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.