Saturday, April 12, 2008

The help

The only previous experience I have had with hired help is the gardener my roommate employed to work in the yard back when I lived on Eastshore Drive in Alameda, in 2003. She found him, hired him, told him what to do, and paid him. I just paid half the bill. So I was completely unprepared for how to deal with Alex, the doorman, cleaner, and general factotum who comes with the apartment here. I found myself more than once wishing I had been brought up where one observes one’s parents behavior and maybe even gets a lecture or two on “The Proper Way to Handle the Servants.”

As it is, this is another circumstance in which I’m sure my Western awkwardness sticks out like a sore thumb and I only hope Alex makes allowances for me, reminding himself that I’m an ignorant mazungu.

I don’t really have anyone to ask about this. Lord knows the rest of the people I’m working with don’t live in the splendor that my residence provides. The only people I know who do have these kinds of accommodations are people like me: Kiva volunteers, new to the country and its ways.

Every day, Alex mops the floors of my apartment using a towel soaked in soapy water, bending at the waist to wipe off the floors (usually when I am reading Morning Prayer, which adds to the cognitive dissonance of the circumstances). He makes my bed (I used to do that, but he would just re-do it better, so now I leave it rumpled), changing the sheets twice a week—ironing them before he puts them on the bed. He washes off the counters and stovetop and takes out the trash. He tidies my bedside table and toiletries and lines up my shoes. And he used to wash the dishes except that I found myself re-washing them, since he washed them in cold water.

He is here seven days a week because someone has to be here to unlock the heavy metal door in the even heavier metal gate. He lets me in when I come home, saying, “Hello, madame, well come back, how are you?” and carries my groceries or parcels if I have any.

And he cleans my shoes. This one blew my mind. For my heavier shoes that I tend to wear when it’s muddy, he unlaces them, cleans the sides, and picks all the mud and dirt out of the treads. For my other dressier work shoes, he cleans the dust off the uppers and the dirt off the soles. They look almost as good as when I arrived.

And when I didn’t get around to ironing my clothing one night, he did that, too, the next morning.

All of this was quite marvelous, and then there was a new wrinkle. A couple of weeks ago as I was getting ready to leave with my driver (another phenomenon I don’t know how to interpret), Alex leaned in the window of the car and said, “Oh, Mami! I am so thirsty! Give me some money so I can get something to drink!” I gave him 500/=. The driver asked if he had done some extra task for me; that was right after he had done my ironing. James seemed to think that was reasonable, but I am at a point where I am completely unsure of my interpretation of these cultural interactions.

A few days later, Alex again said, “Oh, Mami! I am a very poor man! I need money for lunch today!” That time I gave him 1500/=, which is still less than $1, mind you, but enough for some food.

I must admit, I felt uncomfortable having Alex ask me for money. It seemed a little degrading for everyone concerned. I have no doubt he earns very little and goodness knows Alex makes my life much easier. But when he asks for money, I have no idea what is appropriate. Today I decided to offer extra payment in advance of him asking me for it. Before he left, I gave him 5000/= (about $3). He accepted it, it seemed to me, with an air of being slightly overwhelmed—but again, I am more aware than ever that what I see may not actually be what’s going on. “Oh, Mami! Thank you!” he said, tucking the bill into his pocket. I told him the place looked wonderful, which it did, and that I was very grateful for his work, which I am.

So who knows. I may be doing things completely wrong. I may be offering too much or too little. I may be offering money at the wrong time, or perhaps I shouldn’t offer it at all. I really couldn’t say. I’ll see in the coming days what the reaction is—if I can tell—and make adjustments accordingly.

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