Wednesday, April 12, 2006

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.


Blogger satay said...

Thank GOD you got a maid! Don't feel so much angst over it ... you're doing the right thing! Just teach her English or give prezzies to her children. If the colonials did that, we wouldn't have overthrown them. (hm, yeah, we would have anyway)

4/12/2006 10:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in Oklahoma and you are right on about the dust and dirt. I recently had new carpet layed and there was enough dirt under the old carpet to grow flowers.

4/13/2006 2:26 PM  
Blogger satay said...

At least you are able to communicate them, i know people who are not even able to communicate with theirs. At least you're spreading the wealth around.

4/13/2006 10:49 PM  
Blogger A Little Left of Center said...

Sounds like a good ideal to me. Someone has a job, and someone is a little healthier since their house is clean, or cleaner. I enjoy your comments from week to week.

4/13/2006 11:04 PM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

David, that is probably one of the funniest comments on this blog to date.

a little left of center, thanks for the nice words!

satay, yes, i suppose i am spreading the wealth around. i took your advice and gave some chocolate to her kids for Easter. :)

4/18/2006 11:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Morgan, I wish I had done what you are doing 25 years ago. I support your Soccer balls to Africa project.

5/04/2006 4:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i felt the same when asking for porters when in Rwanda. On one hand i thought it was lazy of me to not carry my own things up a hill.But no matter how strange it felt i always got porters, even if i only had water to carry because it meant employment, they needed it and i could afford it. I think you did a great thing creating a job for someone who would have been very thankful for the chance to work.

1/22/2007 2:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm so glad that you feel that moral dilemma because it means that deep down you want no part of egocentrism or to spawn problems of the past. Nor do you want to be treated any differently than the Rwandans. However, getting a maid is helping their economy and I'm glad you got one.

4/30/2008 1:39 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home