Somebody asked me yesterday if I felt uncomfortable having people work in my home.
(She had just finished reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Help; as have I).
It’s an awkward question; it’s especially awkward when the interrogator assumes you might be as nasty as one of the novel’s chief protagonists, Hilly.
If I say, ‘Why? Should I?’, I sound defensive.
If I say, ‘Not really, I have never known anything different’, I sound like the bladdy colonial of the media (exploitative and out-dated). I sound spoiled. I sound as if I don’t know how to cook, clean, iron.
If I say, ‘It’s just what we do here, it’s what my mother did (shy Agnes’ lap was broad enough for two fat babies and her patience as generous), what her mother did (Pishi harangued my grandfather for a job after he cured Pishi’s wife of syphilis; my grandfather capitulated and my mother went to school with Pishi’s homemade crisps which made her the envy of her peers)’, I sound like I come from a long line of spoiled, ironing-resistant, colonials – memsahibs, indeed.
If I say, ‘unemployment is a huge issue here, it’s my responsibility to engage at least one person in my home’, I sound earnest and patronising at the same time.
So it’s a complicated question.
Asina has worked with me for ten years. Not for. With. There is a difference; she does not run my home, she helps me to run it. We work as a team. In return, I pay her a salary, I give her a home, I feed her.
But it’s not that simple (as I said: complicated). We live and work in such proximity, Asina and I, that it can’t be that simple: Asina is much more than The Help. She is company on long days: somebody to discuss a bureaucratic idiocy with; somebody to celebrate that the power has returned, that we’ve had a delivery of water; somebody to talk to about what our respective children are doing; somebody who slips easily about my home and tells me that her sons are doing well at school or that we have run out of onions. She has wept with me over the death of a loved dog; she has laughed with me at Pili’s antics. She scolds me. She reminds me of the myriad things I have forgotten. She asks for an interpretation of her blood test or questions the efficacy of her prescription.
Asina is typical of many African women: she is a single mother to two boys who go to school in the north of country and live with their grandmother. Asina did not want to move them when we moved here; her sons, she told me, had secured valuable weekend apprenticeships that she was reluctant to relinquish, ‘they need to learn to do more’, she said, ‘or they will be like all other African men: useless!’.
If there is one useful thing I can do for Asina then, it is to recognise that she values education, to applaud that, to support her in her endeavour to ensure her sons are educated well and consistently. If there is another it is to note that when she dusts, she rearranges my haphazard collection of encyclopaedia alphabetically, that she loves Soduku, that she is a voracious follower of the news.
Would you like to go back to school? I asked her, ‘to learn how to use a computer?’.
I would love that she said, ‘it would make me very happy’. So she took herself off, sourced a course at the local vocational college, the cheapest she could find because Asina can no more bear to pay over the odds for a kilo of tomatoes than she can a computer course even when it’s somebody else’s cash and began her afternoon classes three days ago.
Each evening she comes in to joyfully report what she has learned: how to turn the computer on, what the cursor is for (and she points at my screen to identify the little blinking arrow), how to create a folder and what to put in it. ‘I opened a Word file’, she told me ‘and I wrote mama’ and she grins broadly.
Her sons are lucky boys.