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When your house helper outranks you

Since we moved house, I have joyfully returned to having house help. (The story of why is for another day.) Mama Pendo is a grandmother who comes twice a week to clean the house. This week she said to me very kindly, “Kama kuna tatizo, usinyamaze.” It means, “If there’s a problem, don’t keep quiet.” I’ve told her how pleased I am with her cleaning, and I reiterated that to her, but she insisted that I feel free to tell her any changes I might want. This was very important to her. Why?

My relationship with her is, as much as possible, based on Tanzanian norms. We speak in Swahili even though she can manage English, and I don’t call her by her given name as I was introduced to her by her other mzungu employer, but by the more respectful “Mama first child’s name”. I do it as a sign of respect. Because age and respect go together in Tanzania and bring all kinds of cultural expectations along with them.

I remember when we first came to Tanzania and I learned about the respectful greeting “Shikamoo”. It’s given to people who are older than you. That meant that I needed to give it to my then-house helper Mama Velo. I queried this with my language tutor: I give her the respectful greeting even though she is my employee? Yes, he said. Of course I would always expect to be respectful to my employees, but there was a one-sidedness to this greeting as she didn’t give it to me. Even though I held the power of employment, and several other advantages of being an mzungu, I was her inferior because of my age, and it was appropriate that our greetings and my general demeanour reflect that. The same is true with Mama Pendo. Because she is so much older than me, she outranks me.

Arthur saw this play out at a meeting recently. Some senior members of the group acted very differently to how they normally do. Every other time we have seen them, they are self-assured and speak confidently with the expectation of being listened to. This time they were very quiet, hesitant in their comments, and they deferred to a new member of the group, who was a couple of decades older than them. They went from being CEO types, to being submissive schoolboys before a harsh headmaster. It was quite a change!

In the Tanzanian mind, those who are higher up should look out for those who are below, and those below should be able to trust those above them enough to share their concerns with them. But it doesn’t always work out that way. Instead, if you’re the unhappy inferior party, you’re at the mercy of the one above, and your best strategy of self-protection is to give nothing away, to conceal your feelings so they cannot be used against you. Brood internally, but submit outwardly. Of course, this ends up being terribly dysfunctional, and to a Tanzanian mind, it’s a grave a misuse of power.

This is the cycle I think Mama Pendo was trying to break with me. She is my superior, and this would make me hesitant about speaking up if there was something I wanted done differently. So she deigned to tell me I can say if there’s a problem.

It might not be pure kindness that she did this of course.

Perhaps she’s simply savvy. After all, if I’m silently annoyed about something and she doesn’t know and is unable to fix it, that could put her employment in jeopardy.

It’s possible that having to ask the approval of your inferior in order to ensure your employment feels deeply humiliating. But remember, Ashibaye hamjui mwenye njaa – the one who is full does not know the one who is hungry. The moral thing for a person of high standing in Tanzania to do is to get to know the lives of those below them, so that they can care for them.

And so, out of her kindness and perhaps even a kind of nobility, Mama Pendo condescends to make sure I’m satisfied, and to encourage openness in our relationship.

Which is exactly how Tanzanian hierarchy is supposed to work.


Categories: Tanzania Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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