Meet my wonderful maid, Mary.
In Zambia, as in many parts of Africa, it is very common (and expected) that anyone making any kind of decent living will hire household help. A maid, a gardener, maybe a cook and a nanny if you have children to look after. Sometimes a person might do more than one job. If you have a large family and a big house and yard, you might have a couple of gardeners and maids.
At first, this seemed very odd to me and a bit uncomfortable. After all, couldn’t I pick up after myself? I am perfectly capable of doing my own laundry, aren’t I? Wasn’t it lazy of me to hire a maid for my little flat? Would it be condescending for me to hire someone to fold my clothes and make my bed?
Zambia has an incredibly high rate of unemployment and many people who are employed live well below the poverty line. When you hire a maid or other household help, you are giving someone a job who otherwise would not be employed at all. Some of the people who work as maids or cooks have been doing this their entire life – they are trained, experienced and knowledgeable about what they do. And they are proud of the quality of their work. Some younger people work as domestics in order to put money away for college or training school. And while the expected pay is very low compared to what you might pay in the states, it is enough to make a living and put some money aside. The minimum wage for a maid in Zambia is 550 kwacha per month, full time (usually 5 and a half days per week) however, most experienced maids charge more and deserve it. I pay 50 kwacha per day, plus money for weekly bus fare and lunch. (One kwacha is a little less than 20 cents.)
My block of flats has a communal garden and the gardeners are hired by the landlady. However, everyone hires their own maid. The two other folks who live here and work at the school “share” their maid (thus giving her a full-time job.) Mary was recommended to me by one of the teachers who knew her. Having never had a maid I wasn’t sure what to expect or what to ask her to do and I felt a little shy about it. Luckily, Mary knew exactly what she was doing. The first day, I showed her how to use the washer and dryer, where I kept everything and how the flat was set up. She took it from there. She is the kind of person who just “feels” comfortable and although her English is not the best and I speak no Nyanga, we can talk about our daughters and our ex-husbands and our lives and laugh together, just like two women anywhere.
She comes 3 days a week and cleans, washes, folds, irons and in general, makes the place sparkle. Because we rarely cross paths, we leave little notes for each other! It is absolutely wonderful to come home and have the flat all organized, the laundry done, ironed and put away (neatly folded!) and the bed linens changed, the towels fluffed, the dishes all clean and in the cupboard. I came home a bit early today and was able to take her picture in her new uniform (they sell them at the grocery store and she had specifically asked for one.) When I told her I wanted to take her picture, she made sure to put her apron on to look “professional.” After the picture above, she went and got a dust-rag so she could pose as if she was “working.” She asked me if I would show the picture to my children and I told her yes…I would show the picture and tell everyone, “This is my wonderful maid, Mary!” She beamed.
(PS: For those of you who are Broadway musical challenged, the title of this post is a song from Stephen Sondheim’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”)