“Why don’t you refer to your maid as a maid”? This is a question I posed to my modest number of twitter followers this morning. I’m sure you can see that I asked a question already having formed the conclusion that the word was a no-no. Over the years I have noticed a trend: middle-class Africans (who form a notable part of my followers list) have large problems using the “m-word”–as one of the responders to the question termed it—to refer to their housekeepers.
The responses I got were very much expected. Many people cited the discomfort they felt about calling an older woman anything besides “aunty” and all of the vernacular versions of that word. And when it came to calling younger maids by that title it seemed it was easier for most of the people participating in the discussion to refer to their maid as “sister”. The reasons behind both practises mentioned in the hazy air of cultural appropriateness.
But I’m not buying it.
Yes, at the surface of many Africans’ inability to refer to their domestic servants as such is the sheen of cultural appropriateness delivered in years of elders entrenching within us, a fear of calling an adult by anything but a family title.
And yes, I understand that particularly with Africa’s harsh colonial past, specifically South Africa with her’s being so recent and fresh in the minds of her people, there is a discomfort when one considers the racial associations the word has in the minds of many people.
And, yes, it may in fact be very Botho (Ubuntu) to treat and refer to house-help as a family member.
But that’s not all this is about.
And I made this point by asking a few (mostly rhetoric) questions to the people that confessed to a fear of referring to their maid as such. I put the following questions to them:
“So why do you have a maid if you can’t treat her like one? Why not call your cousin from the village if its about “family” then?”
But this wasn’t my point. Nor was it my concern. And I had no way of broaching the subject in the fiery bowels of twitter. So I’m putting my theory here.
I believe Africans are incapable of referring to their household help as such because they don’t think they deserve to have full-time cleaning staff. I think that this is a cultural hangover from colonial times when only Europeans had full time domestic staff and the African could only factor into that equation if s/he became that staff. That is, the only job that the African woman in colonial times was afforded was the job of housekeepers. Now, we have generations of African borne from the loins of maids and ‘house-girls’ incapable of removing themselves from that side of the equation. Incapable of uplifting their mentality from the roll of someone else’s servant to the roll of employee.
So what happens? They develop middle-class guilt, or post-colonial guilt. They feel sorry for the maids for having to stoop to the level of being the house-worker of a lowly African. I believe this entire process to be entirely subconscious of-course, and not necessarily applicable to all Africans.
But I think this theory should be examined. Because it is clear to me that it is not as though working for an African household (despite all the cushy nicknames and tip-toeing around responsibility) is not the dream job of most domestics. Why? Because just like what happens with family—they aren’t always compensated well. So, calling your domestic by a family title has little to negative effect on the quality of her job.
Essentially, this desire to treat her like family is less about her and more about yourself. How else could we explain the ill-treatment she receives?
Because this isn’t about that. It is about our inability to raise class associations with our ethnicity from industrial/working/domestic class to what many of us are: middle-class. Why not allow our identity to evolve with our new rights and privileges in “free Africa”? Why must we allow ourselves to leave our cultural identities in 18th century Africa when middle-class African was unimaginable? We must step away from the self-image that allows us to be more comfortable referring to a maid as a sister than a CEO as an uncle. We must allow our minds to grasp the concept being someone else’s employer and behaving accordingly.
Quite often the Africans treating their staff as family have problems negotiating the appropriate employer-employee relationship with their maids. No-body benefits from this practise. When work relations are muddled with family-names both parties end up feeling taken advantage of. If most Europeans could run households smoothly for years without removing the maid’s dignity from her job (because that’s what happens when you refuse to acknowledge that someone is a paid employee) by referring to her as ‘sisi’ and such, why can’t you?
And what do some call her instead? “Helper” I cringe every time I hear an African woman refer to her housemaid her “helper”. I know most times its an attempt to be polite. But to me it rings of a woman that believes the myth that the African woman belongs at home and thus views domestic help as somewhat of a professional assistant.
Maybe I’m over thinking it.
I don’t know, really.
All I do know is this definitely isn’t about respect.