Saturday, March 27, 2004

Maid in South Africa

Originally published March 26, 2004

One of the things I dearly love about South Africa is my maid. I love my maid, I love having my maid, and I especially love that I don’t have to be apologetic about having my maid! She only comes in on Monday and Thursday, but her bi-weekly visits have transformed my life!

In America, middle class people don’t have maids…only rich, snooty people have maids. Instead, middle-class Americans…a few of them, anyway…have “cleaning ladies.” In most American households, however, the woman of the house does 80% or more of the housework, the remaining work being performed by her husband and/or children. The more affluent middle class household might have a cleaning lady come in twice a month or so to do what is referred to as “the heavy work,” which translates to mopping floors, running the vacuum, scrubbing bathrooms and woodwork, polishing furniture, and perhaps cleaning a kitchen appliance or two…like the oven or the refrigerator. The rest of the work is performed by the household residents, including the windows, as American cleaning ladies consider window washing to be “man’s work,” particularly outside the house. In America, the cleaning lady tells you what tasks she will and will not do…“I don’t do windows” is a common refrain.

One of the reasons so few American households have regular cleaning ladies is that they are extremely expensive. As I was preparing to move out of my house in California in 2003, I contacted several cleaning ladies…two independents and one cleaning firm…to give me bids on cleaning my house after the furniture was removed so that the new owner would have a nice clean home to move into. It was not a particularly large house, mind you, but a one story suburban ranch house with three small bedrooms, two very small bathrooms, living room, kitchen and a dining room just barely big enough for the table, 6 chairs and china cabinet. And it wasn’t particularly dirty, either---it had been thoroughly cleaned before the first open house, and then kept up as strangers traipsed in and out, trying to decide whether or not it was worth nearly half a million dollars to them. Dutifully, the cleaning ladies visited and took notes and submitted their quotes…all of them $350, give or take a few bucks. Now this was for cleaning an empty house…no furniture to dust or polish, no carpets to vacuum, no dirty dishes to wash, no laundry or ironing (which American cleaning ladies don’t do anyway), no windows…$350…R2 450…to clean two bathrooms, wipe down the walls and woodwork, and wash the floors of an empty house…that’s nearly double what I was earning for a day’s work as the executive assistant to the Vice President of the Legal Department of a Silicon Valley high tech firm! And, believe it or not, one of these women actually tried to convince me it was more difficult to clean an empty house than one full of dusty furniture and dirty carpets!

Those few Americans I know who do have cleaning ladies are funny about them…more than once I have extended an invitation to a colleague for a cuppa after work, only to have it declined with the explanation “The cleaning lady is coming tomorrow…can we go out tomorrow night instead?” Now, that might not make any sense to a South African, but to an American, no further explanation was needed…the cleaning lady was coming so my friend had to hurry home and clean the house up before she got there… heaven forbid that the cleaning lady should see the house in a mess!

Americans are raised with a work ethic that says we should be able to do it all ourselves…you are a weakling, a sluggard, a layabout, a failure as a worthwhile person if you don’t. So, if you have a regular or frequent cleaning lady, you’d better be prepared to explain to your colleagues and friends why. Did you just have a baby? Is your arm broken? Are you crippled with arthritis? Have you suddenly gone blind or developed a terminal allergy to cleaning solutions? No? Then what’s your excuse for not scrubbing your own dirt (and your husband’s and your kids’ as well)? You say you work a 40 to 50 hour week plus another 10 hours of commuting each week as well? So what? Who doesn’t? Unless you are approaching or have entered the executive ranks or have 14 children (in which case someone is going to ask you why the kids aren’t doing the housework and saving you all that money), most Americans are going to take issue with your having a cleaning lady. If they can juggle all of the demands of contemporary life and still find a way to wash their own kitchen floors, just exactly what is wrong with you that you can’t do it too?

Whew! Am I happy to be in South Africa where the regular visits of a domestic worker who will do laundry and windows in addition to the floors and bathrooms is part of the domestic landscape. In America I stopped buying clothing that required ironing because I simply didn’t have time to set up all the ironing gear, iron the clothes, then take the gear all down and store it again…and I didn’t have the space to leave it all set up. In America I practically stopped cooking, relying instead on frozen meals that could be microwaved because, even though I had the time to cook, my dishwasher wasn’t big enough to handle the icky pots and pans and, because I didn’t get home from work until 7 pm (and had to get up at 5:30 in the morning to do it all again), I didn’t have time to cook and wash up. In America I had an embarrassingly large collection of underclothes, outerclothes, bedclothes, kitchen and bath towels…because at any given time, half or more of them were in the laundry, waiting to be washed, folded, or stored away. In America you could write your name in the dust on my coffee table and it was a good thing I had hardwood floors because the vacuum was stored so far back in the hall closet that it practically needed a rescue expedition to bring it out into the light of day. My daily routine began at 5:30 every morning, and by the time I arrived home, microwaved dinner and consumed it, and had my evening shower, it was 9 pm and time to get enough sleep to get up in the morning and do it all over again. Housework came after such things as paying the bills, grocery shopping, washing enough clothes to get through the following week, and making sure the bathrooms and kitchen did not lapse into a condition that would bring the Department of Health down upon me…when on earth was I going to do housework?

Having a maid has transformed my life…I buy shirts that need ironing! I cook Chicken Picatta!. I buy fresh fruits and veggies that need peeling! I eat things that leave a mark if they spill on my clothes, like beetroot and curry. I have less than half the clothes that I had in California and don’t miss a thing, my bathrooms and kitchen are spotless at least twice a week, and my coffee table doesn’t even know what dust is! My maid washes windows, she irons, she polishes furniture…and when we got ourselves a little dog, she told me to get some dog shampoo and she would wash him too! She gets worried if she walks in and doesn’t find dirty dishes in the sink or if the laundry hamper is empty “Don’t you need me, Mem?” she asks. I wish I could employ her every day, but my husband has me on a budget and twice a week is all I can afford…but I live for those two days! I pay her 25% more than the going rate, drive her to her minibus taxi stand each afternoon, and plan my “messy” cooking for the nights before her work days. She goes shopping with me and points out the correct cleaning products to buy, helps me determine the best values, even suggests things to buy and the stores in which to find the items I am seeking. We have lunch together and tell stories about our families and our lives and she is as much my friend as my employee, and she is a true blessing in my life.

I love South Africa and I love my maid!

Note: The maid referred to in this entry died in a domestic violence incident three months after this was originally published.