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Why we don’t have house help

When we moved to Tanzania I was told that we would need house help. So Mama Velo did our cleaning. (I cooked. I enjoy the creativity of it, and it gives me some headspace – like how some people do their best thinking in the shower.) And she was great, and we kept her for the whole time we were in Dodoma. But this time around we’ve decided not to have house help. Here are some of the reasons why:

  1. Budgeting. Providing for someone’s income is an expensive venture, especially on a missionary budget. The minimums to pay house help are legislated, not according to services rendered but according to who is paying. A volunteer in the country is required to pay more than 3x what a Tanzanian pays, though less what foreign business people or embassy workers are required to pay. While it’s great to be able to support someone’s family, there are some cold hard facts that come into it. For example, the cost of a washing machine was equivalent to 6 months of paying Mama Velo. Would a machine be ‘better value’, as callous as that sounds?
  2. Differences in Dar. Everything is more expensive in Dar, including services. The ‘going rate’ is much higher. That’s fair enough – life is more expensive for everyone, not just us; even fruits and veggies are more expensive. But that brings us back to point 1. A washing machine might be more like 3 months worth of paying someone according to Dar standards.
  3. Money negotiations. An employer is often expected to provide for an employee’s medical expenses as well, or to give to their other causes. For example, you might be asked to sponsor a child’s high school education, or to give some money if someone in your employee’s family has died. You are constantly called on for money, and having to make decisions about what you will do about that. Tanzanians find this much easier to deal with than we do, but for us it is a huge stress. I never know what the ‘right’ response is and I am uncomfortable in the position of patron.
  4. Finding someone you can trust. The house help Tanzanians have are often family; there is a whole relational structure behind it. But we’d be employing someone without that relational capital. Mama Velo came to us with a strong endorsement from her former employers and others, but here we’d be starting over, and it’s hard to find someone you trust. There are two aspects to this. The first is is related to the negotiations. How can you be sure of the authenticity of what they are asking for? In Dodoma, the gardener we also inherited started having family deaths regularly and asking us to donate to that. We later found out he was in town when he was meant to be travelling for these funerals – he was spotted at the pub! Second, it’s also about letting someone into your home. My engagement ring went missing while we were in Dodoma. Perhaps I misplaced it, but we didn’t find it when packing up to move here. I trust the staff we had there so I don’t think it was them, but you have to find someone you wouldn’t question when something like that happens.
  5. Supervision. I hate this point because it plays into stereotypes of lazy Africans, but everyone we’ve met whether Tanzanian, Indian, or mzungu speaks of needing to stand over your staff in order to get them to do a good job, and we’ve observed this in action. A self-motivated worker is a rare find indeed. Even if you can find someone you trust, it’s not like you can just go out of the house and leave them to do the cleaning.
  6. Loss of privacy. Having someone in your home is a big deal for us. Especially when you are there with them. There’s an encroachment on your physical space as well as your emotional space.
  7. We don’t have enough work. Most house helpers work 8am-2pm, or even 4pm. Mama Velo worked for us 9am-12pm every day and some days she went home early. Our standards of housekeeping are simply not high enough to give someone that much work! Perhaps we need a housekeeper who comes two or three times a week, but we’re not sure the stress of all the negotiating, supervising and trusting is worth it. If Arthur and I cared more about the state of the house maybe it would be, but we have a pretty similar tolerance of mess, and it’s pretty high!
  8. Anonymity. In Dodoma, there was an expectation that it was the obligation of white people, including missionaries, to provide employment. This was seen as a way of contributing to the economy, and of being involved in the community. We practically inherited Mama Velo with the house we were in, along with a stack of other expectations. Here in Dar the expat community is much larger, and we are just one of many expat families. Though we don’t live in the expat hub on the peninsula, we are also not under the same scrutiny we were in Dodoma. That gives us a bit more freedom to self-determine.
  9. We can do it at the moment. We’ve decided that for this 3 year term in Tanzania I’m not going to work for TAFES in an official capacity while the boys are so young, and unlike our last term, I’m not engaged in full-time language learning. That gives me capacity to do some dishes, put on a load of washing and sweep the floor each day, and mop once a week. Arthur takes care of the bathrooms and the bins. This is our second term in Tanzania: we are not experiencing the bone-crushing fatigue of the first year and the first term that warrants having someone to take care of the house. The suburb we’re in in Dar provides somewhat reliable power and water, so we can use some modern conveniences like a washing machine which makes the job smaller than it otherwise might be. The housework is not a huge burden for us.

House help is one of the most controversial topics among expats in Tanzania. Some people consider it a moral obligation to employ as many people as possible (and have the budget to do that). A sure fire way to start a social media storm is to talk about how much to pay staff. Most of us struggle with the imagery of black people working in white people’s houses. I ask just about everyone I meet what they do and what they pay, simply because I’m interested in how others work it through.

Another CMS missionary, who has just returned to Australia after a decade here, said to me that she never worked out what to do about it. She tried having house help, and not having house help, and different combinations and never found something she was comfortable with. That was tremendously freeing for me, to hear that sometimes you don’t find the sweet spot, but it’s OK to keep experimenting. So we may change our minds about house help in the future, but for now, this is how we’ve worked it through.

Categories: Bits Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

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