Last week, I bumped into a friend. Newly married. New baby less than a year old. I asked the usual questions: How’s the hubby? Hubby is good. Period. And baby? At that point she launched into a monologue about an incident regarding her house-help. It happened like this: A few days ago, the help was acting suspicious and as usual the parents went to work leaving their only son with her. Around 9 in the morning, the lady’s instincts starting nagging her and to her credit, she listened. Working far from home, she called a stay-at-home neighbour and asked her to go check on her help and baby. This means making an impromptu visit and pretending you were asking about something. The neighbour went and found that the help had left with all her belongings, leaving the 8-month old little boy asleep and alone. The boy is old enough to climb out of his cot and crawl away, so you can imagine what could have happened but didn’t happen.
Kenyan mothers rely heavily on live-in help to raise children when parents are working. Many people work far from extended family and mothers-in-law are often too far away to help with babysitting. And many modern mothers-in-law have lives of their own, jobs, business, women’s group meetings. They say they are done raising kids. You manage your own.
Day care centres are sprouting all over to fill a need. All are private business and for now, there exists little in terms of legislation to regulate them. Day cares are not obliged to have a nurse in the premises or to take any training. You just open a day care centre once you realize most of your neighbours have young kids.
Day care centres are also expensive. Many will charge on a day-to-day basis and then you must transport your little one to the centre. If you are running about in the mud to catch a bus to your place of work, you don’t want to run around in the mud with your three-month old bundle of joy. So the only option is to hire a maid.
Sometime ago, the government proposed that house-helps be paid around 7’000 shillings per month, roughly equivalent to 90 US dollars a month. It was, to say the least, laughable. The working mother does not always earn that much herself. And then the help lives in the house, eats the same food as the family, uses their soap… Most mothers pay their help about half of that amount. Some even less. And I never know who to sympathize with, the mother or the help. Both have problems of their own.
My problem is that, when a maid leaves a sleeping child in the house and runs off to another town, that is a serious problem. I can almost feel mothers nodding, as if they think they have no responsibility in the matter. They want that maid quickly arrested and sent away for life. But when you hear how mothers hire their helps, you will want to send away the mother for life. Most women in Kenya take more care in choosing their shoes and clothes than they do in choosing the young lady, sometimes a teenager, who will raise their kids.
The recruitment process goes like this – mother calls all her friends, workmates and emails everyone she knows to say she needs a maid. If you hear of someone who needs a job, please tell me. Sooner or later, word spreads. A lady in her office, one who she’s never spoken to, says she’s traveling upcountry and may find someone. Yes, yes, I want one from upcountry is the usual reaction. You might even give a quick interview over the phone with the prospective employee, once identified. It may consist of just 4 questions to be asked in Swahili:
Q: Do you have children?
Q: Good. Have you ever worked with children?
A: Yes. I am the first child out of eleven.
Q: Can you cook?
A: Oh, yes, I can cook.
Q: How much money do you want?
A: You know, I don’t know the city rates…..
A help from upcountry means that she’s green, underexposed, innocent. She may never have seen electricity, fears the city so will not run off and cannot use the internet. She will get her first cell phone when she gets the job. You, employer, will buy it for her, she will refund from her salary and you can call her from work to remind her to change a diaper. The thinking behind this strategy is that by the time she “wakes” up and discovers the ways of the city, the handsome security guard in the next building, or by the time she realizes she’s the least paid in the entire apartment block, by then, your baby has grown a few months and you find another. You will do that until the baby turns three and you send him off to kindergarten.
Sound good? No dangerous. You will discover that the workmate who brought her does not know her home. The help has no national identity card and the only name you have of her is Grace. When she runs off leaving a child in the house, you don’t even call the cops. Why, you will feel pretty stupid saying I don’t know her full names. And how will the cops go about looking for Grace among 35 million Kenyans.
The help is not exposed. She will learn to use a gas stove at your house, and how to clean a fridge and use electric power. Some of her mistakes can be fatal. Like the recent death of both help and child in Eastleigh due to carbon monoxide poisoning. The help wanted to warm the room but didn’t know that charcoal stoves need to be kept outside because the stoves gobble up all the oxygen. And she died too. And we have heard many horror stories of babies placed in fridges.
The help, I repeat, is not exposed. That doesn’t mean she is a fool. She is not. She was looking all along for an opportunity to come to the city to find other means of living. Once she discovers the city, she will decide what to do. She will eventually leave your home even though you thought you had done so much for her. Did you think that giving her a free Nokia 3310 phone with radio would keep her in your home forever?
Some have been known to need medical care. So they come and work diligently only to collapse in your home and then her health becomes your problem. If she dies in your house, her relatives will appear from nowhere in a bus seeking compensation. Proving once again that she’s not stupid.
So dear mothers, before you rant and rave about what the maid did, think twice about how she came to be in your house. And if you decide to hire her, you are the one who needs to “wake” up and always keep one step ahead of her.