philosophy allows the same golden rule of treat others the way you want to be treated. It’s the same principle many religions base their foundations on and so it’s not a new narrative. But one thing I think is the problem, is that we have somehow found a way to create a divide between us (employer, madam, middle class etc) and them (employee, maid, lower class etc). For instance, in many of the houses I have gone to that have maids I have seen the same pattern. For example, at dinner or lunch you see everyone else seated at the table and then the maid is either seated on the staircase or outside in one corner.
This picture always appears to me like is she a lesser human than the ones seated at the table. Is that the case? We can do better, I believe. Contrast all I have said with the next thing I want to share and you will see that of a truth, there is hope.
We went to visit one of our sisters for an interview session and she shared something very interesting with us concerning her maid. She told us how that, that same morning before we got to her place, her maid who didn’t know us but had heard that we were coming to visit, came to her room and spoke words (I believe from the Lord) to her. She told her about us and how that our coming was to bring a gift (spiritual) to her. Both of them took time to pray in her room before we came, so that nothing would hinder her from sharing her story to the glory of God. And of a truth, the four hours or more we spent there was a time of refreshing for both her and us. Apparently, the maid is a prophetic intercessor. The question is, do you know who your maid or house help really is?
And will you be humble enough in helping them know who they are if God shows you? Think about this.
These are the last days in which God had promised to pour out His Spirit upon His handmaids. See Joel 2:29 Taken literally, anyone who wants to be part of the next move of the God that is to come, must take the lowly position of the hand maid of God. In other words, the maid and madam story is not just a story to tingle anybody’s ears, neither is it about any form of rebuke to anyone, but to call us to completely become the true handmaids of God. Cheers.