The Help

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.

 

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15 Responses to “The Help”

  1. Mapesbury Mum (at the mo Perth Mum!) Says:

    Go for it, Asina, when you’ve done your course look forward to reading your blogs! Make sure Memsahib is doing her glass…

  2. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Asante sana Mapesbury. Mama ni katika semina yake kila siku, kukata na kuchoma vidole yake na kuapishwa sana. Lakini yeye ni kufanya mengi ya kioo!

  3. R. Sherman Says:

    Good for Asina. As for your interlocutor, I think the appropriate response is either and icey stare or a return question, “Why do you ask?”

    Cheers.

  4. Debbie Says:

    A companion, a tutor, a student, a nanny, a helper I never cease to be amazed by women’s capacity to share, love and live in harmony 🙂

  5. professionalhousewife Says:

    I used to duck that question but her in teh Uk I have help and would anyone question that?

  6. Cheryl Says:

    I am anxious to get home to my computer and write a proper response to your blog. I am rereading The Help for my book club that meets tonight. That should be an interesting discussion. More later, Lizzy

  7. nappyvalleygirl Says:

    Great post. The Help is a great book, and I think it makes clear that not all the characters treat their maids like Hilly does. I was brought up with live in Chinese amahs – they saw their roles as very important ones in the household, which indeed they were!

  8. Cheryl Cato Says:

    Your post is very timely as this book was read & discussed by our local library book club. We meet once a month to discuss the selection. Tonight when the question arose: Who of you have had help in your homes? I raised my hand and began to tell of eye opening events from my childhood into the way Black Americans were treated. The book The Help makes the lives of those who helped in white homes look good. Life for blacks in my town were not treated so well as those in the book.

    My eyes were opened at an early age (around 8) and I struggled to understand why these people received so little respect. Once I said “yes ma-am” to an elderly black woman and was later chastised for saying ma-am and was to never do so again. There are many such occurrences from my childhood that formed me into a person who supported equal rights for all. It was an uphill battle.

    I moved from Georgia in 1975 and have never desired to want to return their to live. I still have family there and visit from time to time, but believe there is still a racist mindset in the community where I was reared.

    Tonight I shared your post with the book club group and they enjoyed your take on the subject. As you said “it is complicated”. I have read other another author on life in Botswana and one thing that stood out in the writing was the responsibility one feels toward the people of the country in hiring workers if one is financially able.

    I applaud your relationship with Asina and think you are both lucky to have such a good working friendship. Here it is unusual to have live-in help, but the woman (Hispanic) who comes to help me every couple of weeks & I are friends. We work together to get my place in ship-shape sometimes I am cleaning windows or doing some work outside while she is working indoors, but we work together in a different way than you & Asina. When the G-man & I are away she comes in to look after our cat & plants.

    Your life is quite different and that is one of the reasons I enjoy reading your stories of life in Africa. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  9. Cheryl Cato Says:

    Your post is very timely as this book was read & discussed by our local library book club. We meet once a month to discuss the selection. Tonight when the question arose: Who of you have had help in your homes? I raised my hand and began to tell of eye opening events from my childhood into the way Black Americans were treated. The book The Help makes the lives of those who helped in white homes look good. Life for blacks in my town were not treated so well as those in the book.

    My eyes were opened at an early age (around age eight) and I struggled to understand why these people received so little respect. Once I said “yes ma-am” to an elderly black woman and was later chastised for saying ma-am and was to never do so again. There are many such occurrences from my childhood that formed me into a person who supported equal rights for all. It was an uphill battle.

    I moved from Georgia in 1975 and have never desired to want to return their to live. I still have family there and visit from time to time, but believe there is still a racist mindset in the community where I was reared.

    Tonight I shared your post with the book club group and they enjoyed your take on the subject. As you said “it is complicated”. I have read other another author on life in Botswana and one thing that stood out in the writing was the responsibility one feels toward the people of the country in hiring workers if one is financially able.

    I applaud your relationship with Asina and think you are both lucky to have such a good working friendship. Here it is unusual to have live-in help, but the woman (Hispanic) who comes to help me every couple of weeks & I are friends. We work together to get my place in ship-shape sometimes I am cleaning windows or doing some work outside while she is working indoors, but we work together in a different way than you & Asina. When the G-man & I are away she comes in to look after our cat & plants.

    Your life is quite different and that is one of the reasons I enjoy reading your stories of life in Africa. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  10. MsCaroline Says:

    Such a complex topic, because the relationship you have with Asina is nothing like the relationships that most of the white women had with their ‘help’ in the book. Like Nappy, I was raised by amahs as a child and they were treated with respect and dignity. With my father gone away so much and my mother working as a teacher, our amahs were essential members of the family. The sad truth is that many people equate the perceived status of a job with the dignity of a person. I think that’s where the real problem lies.

  11. Lyn Says:

    Interesting perspective … I once had a nanny for a year to help care for my toddler so I could return to work knowing that my kidlet was getting loving, excellent care. When I hired Christina, I asked her how she wanted the relationship to be … professional or as part of the family. I was thrilled when she chose the latter. Even though I paid her for her efforts and expertise, she was an integral part of our clan: my little sister, my personal support network, my daughters’ caregiver and confidante. She needed employment and I was thrilled to have her help. It was mutually beneficially and from what you describe, it is the same for you. I love that you support her in her dreams as well. Can’t beat sister-hood!

  12. Doglover Says:

    What a friend you have! You are lucky to have her. But then she is just as lucky to have you.

  13. Libby Says:

    Oh, I can relate to this one. In fact I’m just hemming the new slacks that Miriam pinned up to the right length for me. She’s ironing my clothes so that I can go away to facilitate a five-day personal growth workshop, looking reasonably respectable. Then she’ll help me pack them, offering complaints if I have more than one shabby outfit in mind for a day. What I think is, it’s a relationship. I try to look at her with fresh eyes each day that she comes (two days a week) and to see her always as a person. She knows my failings. Sometimes we get tense with each other. I try to take care of the relationship, always always moving from taking her for granted to seeing her with compassion and gratitude as a human being.

  14. 3limes Says:

    I have often wondered how to mention and write about the question of “the help”. In Uganda, as it is in Bahrain ( where I have now moved) it is just the way things are, it is normal. But to those over there in the Great West, we seem spoit and it is hard to talk about. You did an amazing job discussing the intimacies, the reality and the warmth. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Nicola Says:

    Raising 3 small children in South Africa, I would not have coped without my ‘help’. She was more than help – she was an angel, a friend, a surrogate mother to my children who loved her and someone who I loved and trusted. She bacame part of the family. She is still loved and trusted and eventhough we live on the other side of the world now, she is still a friend – planning a visit for next year. My life, and that of my family, is so much richer for knowing and loving her.
    People here in Britain also ask the awkward questions, many feeling I must be some kinf of snob for haing had a domestic worker. Truth is, unless you have expereinced it, you probably won’t get it.
    Thanks for a great blog, as always.

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