Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Different Worlds

Having bought a couple of items of new furniture at the beginning of May, I offered the pieces that these replaced to my househelp, Esther. It’s common practice in Kenya to employ staff, be that full-time, or, like me, part-time to work in the house. Unemployment is high here, and domestic work is a good form of employment, supporting not only the individuals involved, but where there are children, oftentimes helping out with their school fees. Esther just works 2 mornings for me, cleaning and doing laundry. She has a long commute to work as she lives the other side of Nairobi, and because of the traffic jams during rush hour is generally leaving her house by 5:30am.
On Sunday, she met me at my flat, we loaded the car, and then drove over to Kahawa, where she stays. The last section of Thika Road before we turned off was a throng of people, market stalls open, and a church crusade taking place on one roundabout. We then followed murram tracks off the main road to her house. The best way I can describe where she lives is as a square in a square. Her ‘house’ is actually 10x10 foot room in a series of over 23 such rooms, most of these forming the square on the outside, the remainder a block on the inside. Behind her metal front door, a net curtain allows light in whilst providing privacy. Her living area was divided by a curtain from the bedroom. Floor space was exceedingly limited, most of it being taken up by a settee and 2 armchairs, a side board, a couple of small side tables and a bed. I did rather wonder where she’d put the two items we’d brought with us. Surprisingly, on top of the sideboard were a television and DVD player. Apart from water stains on the ceiling from the last time it had rained, everywhere was spotless, and decorated such as she could, embroidered doilies covering the backs and arms of the 3-piece suite, and various posters on the walls. In one corner were bottles of water, the only source being a communal tap outside which doesn’t always have water in it, and a paraffin stove. On this, she boiled up water and milk for chai (tea), and then produced some bread for us to eat. The bathroom, both latrines and for washing, was communal, and the smell rather wafted over from there when you went anywhere near.
Esther’s world is so different to mine. I drive places in a vehicle, protected from pickpockets. My 2nd bedroom is larger than her entire house. I am not beaten, as she apparently is by one of her brothers, for being single. My holidays are often spent travelling, seeing different parts of the country, whilst hers are spent at home. Her life is about survival, whilst mine incorporates the concept of leisure. And yet we could spend a pleasant couple of hours together, very different people, employer and employee, but both as Christian believers. I often consider how fortunate I am to have been born where I was, into the family and at the point in history that I was.


Paul Merrill said...

Great description, Claire. And very familiar. (We visited several of our friends' homes in Kibera & other similar neighborhoods.)

I'm linking to your story tomorrow - I wanted others to read what you wrote.

Shilingi-Moja said...

Claire -- great story. I know where Kahawa is -- wow, lots of memories stirred up by this post. We lived in Kenya for 18.5 years (Tigoni and Nairobi) before being asked to take a temporary position at the IMB's home office in Richmond, VA. Kenya is home and we miss it daily.

Your description just fits our experience. Employing someone as a housekeeper is an interesting experience -- uncomfortable at times. But, as you point out, it provides much needed employment. And, what a blessing when the person you employ is also a brother or sister in Christ. The last lady who worked with us was Dorcas and she truly saw her work in our home as her service to Christ. Whenever we told her that company was coming, she never complained but always responded that guests are a blessing.