The case for employing a 'house girl'

Last updated 09:00 27/11/2012

The idea of having a "house girl" doesn't sit well with me. Just the idea of it makes The Helpme instantly uncomfortable, having been brought up in a society where everyone is (or at least should be) considered equal.

But since week one arriving in Babati, MH and I have had pressure from all sides to employ home help. That's despite the fact that we live in a tiny two-bedroom house that requires next to no maintenance, and the fact that I'm now the master of my own work schedule and therefore can take an hour out to mop the floors if it needs doing - and if I can be bothered, of course.

It all began when I embarked on the surprisingly difficult mission to get a load of washing done. Washing machines are a rare luxury here, and therefore way overpriced. Coupled with the fact that we don't have any room in our own house to put said washing machine, I headed to the village shops to find a solution. 

With a local friend, Elly, I walked the dusty trail to visit both of the two "Laundromats" in town. The first had a washing machine, which somehow constituted the business being called a dry cleaning service - but I'm not one to argue. It seemed to be professionally run, complete with a price list for the cost of washing each individual item. It was going to cost the equivalent of NZ$90 for one load. On we went.

The next place was a wooden shack, the words "Laundry" painted brightly at the entrance. A gaggle of girls sat inside the door, staring expectantly as we approached. These workers, Elly told me, would happily take our washing down to the lake and hand-wash everything. It was still expensive, about $30 a load, but they would do a good job, he said. It felt horrible, knowing they'd spend an entire day hunched over, soap in hand, scrubbing the dirt from our clothes. But they wanted the business, and with no alternative at that stage, away they went.

That's when Elly cornered me (figuratively speaking). 

He asked me why I didn't just hire a house girl. Every white person who had ever lived in the village had employed one. She would cost us just NZ$10 a day, and would not only wash clothes, but cook and clean as well. It would be considered an excellent wage for a local girl, and I wouldn't even know she was there, he said.

For a brief moment, I considered my options. The other mzungu couple in town had a house girl (a woman in her 50s actually), who was treated with respect and dignity - she was considered part of the family. Her wage, though meagre by our standards, was considered excellent here, and even allowed her to hire her own house girl for her own family. Yes, the house girl had a house girl... 

But I couldn't do it. It just wouldn't feel right, having someone do my household chores, when I'm fully capable of doing it all myself. Even just the name 'House Girl' seems wrong. A few days after the washing drama, I found the hand washer MH had brought over from Kenya, and got down to business. I haven't looked back.

I'm still asked all the time, from locals and expats, why I don't hire a house girl. Help the local economy, they say. What do you think? Is it okay to hire someone to do your chores, given it's culturally accepted, encouraged even?

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