A Moral Dilemma
Before I left the States, a friend who had lived in Rwanda for a year had told me that he had a cook/cleaner, a gardener, and a guard during his stay in Kigali.
I had thought this was a bit excessive, but he assured me that it was only appropriate. “You’re giving people jobs,” he said. He had a point.
But I couldn’t help feeling, deep down, like a colonialist. I’ve never needed help before, and never really thought I would. Plus, I intensely dislike the thought of having someone serve me, particularly in a country that only received independence in the 1960s. I disliked it so much that it’s almost the halfway point of my time here, and to date, I’ve done all of my own cooking and cleaning.
This doesn’t sound like a very big deal, I realize, but everyone here thinks that I’m out of my mind. Everyone I know (from my boss, to the UNHCR driver, to the cleaner at the HCR office, to my friends working at the video store) has a “bonne” (maid/nanny) or a “houseboy.” They all have impeccably clean houses and apartments, and they always have hot meals waiting for them when they wake, at lunch, and after work. Their clothes are clean and pressed.
So, what hath my stubbornness wrought? Well, to start, I cook all of my own meals, and to be truthful, they’re not good or good for me. I didn’t take out my trash for a month because there isn’t a trash collection area. Perhaps I should clarify. There is no trash collection, period. They’re only starting it in Kigali. People here burn their trash in their backyards, and as my apartment doesn’t have a backyard, I just let my trash rot in my kitchen. There are fruit flies everywhere.
I have since found that they burn it in the church garden, but I’m still pretty bad about dumping my trash.
I’m also unpardonably dirty. I wash my own clothes, which is no small feat, I assure you. I am doing it the Rwandan way—in a big plastic basin. I fill it with detergent and water I have boiled. I then pour in cold water to temper the heat.
Then, I add my clothes. I can’t wash much at one time—one pair of pants or a couple pairs of underwear. After soaking, I scrub and knead and give my arms a proper workout. I rinse the clothes in the sink, wring them out, and hang them out to dry.
Start to finish, one load of laundry takes over an hour. Further, I can’t do laundry on days when it looks like rain (which is every day right now) because my underwear blows off the line into a neighboring palm tree, and I don’t think the priest next door would particularly appreciate that.
The result has been that I do my laundry as infrequently as possible. I have clothes that I haven’t washed since I arrived. Gross, I know.
As for my apartment, it collects dust like Oklahoma, not to mention the fact that the floor is disgusting from all the dirt I’ve tracked in. I also have many house lizards—adorable little buggers about three inches long. I love them. They crawl around in squiggly lines, looking cute, and then they catch mosquitoes that you didn’t even know were there.
They’re really the perfect tropical pet, except for one thing—they poo everywhere. On every horizontal surface, on every vertical surface, sometimes even on the ceiling. It’s a never-ending mess.
In an effort to stop living in filth, I’ve reluctantly decided to try hiring some help. Her name is Angelique, and she used to work in some capacity at the transit center. She has two children, ages 8 and 3. The fathers of her children are deadbeats who disappeared without a trace, so she’s a single mom. She speaks enough French that we can easily communicate (finding a house helper who speaks French is actually quite hard in Gisenyi).
My friend who lived in Kigali had a point when he said that, when you hire a helper, you’re giving someone a job. Angelique has not had a dependable income for months, and has had to scrounge to find money to pay elementary school fees and feed her family. She is grateful to have an income. I’ve offered her 20,000 Frw (just under $40) a month, which is, I’m told, generous, because the going rate is 6,000 Frw (just under $12) a month. I couldn’t possibly agree to pay such a small amount. I don’t think I would be able to sleep at night.
I also want to—well, treat her better than other people treat their helpers. Friends and acquaintances act as if they are entitled to have a houseboy. I’m astounded sometimes by the lack of humanity—I’ve heard few kind words directed toward houseboys and bonnes. “Thank you” and “please” are so rare that I can’t remember the last time I heard them—conversations (if you can call them that) generally have an annoyed tone, and are usually dominated by phrases like “get me this” or “where is that?”
As for me, I wince every time I remember that I’ve hired someone to work for me. Yet, I have reluctantly conceded that I need the help. Perhaps this is why I feel more grateful than others. I sympathize with anyone that has to wash my clothes. After all, I’ve done that. It’s not fun.