Domestic servitude or day job?

Modern day slavery is not a problem confined to European countries or the Middle East.  It’s a global problem experienced by a variety of people at varying degrees.  The problem did not start yesterday, and it’s not confined to strangers on strangers, sometimes it’s family members on family members. 

Several months ago, a documentary aired on the fate of several African, Sri Lankan and Filipino women who find themselves in domestic servitude in the Middle East.  In the documentary they tell horrendous tales of abuse and inhumane treatment from their employers: one Kenyan woman was set on fire, spent a whole month in a hospital in Jordan before her family was informed, and then flown back to Kenya before she fully recovered and eventually succumbed to her injuries.  Her family were devastated and received no compensation.  A life lost.

Then recently (less than a month ago) another documentary aired about Ugandan domestic workers in Kenya and their plight.    It was hard watching and hearing how people are still treated like animals in this day and age.  I also know and acknowledge, because I have seen video evidence (too haunting to describe), that some of these house helps are spawns of the devil who abuse the children they are meant to look after. 

Although I believe this occupation keeps the economy going, I don’t believe anyone grows up thinking they want to be house helps.  They are compelled to it because of poverty and lack of opportunities: the good majority do it as a steppingstone to something better or more fulfilling e.g. to save money to enrol in a course or finish school.  And then there are older women who are dealt a heavy blow by life and there are no alternatives. 

The following story is fictionalised based on real life events and shows how life circumstances can lead people to take what they perceive as easier route and then they encounter the devil.  This story is not representative of all house help-employer relations, but if the aforementioned documentaries are anything to go by, it represents a majority.

When I was 9 years old, my mother got the job of a lifetime – to work as a live-in maid for a wealthy family of ten. The family wanted a reliable older woman to look after the younger children.  They wanted someone who could clean, cook and watch after the younger children when everyone left for work and school. The successful applicant and their child would live in a rent free self-contained one-bed flat behind the main house. 

The job was advertised through the grapevine and single mothers with one child were encouraged to apply.  The employer didn’t want the complications of a husband and multiple children.  My mother, tired of trying to make ends meet with her meagre wage, applied and got the job.  She told them she had one child, me, aged 9 and that her husband had recently passed away.  It was perfect for them.

Several months before this, father killed himself.  We were once a happy nuclear family living in a middle-class neighbourhood in the suburbs of Nairobi.  I went to a nearby government school.  Father worked in the city – I’m not sure what he did – but he left everyday at 7am and returned at 8pm on weekdays, most weekends he returned drunk around midnight, if he returned at all.  Mother never complained, she was a homemaker and did occasional part-time work selling fermented porridge to day labourers in the area. 

When father died, he left us in crippling debt.  Mother went full throttle on the porridge business but the money she made wasn’t enough to feed us and pay rent.  We were on the verge of eviction until the opportunity came to move out and live with a prominent family in an upper-class neighbourhood.  I was very excited because that meant I would attend a better primary school near there.

The first few months were easy.  The chores were methodical, and mother was paid on time.  However after about six months, the chores increased exponentially and ridiculously, for example, she had to clean the windows on a daily basis, clean the bathrooms twice a day, shampoo carpets every three days, vacuum and polish floors every day, iron everything and anything ironable and the never empty sink had to be clean, dry and more importantly empty at all times of the day.  This intense work, I believed, aged mother considerably, but she was happy because we had roof over our heads, three square meals a day (something we never had even when father was alive), and I had access to more books than I could read – the family had a massive library and I was allowed to borrow any book I wanted. 

A typical day had mother up at 5 to prepare everyone for breakfast, school and work.  I woke up at 6 to help her although she didn’t want me to.  When everyone piled out of the house at around 7, she would be left alone with the 4 youngest children to look after, and a house to keep immaculate at all times.  By our 10pm bedtime, she’d slump into bed and fall asleep halfway through our gratitude ritual – I never woke her up to finish, I would just kiss her forehead and fall asleep next to her exhausted body.

One day, in my final year of primary school, I came home, and mother was nowhere to be found.  Usually she’d be outside doing something or another and she’d welcome me home with a nice cup of tea and buttered bread.  I asked mother’s employer’s oldest son who was always home and high as a kite, “where’s my mum?”  He glared at me with a deathly stare that sent chills down my spine.  I walked past him and into our little home. 

Mother was sprawled in bed…..

To be continued….

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