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#104 Feeling Ambivalent about “the Help”

October 31, 2011

submitted by SK

EAWs like (or at least often end up) feeling ambivalent about “the help.”   They think of themselves as scrappy and self-reliant – certainly more than capable of cooking, cleaning and washing clothes on their own.  They also see all humanity as their brethren, nobody inherently more noble or deserving than the next.  So, they are constitutionally predisposed to be uncomfortable with the subservient dynamic of house help.

But they need help, don’t they?  Whether they are community-based or working from a swank office in a capital city, EAWs at least need the laundry done.  And washing clothes by hand alone is a full time job.  Part time at least.  And they have that other full time job making the world right, so they feel justified in paying someone “the fair market rate” (which inconveniently hovers around the global poverty line) to get some things done around the house.   And they’re doing their part to take a dent out of the always enormous national unemployment rate.  Who can argue with that?

Who needs to argue with that?  The EAW is in a constant state of arguing with herself over the whole endeavor.

Given her tidy salary and dank perks, she could pay more, but that’s really distorting the local economy, and she’s here to tread lightly so she can’t go around doing that, can she?  Or can she?

Anyway, she treats her 46-year-old “house girl” well.  Much better than the locals.  She pays her kids school fees, lets her leave for funerals and weddings and gives her the left-over… just about anything.  She always thanks her profusely and insists on being called by her first name.  She take a certain pride in her munificence.  But there’s that gnawing question: Am I a saint or a sucker?

Most EAWs accept paying a small farang/mzungu/whatever premium, but there’s nothing an EAW loathes more than being taken for a ride.   Paying a chump’s rate for anything is a sure sign that you don’t know the culture well enough to negotiate a local rate — a mistake an EAW cannot afford to make if he is to boast of any measure of field cred.  Plus, EAWs are well versed in evils of dependency and paternalism, so there are limits to their largesse on principle.

But then there it is.  Staring them right in the face and every day.  The inequalities of the world personified in their hire.

A newbie who doesn’t quite understand the delicate psychological equilibrium EAWs have constructed will, over $5 whiskeys, rudely compare the price of any of his petty indulgences with the monthly salary of the help. “You know, the costs of last night’s stay at the Addis Sheraton would pay Muna’s salary for 3 months.”  This is often followed by uncomfortable silence, far away looks or occasionally eye rolling.  Then another gulp of whiskey.

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