A rift of an aged old adage relating to Gambia’s best workers—The house-helps ‘Mbindaane’

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With Rohey Samba

Often they wake before everybody else in the household. They clean our houses. Take care of our children. Wash our dirty laundry. And cook our meals among other things. They are the unhailed heroines, who are often the most neglected, most maltreated persons in our society. They are the house-helps often referred to as maids/’mbindaane’.

For my tendency to write all my articles by a wrinkle of inspiration, I was unable to decipher meaning and write a few lines for my twenty-sixth SisterSpeak article to mark last week’s May Day celebration. That was because I had a visitor rendering any form of writing impossible at the last minute. So today I reckon that these people have the greatest impact in our lives by dint of their work on the most Gambians. And even though they don’t celebrate Workers Day on May 1st every year, like the rest of us ‘workers’, they remain The Gambia’s most valuable workers. And here’s to why.

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During the course of a conversation with a colleague whilst I was abroad, I flippantly countered some of the challenges of working mothers my counterpart had to deal with by revealing I had a maid back home. The lady looked at me in the eye and said, ‘You must be very rich Rohey.’ I felt the momentary impulse to lie about my finances, I mean the pittance I am being paid back home, but changed my mind at the spur of the moment to say, ‘No. Not really,’ before going on to explain how much maids earned in The Gambia. ‘D1500.00-D2000.00. Pretty affordable, uh?’
‘Then you must be very lucky, Rohey,’ she countered after I was done explaining to her.
Yes Gambia. We are very lucky to have our maids.

It all sounds like a monotonous unambitious agenda to hail our household helps/maids but by making working families ‘comfortable and relaxed’, these young and sometimes not too young women, help Gambian families realize their dreams of the ideal modern family life.
Yet underpinning these benefits they deliver to Gambian society is the lack of social systems and policies to garner mutual benefits from social schemes meant to complement their work and also protect them from the trickery and exploiting habits of some of the families they serve.

Judging the nation’s mood on house-helps/maids, it will come as no surprise that maids are the least appreciated people in our homes, where most are given derogatory names such as ‘Suma Jola bi,’ ‘Suma mbindaane bi;’ and so on.

Alongside the name calling is the total disregard of their well-being. Many maids are stacked together in tiny, unventilated bedrooms at the fringes of the main house, in boy’s cotters unfit for human habitation yet in the grounds of such luxurious households that would put any conscientious person to shame. How do they find sound sleep, I always wonder?
The beds allocated to them in these boy cotters are usually rickety, bug infested with no floor tilings for the floor or good ceilings to absorb the heat on hot nights or cool the room in cold weather. For those who provide them with food, they are given the worse parts of every meal and for the most part, they eat last after taking care of all their household chores. Whilst this is not true for all families, at least the latter part, it pertains to some families in town.

Perhaps more chilling in the way certain people treat their maids is the apparent disrespect of their privacy as individuals. Almost reflectively, many people believe that as long as the house-helps stay in their own domicile, they have unhinged access to their lives, controlling where they should and should not go, what they could and couldn’t do and so on and so forth.
And then there are the belittling attitudes towards them. The superiority complex. The mockery and dry humor. The derogation… I know of a woman who boasts about civilizing all her ‘mbindaans’ by getting into details such as how she makes them use lime on their nooks and crannies to remove body odor among other things.

Before giving them that lecture on personal hygiene, why not just buy them a D50 worth of deodorant and a good bar of soap to wash their body with, I always want to say. But my courage always fails me. This abhorrent lady, excuse my choice of words, stand in the long line of women who forbid their house-helps from watching television in their sitting rooms. Who believe that by merely feeding their maid, they are doing them a big favour. Personally, I consider these to be human rights abuses. But that’s just me I guess?
Worse is the blatant lack of respect for these individuals as persons demonstrated by accusing them of all sorts of things under the sun even with very obscure facts. Yes, some maids steal, lie, cheat with the men of the household among other things, but so do the people they work for and/or their families.

I have heard about women who accuse their maids of silly unsubstantiated claims by the end of the month in order not to pay them their rightful dues. Some deduct all the broken china, plates, cups etc. from the month’s pay thus curtailing the maids’ benefits without their informed knowledge. Others would defer paying their wages for a later date or month claiming to be broke or so…
But the worst of all is the false accusations meted on them. The story of Zainab whose mother went to the marabout to have him make her perceived thief, who she supposed was her maid, pay for stealing her jewelry is well known.

Upon arrival at the Marabout’s place, the middle-aged woman was told to reconsider her decision to afflict her thief with insanity. But with confidence as her balm, and certain that it was her maid who took her possessions, she told the marabout there was nothing to consider and that she wanted her culprit to repay her pound of flesh.

On returning home from her mission, she realized her mistake when she saw that not her maid but her own daughter, the apple of her eye, had gone stark raving mad and was eating from the garbage bin whilst neighbors looked on. Her subterfuge had failed her and her grief knew no bounds as she rightly knew that the Marabout’s job was irreversible.
But many maids suffer a fate similar to this lucky girl’s. Many are falsely accused and humiliated without any basis. Whilst this shows a lack of concern for the primacy of the individual it also points to an unprecedented reluctance to build bridges across class divides in Gambian society.

Any thinking person would have believed that ex-President Yahya Jammeh’s twenty two year stint as The Gambia’s dictator was lesson enough to put a stop to class divides, but apparently you cannot teach old dog new tricks. Bad habits die hard. Class divides are still rife in Gambian society.
For working mothers whether single or married, especially our sisters working protracted long hours, maids are the pioneers in our sense of independence and overall well-being. That we are lucky is an understatement. But luck is not the have all take all. We must nurture the open spirit of empathy, understanding and sprinkle a small dose of kindness in our relationships with our maids, where there are still no social policies in place to protect them, in order to hold unto to our maids a little longer.

The current scarcity, which in basic economics results in increased cost of payment for the services of maids is directly related to the ways we treat them. With abysmal salaries and a promulgation of nuclear families, a high cost of house-help/maid will mean that only the rich will be able to afford their services in small Gambia…something that would yield devastating consequences for our society.

Till next weekend, chaw!

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