GIRL ABOUT TOWN: House helps are human too

Thursday January 24 2019

house helps are humans, let’s not dehumanise them.

House helps are humans, let’s not dehumanise them. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH 

SALMA OYIER
By SALMA OYIER
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On January 23, 2018, a story emerged online about a house help who relieved herself in her employer’s kitchen. She was caught on CCTV doing a number two in the kitchen.

Later in the evening, the CCTV footage emerged online and on various WhatsApp groups I am in. In the first WhatsApp group, no disclaimer was offered so I opened the first video and I was shocked. I did not open any more video clips sent by that person.

Later at night, in a different WhatsApp group, a video opened unceremoniously because I was connected to Wi-Fi, showing a naked woman in what looked like a living room. My fingers quickly hit stop as I detest such videos. (I need to remember to change the settings on automatic downloads when connected to Wi-Fi). From the discussions in both groups, I realised it was the house help whose story had been trending online.

INHUMANE

I won’t go into the issues of privacy violation here, what I think about the employer releasing such videos to the public, the dignity that was not preserved, or the ills that some house helps do. Because, as much as the news was shocking, relieving oneself in the kitchen was not as shocking as the discussions people were having in various groups. Adults. Learned, modern adults. Using derogatory language against house helps and saying how “mboches are evil”.

First, the word ‘mboch’, sheng for house help, is usually widely used as a derogatory term.

Second, people I look up to, people I respect made me realise just how inhumane we humans can be.

From these groups, I learnt that people consider house helps third class citizens who do not deserve rights. Some people were even happy that her nudity was on display. Some saying she probably didn’t deserve her pay. Some saying nasty unprintables. I was so angry and hurt and wondered just how callous humans can be as long as it is them not suffering. But at least there were some sober souls calling for people to treat everyone with dignity. And yes, I understand that what that house help did was first disgusting and it needs to be dealt with, but that does not mean all house helps would do that or don’t deserve to be treated fairly. It’s like saying that just because one lecturer demanded sex for grades, all male lecturers are evil. It doesn’t work that way. This is where the Yin and Yang principle comes in.

LESSON LEARNT

When I was growing up, my mother’s house helps were a treasure. She told us they were her employees, not ours. A house help was not a slave. They were treated like part of the family, they ate with us, worked for us, and went out with us when we went for family days out. We called them aunty out of respect and helped with housework on weekends and during school holidays.

I remember when I was a troubled teenager and I would sometimes be difficult and demand to be served by the house help and wonder why I had to also do housework when she was there. I mistreated one or two, and my mum never let me get away with it. The strokes of the cane that I received are a story for another day. The last straw was when a house help went away because of the mistreatment, which my mum found out about when it was too late. Our punishment? – we didn’t have a house help for more than a year and we did all the housework, whether it was after school, on weekends, or on holidays. My dears, I learnt that the work was not easy and if someone was brought in to help, they should also be respected.

But what has stuck are the talks my mum had with me on respecting elders, treating everyone with dignity and even showing us just how to do it. Yes, she reprimanded house helps when they went wrong, but never in front of us. And she gave them a pat on the back for work well done.

And later, when I was older and we got other house helps, I was different and I respected them. A former house help, who is now married, still calls us, visits and even invited my mum to her home. They forged a friendship. And so did I. Whenever she and her husband are in town, they call me and buy me lunch and we sometimes just hang out as friends. When I go upcountry, I visit her at home too. Another house help, the one I didn't really treat that well, still liked my mother and would often visit her, even years later after she had started her own family.

As the debate on house helps and how to treat them rages on, I am still shocked at how people are talking about giving them only half a day’s off every week, paying them little, making them eat away from the family, and still expect them to work and serve them with a smile.

As I was discussing this unfortunate displays of ignorance with a friend, she let on that someone she once loved would mistreat house helps so much and even demand that they eat and sleep in the kitchen even though the house had extra, and empty, bedrooms; the man insisted that the house help should not boil her drinking water, should eat leftover food, should use cold water to shower, and should not be seen around when he is around. Needless to say, a few house helps left because of him.

Someone I knew a long time ago once beat up her house help so mercilessly that neighbours had to intervene.

DO UNTO OTHERS...

Another person in a WhatsApp group kept saying “mboches from hell” in the house help debate, and some people supported her.

In another WhatsApp group, I asked whether they would be happy or still work if their own employers treated them just as they want to treat or are treating their house helps. As I write this, it’s been six hours and no one has talked since I posted my question, yet this is a group where people bombard you with messages every other minute—day and night—on how to live life fully, how to make money, how to be your best, how to be a woman of God, where to get house helps, how to care for children, etc. etc.

But really, house helps are humans, let’s not dehumanise them.

I know some may have vices that need to be dealt with, but even at work there are the good workers and those who do not pull their weight. But you should be the kind of employer you would like your employer to be.

Give your house helps days off, pay them well, be humane. After all, these are the same people you entrust your children and property to. Give them privacy, and please do not put CCTV in their bedrooms or bathrooms (the rest of the house is your choice). Respect them and give them a bit of freedom. Teach them to use gadgets and facilities in your house, especially if they have never seen such. And do it in a dignified manner. Talk to them about saving, financial management and planning for their future, engage them on careers development, and look out for their welfare.

That is not to say that you should not be careful with them like having nanny cams for security, extra security systems, getting their identity details or doing background checks, or even disciplining them when the need calls for it; but treat them humanely. Do unto them what you would like done to you.

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