On the Beach

Saturday, 17 November 2012

The maid problem

South Africa has its fair share of problems, a lot of them you can't joke about. But some problems that people have- to a person that has spent most of their life in Europe can seem quite strange.

Most working households have a maid in Cape Town. No, not a [ insert heart-stopping amount of GBP] per hour maid that comes with a long list of things they won't do (like in England). Or a per hour person who comes with free non-stop repetition of life story, problems and nosiness  cleaning ancillary (like in Poland). No, here a maid/char/domestic comes in for the day and, in a LOT of middle class houses they have a person every day, all day. I say a "person" because some people have "housemen" too- generally a cleaner.nanny/gardener/handyman/pool cleaner. Some live in as well.  This is partly to do with history, partly to do with the excess of surplus, unskilled labour we have in South Africa.

Most (but not all) people of my age who grew up in South Africa, were brought up with a maid/nanny around most of the time. If you're used to it, it's normal. If you're not, it seems odd to have someone around all the time, especially for someone of my socio-economic bracket. In Europe, the only people who have "help" all the time are fabulously wealthy.

I lived in Jo'burg for 6 years as a child and we had Sophie- our maid and nanny who lived with us but we left here when I was 10, so my memories of live-in maids are very distant.

Part of the attraction of living in South Africa is that one can afford "help" much more easily. A nanny/maid and gardener are staples for many.

When we got here, we had a lady for 3 days. I was SO delighted having had a cleaning team once a week for 2 hours in the UK who were most precise about what they did and didn't do and very punctual about leaving. It was almost tempting to make a mess just because you didn't have to clean it up. I became completely sloppy- I used to plan meals that were messy and pot-intensive to make on the day before she came, so that she'd wash them up the next morning. Dreadful. I dreamed of having someone 5 days (just to clean, no childcare) so that I really would have to do NOTHING around the house.

 That lady didn't last very long with us though- she was terribly keen on making calls when I left the house, had dubious punctuality,  laboured under the misapprehension that I was a bank and had very precise and very large food orders. After her, we employed another lady, who is fabulous and still with us, nearly 2 years on.. She used to come 3 days but then I felt there really wasn't enough for her to do. I also realised that whilst I love minimising my household tasks, I rank privacy and solitude for my family and me higher than a mess-free house. Whilst our lady is a lovely person and does her work  very well in a most unobtrusive way, I feel awkward if she's around too much. I'm (mostly) a stay-at-home mum and I feel a certain amount of guilt about not doing it all myself. I feel if I sit outside and read a book she might think I'm lazy. Do I care if she thinks I'm lazy? I suppose I must and, on some level, her doing my ironing whilst I peruse the pages of the latest best-seller makes me feel like I have some kind of privilege that I don't deserve, like I am playing at being the Lady of The Manor. That's never been how I saw myself and it bothers me that's how I might look to others.

I spoke to a friend about this recently, another foreigner and she feels the same. She actually asked her maid about it and her maid replied that, given the level of unemployment, the maid couldn't give a hoot what you were doing, she's just bloody happy to have a job. I think my attitude and the maid's probably say an awful about both our starting points.

We have our domestic for 2 days a week which is great and leaves me with every day tidying to do- she does the cleaning and ironing. I do have days where I wish she'd just bloody move in but, on the whole, I love having the place to ourselves.

Whilst I wrangle and wrestle with my thoroughly first-world problems and European projection, the locals are not so troubled.

The other day, outside the schools gates, I walked in on a conversation between 2 of my friends, both South Africans, both stay-at-home mums, both with maids Monday-Friday.One had been unwell and was remarking how she was actually grateful her maid had called in sick that day as she could just take a nap in bed. She said how nice it was to have the place to yourself, rather than having to bother about the maid and how, actually, it was liberating not to have had the house to herself. You know, that sometimes it can be a problem, inconvenient having a maid around all the time. The other lady was very much in agreement and sympathy.

So, I remarked- all steeped in my European culture, my European middle class guilt- well, you know, if you feel like that, why not have the maid fewer days a week? They both went silent-  not in a hostile way, more in disbelief, incomprehension, tinged with a teeny bit of pity- and turned to look at me simultaneously, I could see my reflection in both their sunglasses. Then they just turned back to each other and continued the conversation, as if having made a tacit agreement to ignore the lunatic in their midst.

It seems that the "maid problem" is different, depending on your starting point. Maybe I should just get over myself and help out with the unemployment problem.

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