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Why Maids Prefer White Masters

By John Githongo, The East African (Nairobi), Opinion, 5 October 2000

Nairobi - The other day, a mzungu acquaintance pulled me aside and told me an interesting little story. When in Nairobi, he informed me, he always stays with friends in the suburb of Loresho.

One quiet Saturday afternoon, while soaking in the sun on his friend's lawn, the man who worked as a cook in the neighbouring compound greeted him over the hedge. When the greeting was returned, he came round and struck up a friendly conversation. Finally getting to the point, he asked the white man for a job.

"I have been a cook for many years and I have seen that the only way to be treated properly is to work for a mzungu," the man explained.

"Africans treat their workers very badly. I'll even take a salary cut to work for you."

The mzungu was puzzled. Considering Kenya's colonial experience, he thought, surely working for white people was the last thing most Africans would want.

He was, of course, wrong. Indeed, among Nairobi's legion of domestic workers, those who work for wazungu boast about being a cut above the rest. As a cook or a maid, you have reached the top of the ladder when you find employment in the home of a white expatriate. There is also a distinction drawn between local Kenyan wazungu and expats. The latter are preferred as employers since they do not have the "colonial mentality" of their more established white counterparts.

In his autobiography, Malcolm X wrote: "I'd guess that eight out of 10 of the Hill Negroes of Roxbury, despite the impressive-sounding job titles they affected, actually worked as menials and servants.

'He's in banking,' or 'He's in securities.' It sounded as though they were discussing a Rockefeller or a Mellon and not some gray-headed, dignity- posturing bank janitor, or bond-house messenger. 'I'm with an old family' was a euphemism used to dignify the professions of white folks' cooks and maids who talked so affectedly among their own kind in Roxbury that you couldn't even understand them..."

Dignity, or the quest for it, lies at the heart of the old cook's request for a job with the mzungu visitor. The truth of the matter is there are not many worse fates than to find oneself employed as a domestic cook or maid in a place like Kenya.

Our newspapers regularly carry stories of the humiliation and abuse that domestic servants are subjected to at the hands of their fellow Africans. Child workers, often related to the families for whom they work, suffer the brunt of the abuse. One hears of them confined like animals, beaten brutally and even molested sexually. In some households, workers can eat only what is left over by the family; they sleep on the kitchen floor; they can be beaten up and raped by the boys of the house; and are treated with suspicion by the lady of the house as rivals for the affection of the man of the house.

In many households that would describe themselves as middle class, the workers who labour inside the house often do without regular leave, visitation rights and often even pay. Maids suffer great indignities; many are merely young girls who've been forced to drop out of school because of lack of school fees and are unable to articulate their needs effectively.

One of the most popular excuses for lateness to work among Nairobi women is: "My maid disappeared"; "My maid went on leave and didn't come back"; "I had to sack my maid." Without the maid, life stops, yet it would appear that maids are among the most unreliable workers in the country. No wonder, as they have among the worst jobs in the country and enjoy among the fewest rights of any category of workers.

Strangely, the same individual who is capable of unusual cruelty towards a domestic employee, treating them like a domestic animal that can cook and clean, can often be extremely articulate about the denial of their rights by say, the government or the West. So should Kenyans complain so loudly about the government occasionally treating them like animals when they so often treat each other worse than animals? Shouldn't respect for human rights start at home?

Copyright 2000 The East African. Distributed by allAfrica.com. For information about the content or for permission to redistribute, publish or use for broadcast, contact the publisher.