We Have a Maid, and I Feel Awkward About It


I have a confession to make.  We have a maid.  Her name is Rose.  She cleans our house six days a week.

My first thought on having a maid was, “awesome, now I never have to clean!”.  My second thought was, “does our apartment really get so dirty that it needs to be cleaned every day?”  And my third thought was, “how do I explain this to someone at home?”  Because in the U.S., having household help is widely stigmatized (see: The Help movie/book).

But in Kenya, having a maid is de rigueur.  Actually, having an entire household staff is common, both for Kenyans and expats.  My Kenyan Kiswahili teacher works part time, but still has a full-time nanny for her baby.  Some of my husband’s coworkers (both Kenyan and American) have multiple gardeners, nannies and guards, plus a cook, a housekeeper, and a driver.

As an American, I was taken aback by the culture of household help here.  I am also uncomfortable with our own maid situation.  Maid service is part of the package at our apartment complex, so while we didn’t hire Rose, she still cleans our apartment six days a week.  I feel like I am conforming to so many racist, colonial stereotypes.  White family employs black maid.  Awful, right?

People justify having household help in Kenya by saying that employing people, in any capacity, is a good thing.  The unemployment rate in Kenya is estimated to be 40 percent.  Nearly half the population lives on less than a dollar a day.  Hiring a maid, a gardener, a cook, or a nanny employs low-skilled workers and enables them to support themselves and their families.  But to me, this is still a temporary solution to the problem of the vast economic inequalities in Kenya.

But still, I haven’t asked the apartment complex to stop sending Rose. I watch her mop around me and change the sheets on my bed.  And, of course, I’m that woman who straightens up and washes the dishes before she arrives.  I feel awkward, and I wonder if having a maid is the appropriate thing to do, but I don’t do anything about it.

What are your thoughts this issue?  Have you had household help before?  If you were in our situation, what would you do?

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32 Responses to “We Have a Maid, and I Feel Awkward About It”

  1. Diana says:

    I can’t believe how your posts are so topical for me and my experiences. Today, I had my first (and last) visit from a part-time maid. I was really reluctant, but I could use a little help and maids are also very common in Asia. I interviewed with an agency and told them I needed someone 3 half days a week, that she needed to speak English, and not be afraid of dogs. The agency just blew off the dog part. The poor woman who came today was so afraid of dogs that she fired herself at the end and begged me to tell the agency that it was my idea so they wouldn’t be angry with her. I felt terrible and don’t know how I can go through this again.

    • Emily says:

      Oh, I’m so sorry for you and your prospective maid; what a bad day! I used to be quite afraid of dogs, so I can imagine her fear. If only the agency had listened…

      If you try to hire someone again, maybe you could go by word of mouth? I know the expat community here often has recommendations for household help, and maybe someone could tell you firsthand if they know of someone who is not afraid of dogs.

  2. Bobbie Ezzell says:

    I understand how you feel. During two of my expat experiences, we had “cleaners.” I felt very uncomfortable while they were in my home. The issue, however, was mine, not theirs. It is an accepted part of their culture and an honest means to put food on their tables. What options does your housekeeper have? In China for example, my housekeeper’s other options were working in the fields, working as a laborer on a construction site, or working as a prostitute. All jobs paid the same.

    Treat her with respect and kindness. Find out if tipping is acceptable. Find out when her birthday or her children’s birthdays are. When you leave, give her a lovely “thank-you” card with some cash inside!

    • Emily says:

      Great advice, Bobbie. I think you’re right on all accounts. Many expats here even pay the school fees of the children of their household help, sometimes even through college.

  3. Naomi says:

    The longer I live abroad, the more comfortable I think I’ll get with all of this, but then again, I’m not so sure!

    After living in India for three years (very common to employ many staff), we are now in Singapore where it is common to hire one helper, who lives in.

    It is often a no-win situation, but I agree with the other comments – that it can indeed be a positive environment for everyone and be beneficial at the same time for both parties!

    • Emily says:

      Ohh, I think I would feel even more awkward if we had someone living in with us! I would feel like I could never “let my hair down”!

      I think it is something you get used to though. I know in the U.S. my husband often has to remind coworkers who have lived abroad for years that it’s not p.c. to talk about your house help in the office. I think they forget how stigmatized it is in the U.S.

  4. Pam says:

    Keep the maid and hire a cook!

    • Emily says:

      Haha, that might be a good plan! One of Ryan’s coworkers says that she rarely goes out to eat because her cook makes such good food. We’ve eaten at her house twice (for pizza, and for a three course seafood meal!) and I can verify that it’s as good, or possibly better, than most restaurants.

  5. Waegook Tom says:

    Ooh now having a maid – I’m not sure how I would feel about that, either. My mum works as a cleaner in a hotel and sometimes people treat her like absolute crap, so that makes me a bit uneasy about hiring help.

    However I’m not saying that everyone treats household help like that at all. I agree with the comments above – be kind, and don’t view yourself as some kind of colonial imperialist. It’s part of the culture, and maybe only a temporary part as Kenya works on its unemployment issues, but don’t make yourself feel bad because of it. You should only feel bad if you’re messing her around with her pay or treating her poorly, which I know you wouldn’t do.

    • Emily says:

      People are so awful sometimes, I can’t believe they treat your mum poorly.

      We don’t pay Rose’s salary (the apartment complex does), but we do tip her, and of course, we’re always kind. I can tell the apartment complex is also just trying to employ lots of people, as there is a man who rides up and down in the elevators all day, just cleaning them. They’re the cleanest elevators you’ll ever see!

  6. mamamzungu says:

    I so relate to this post. When we moved to Kenya having I completely braced myself for hating having househelp but knew it was inevitable. And we were living in a rural area. I justified it because washing my families clothes by hand would have been at least a part time job and both my husband and I were working.

    But it is a different culture and my South African friend (who’s mother was a “domestic” as they call it there) thinks my squimishness is weird. Even house help have house help! I wrote a recent blog post about my own feelings on the matter if you want to check it out http://www.mamamzungu.com/2012/06/house-help.html

    Cheers! Kim

    • Emily says:

      Thanks for sharing your article, it’ always nice to read about someone else who is dealing with similar things! And it’s true, I was surprised to find out that even the house help have house help here! I guess it’s time I just let go and enjoy it while I can.

  7. Kadalay says:

    I prefer doing my own household chores by myself. However, the maids need a job and not hiring them will only deprive them of an income. Its a tough call to decide for or against.

  8. Gina says:

    Wow, 6 days a week! I can’t even imagine that. Seriously, though, to my understanding this is really common in other countries. My sister had a maid when she lived in Nepal and my best friend who lives in the U.S. now, but is originally from South Africa, gets nervous every time her mom comes to visit that her house needs to be spotless because that’s what her mom is used to since she has a maid that comes nearly everyday to her house in South Africa. (My friend does not have a maid.) I think the important thing is to understand it’s a cultural thing and if you treat everyone with respect and kindness – as I’m positive you do – it will be ok. I can definitely get how it might be awkward to have someone else in your home, though, so often! That would be tough for me.

    • Emily says:

      I wonder if it’s weird for her to have me in the house while she works, too? When I was going to kiswahili class, she would come clean while I was out, but now I write all day, so I’m always at my little desk working away.

  9. Julia Tomiak says:

    Emily, It looks like you got lots of good advice above. I think as long as you treat her kindly and respectfully, you are “ok”. It sounds like it’s part of the culture. My husband’s family had maids when they were stationed in the Philippines. He was the youngest, barely two, and the maid carried him around and met his every need. His family claims that’s why he didn’t speak for so long! But they have fond memories of their help.

  10. Hi Emily,
    I find that other cultures are more open to maids (at least, in the Asian countries I’m familiar with). Since it’s part of the arrangement with your apartment complex, I wouldn’t feel too guilty about it. Just be grateful for the assistance and kind to Rose.
    When I drove to Oregon on a road trip, it felt awkward for me to get gas at a full-service station, since I’m used to doing it myself. Still I got used to the help and appreciative of the employment opportunity for the local residents. (Tips also helped me feel less guilty.)
    I’ve also noticed an interesting trend among my friends here in the U.S. It looks like busy and hassled women are employing cleaning services as they juggle working, raising a family, and their own interests. So people in the States may be more comfortable with the concept of a maid pretty soon.

    • Emily says:

      You make a good point with your gas station anecdote– I think it’s just a matter of what you’re used to.

      And good for those busy families who are outsourcing their cleaning, if my husband and I were both working full time and could afford it, I now think we would do that too. It just makes sense to spend your limited time on something you love, rather than on cleaning!

  11. Kirra says:

    I don’t have a maid, but I’ve thought about it for in the future when we can afford it. One perspective on it is leveraging your time. If someday as a writer I can make $20 an hour writing, and I can pay someone $10 an hour to clean my house or mow my lawn, it sounds like spending an hour writing while someone else spends an hour cleaning my house would be a pretty good deal.

  12. Charu says:

    Having been born and raised in India, I had more maids in my lifetime than the average expat. When I was little I had a gardner, a chauffeur, two maids and then some. It is the norm in Asia and Africa. I don’t look at it as being snooty or lazy…being a maid is how millions of people earn a living wage, and especially for women, it is a life changing experience and also empowering because they become the bread winners in their family. I’ve taught English to my maids and my chauffeurs and made them feel part of the family. They never forget it either.

  13. Tiana Kai says:

    maids are great when there are specified work to be done. in miami it felt like everyone had 1-2. it was actually ridiculous. some women didn’t work, yet had two maids at home.

    here in florence, we have a romanian lady who comes once in a while, since i hate cleaning the floors and bathroom. my husband has had her go more often in the past since he rather work or be with friends than clean his own mess. ;)

    good luck with Rose. i am sure she is used to being a cleaning lady, so don’t be to weirded out.

  14. Diane says:

    Emily–I am so excited because for the first time since signing up for your blog three months ago, I am finally receiving it. I am going back to read all that I have missed. This one is very timely for me. My 85 year old Mom, who has been married for 64 years, has NEVER had a maid or any kind of household help. She prided herself on that. As we were growing up, I remember her working so hard to keep the house clean, not to mention the fact that she would stay up all night and iron my dad’s work shirts, sheets, and even his underwear! Ridiculous is an understatement. She recently had a bad fall at my house and broke her femur, causing extensive surgery, almost four weeks in the hospital, and continual rehab now. Before I left her to come to Maine, I hired someone to come in once a week to clean the house and provide some help. My mom is absolutely MORTIFIED. She is truly mad at me, but I still believe this was the right choice under the circumstances. I couldn’t stay with her any longer and knew she couldn’t do the work. So, as you can imagine, I was raised to believe that only uppity, very wealthy, somewhat snobby and prejudice people hired maids. However, when I found myself in my mid 30′s, a single mom with three fabulous children, a business owner and community activist, and a daughter, friend, and sister…….I needed help. I hired a “life helper”, a wonderful woman from Poland who became a part of my family….and who is the same woman I have hired to help my mom today. I never treated her as the hired help, but as the person who helped my life run smoothly beyond any other person on the planet. To this day, she remains one of the most important people in my life. As I tell her everyday….”Ja Cie Koham Bardzo”….which means I love you very much in Polish. So, if your maid knows she is touching your life, that you value her as a person, that you want to know all about her, her family, what makes her happy and sad, and just who she truly is beyond the title of “maid”, I think you will feel more comfortable with having her in your life and adding to your experience in Kenya. Enjoy her. Embrace her. She will appreciate you as much as you appreciate her.

    • Emily says:

      Thanks for sharing your story and your advice! I think you’re right– it’s all about respecting the person and the work they do.

      (Also, I’m glad you’re finally getting the emails. I wonder what the problem was!?)

  15. Judy says:

    I too was raised to feel truly uncomfortable having someone “serve” me in any shape or form and still prefer to leave the house rather than sit there with my feet up while someone cleans for me. But I have come to realize that this is not just a cultural bias but also completely irrational, particularly for expats with children. When you need to learn about your new country, overcome culture shock and find a new identity for yourself, the last thing you need to be doing is staying home vacuuming.

    • Emily says:

      Such great advice Judy, thanks for sharing. In the past few months, I’ve gotten used to having house help (as we call it here.) I still feel uncomfortable from time to time, but I really appreciate the work that Rose does, and it certainly gives me more time to take care of other life *things* for me and my husband.

  16. Waithira says:

    I found this by accident and it couldn’t be more timely.

    I have been on both sides of the fence on this. I grew up in Kenya, my parents were teachers and needed help raising their six kids. When I got a family of my own, I had a full time maid help raise my son, the turnover was so high and each one of them went to start their own families or start a business. I must admit, even then I was completely weird about having someone serve me and call me Ma’am!

    We moved to the US and one of my jobs was as a nanny to a Jewish couple. The children were disabled twins and the mother was with them 24/7 except the days I was there. I only took care of the kids and did no house cleaning, thank God because I hate to clean. I felt extremely appreciated, each day, the kids were by the door when I came in and the mother was always good to go as soon as I came in. I never called her Ma’am, and our discussions were intellectual, she was a phd and I was pursuing my MBA, we had a lot to talk about when we had a moment. It was not a slave master relationship, which is what I’m struggling with. I also took another job where I was a cleaner. I left the job shortly because I always felt like a slave in that job and was treated as such in terms of communication.

    I now I’m a trailing spouse in Accra, and I inherited a house girl who helps me clean. She comes in 2 days and I’m so uncomfortable because I don’t work, it’s only my husband and I. The second day, normally there is nothing to do. I know she must feel weird too as she comes in and there is nothing to do. Yet I have the pressure that if I don’t get her to come, I will be taking the income from her. I work with women rights and I wish every girl in Africa would have a chance to realize their dreams like I did and have a place in the world that does not include being house girls for life, unless that is their choice. I love the American model and that is making it hard to comply with the current culture in Africa.

    • Emily says:

      You have such a great perspective, since you have worked as a nanny, and have also employed nannies and house help. I know many expats here in Kenya who agree with you that they don’t want to take any income away from someone who is trying to provide for their family. Their house ladies don’t always have something to do, but it’s ok.

      Thanks for sharing your story, it makes me feel better to realize that I’m not the only person who sometimes feels uncomfortable with the situation.

  17. I had a maid when I lived in Korea who came in once a week because I liked coming home to a nice clean apartment at the end of the weekend. I felt a little awkward about it at first too but she was so nice, did such a great job and was only $10 an hour! I felt bad having a little old lady cleaning my apartment but at the same time I knew she needed the money.

    • Emily says:

      I know in some places it’s common for people to have house help, so I guess it’s up to the rest of us to adjust (like it sounds like you were able to) if we move abroad and decide to follow the local customs.

  18. Laura says:

    Hello! I married a South African and moved to South Africa July 2012. I have a maid that comes Every Tuesday. In South Africa this is a very normal thing. My husband has had our maid for several years, and has grown up having a maid. I feel so akward about it. I have actually work as a maid in the Past in the United Staes when I was living in Michigan. I feel obligated to leave the house when she is here or to hide in my husband’s office the entire day. I don’t know why it is so difficult for me to be at ease. I won’t lie, it is very nice to have the house cleaned.
    I think I am the only one who is uncomfortable with the situation. I went to visit a friend of my husband’s and stayed at her house. We were there when her maid came over and she was totally at ease laying on her bed reading and going about her business. My husband is never here when the maid is cleaning he is always at work. I really liked that you posted about this, because it makes me feel like there is someone else out there who understands. My friends back in the States give me a hard time about having a maid, and they make me feel guilty. My husband told me up front he has not intention to ever not have a maid. So I guess it is time for me to not put so much judgement into the whole scenario, and embrace this part of being a South African.

  19. Ruth says:

    I live in Cameroon and I don’t love having a housekeeper. Part of the problem is that she’s really my cohabitee’s housekeeper and he’s so easy going that whatever she does works for him.

    I love *her* but apart from ironing and shopping at the market (I don’t speak French so this would be more time-consuming for me).

    The “job creation” argument doesn’t do it for me, coming from Mitt Romney or expats. Especially when we’re doing it passively and creating jobs with no growth potential.

    I’ve been wanting to write about this for a long time and am going to go write a blog post about this myself!

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