Nearly everyone I know living here, many of them retirees like me, have at least one person employed as household help. By “help” I mean servants; people to keep house, cook, wash clothes, babysit, and to tend the yard and such.
When I mention to folks back in the states that I employ a maid, and even at times a nanny, a cook and a laundry girl, they can’t imagine such a thing. “Wow, must be nice!” is the usual response. Yet, from what I have seen in my travels, the unusual thing in most parts of the world is NOT having a maid. As an Air Force brat, both times we lived in Turkey back in the 60s we had maids; and the year I lived in Liberia in the Marine House from 77 to 78, we had 3 servants to take care of the 6 of us embassy watchstanders—a cook, a laundry boy and a houseboy. If it sounds great—having servants to help you around the house—heck yeah, it’s awesome. Guilty as charged—I love it.
At the moment, in this house, the only outside workers we currently have is one maid, but for a while we also employed a laundry woman and a nanny. Actually, it’s not unusual at all in this country for even poor families to have maids; in a place with such desperately high unemployment one can always find someone poorer than you willing to wash clothes, cook, or take care of a baby, and for almost no pay; perhaps only for a place to sleep and something to eat; especially if the person employed is family, like a young niece whose parents cannot afford to keep in school, or perhaps a cousin from the province where there are even fewer opportunities than in the towns and cities.
The problem most of us foreigners struggle with is trying to find just the right household worker bee. From my past 7 years of hiring and firing house servants, or more aptly, watching it being done first by my now ex-wife and then by my fiancée, a primary problem concerns the matter of trustworthiness; although that is not the only thorny issue that can rear up and cause consternation.
For instance, one of my buddies loves to travel and does so near and far; but one of the first things you learn here is that it is unwise to leave your home unattended. Even in a supposedly well-guarded subdivision, when the word gets out that the owner leaves for extended periods with no one left in the home, eventually, theft WILL occur. So naturally, for security purposes, my travelling friend keeps a live-in maid.
So, back to the trust thing—can you trust this person that you’ve just left alone to watch over all your stuff? After all, most break-ins here are inside jobs; as is crime of all kinds for that matter. Everyone “knows” this from experience and word of mouth. When we hear that a fellow foreigner has been killed in their home, which luckily does not happen all THAT often (but happen it does), the first thing that occurs to many of us: “Must have been the wife!” And often it’s true; and if not the wife specifically, then likely it was the wife’s boyfriend that did the foul deed. We rarely find out for certain as few crimes of this nature are ever “solved.”
Of course, we foreigners also tend to blame the victim. We’ll say things like, “Yeah, I heard that German guy was a real ass.” (Thus, he had it coming) or “What a dummy! That Dutch fellow should have known his wife had a jealous young boyfriend. He must have been the last one to know.”
We say these things to keep the uneasiness at bay; after all, we KNOW that OUR wives and OUR girlfriends could NEVER betray US in such a manner—right? Unthinkable! No way, no how! (…we tell ourselves vehemently).
You see, when it comes to being an outsider living in a foreign land, a land where things are not always as they seem, eventually, after you’ve taken every precaution you can possibly take, all you have left is trust; either that or you can let paranoia turn your life into a complete hell of “batten down the hatches” loneliness. Ultimately, to have any kind of real life at all, you have to simply decide to go with your gut; or, out of sheer expediency hope for the best, whether you completely trust the person or not (and always sleep with your bedroom door LOCKED).
Of course, a certain amount of paranoia can be a useful thing. My wayfaring friend had a buddy of his keep an eye on things while he was gone for a couple weeks to Thailand. It was this “spy” who discovered that the ostensibly trustworthy house girl was sneaking her boyfriend into the house every night; a very bad thing indeed—the perfect recipe for a future bit of insider thievery or much worse. It’s not unheard of—a lonely lady from another province, on her own working as a maid for a foreigner, finding herself under the influence of a local ne’er-do-well boyfriend—well; you can imagine the horrible possibilities. In this case, my buddy fired her; she was gone as soon as he returned from his trip.
And there are worse things than wayward maids; especially when it comes to entrusting your kids with fulltime nannies. It pains me to think of it, but for more than a year we had no idea that our two girls were being pinched and hair pulled by their pretty young nanny. She was my wife’s niece and it just never occurred to us that she was capable of such meanness. It was my youngest that finally complained with enough bitter vigor, along with the fact that their mom finally spotted the multitude of pinch marks and put two and two together. I can’t begin to define the extent of the rage and betrayal I felt the moment I realized that my girls had been going through months of torture at the hands of a resentful young relative. I was even angrier at myself, remembering the times my little ones had actually cried and wailed, especially during the nightly shower time. We hadn’t paid attention, assuming they were just whining and complaining as kids do. Lesson learned—trust no one and LISTEN to your kids! There it is again—trust.
It’s obvious why problems exist when it comes to servants—it’s usually about money. Money is NOT the root of all evil; it’s the desire for it that leads to no good. The difference in wealth levels between servant and employer—how to overcome that? You can’t. For example, my current maid is paid about a hundred dollars a month plus meals. She, her husband and their children are squatters; they live in a shack in a nearby riverbed. By American standards I live quite frugally in a modest 3 bedroom bungalow and drive a 17 year old sedan. Yet, compared to my maid I am Donald Trump. It must drive her batty seeing how much I have and knowing she never has a shot at doing even a fraction as well. Sure, it makes me feel guilty, but compared to some of her own very rich countrymen I am but a pauper. Should I pay her more? Maybe; but we pay above the norm already, so that will have to do. What she and others like her really need is whatever change is required to make this place into another Singapore, but THAT will never happen here.
Two or three maids ago, we had to let one go for a typical reason—she stole. I must say though, I wasn’t all that upset to see her go. At 50 years old she fancied herself with a sexy body, always wearing spandex shorts to show off her gams, which I’ll admit were quite athletic for a woman her age. Her face however, was just short of simian, or maybe not so short of it. Her primary job was to wash clothes and she actually did a pretty good job of it. But within a few weeks, we couldn’t figure out why we always needed to buy laundry soap. It was the maid who figured it out. One day, she called Divine out to the side yard, showing her where the laundry girl was stashing soap in a plastic bag under some stuff in the back of a storage shelf. Our simian faced laundry girl was fired that same day. It wasn’t that big a deal, but once a thief, always one. To paraphrase Bebe King, “The trust is gone baby… the trust is GONE.”
So it was ironic that last week the same maid that snitched on the laundry girl, and probably the best maid I’ve ever had work for me, came to Divine to report that the spare propane cooking tank was missing from where we stored it under the outside sink. Immediately we inventoried everything else in that area and determined that nothing else was taken. It was a mystery—who could have taken the tank and when?
Often the first person the police suspect is the person who reports the crime, and so it was with us. This became especially true after Divine told me that the maid had approached her just the week before, saying her husband wanted to borrow the spare tank, and now it was missing? It was just too much of a coincidence. The maid and her husband must have something to do with it; what else could we think? I told Divine that no matter what, we could never trust this woman again. And besides, I reasoned that she was the one ultimately responsible for ensuring that the place was secure while the rest of us were out and about. At the very least she had failed in that.
Regardless, I knew that no matter what we could never trust her again. Five days a week she stayed the night, getting up early to make breakfast for the kids before school. Now that her honesty was suspect I could no longer allow her to sleep here. What if her husband, or someone else, talked her into unlocking the door from the inside late one night while we were all sound asleep? She could very well be our Trojan horse. My mind ran wild with what could happen, all based on tales of unsuspecting foreigners found dead in their own homes, some tied up and bludgeoned, or repeatedly stabbed, or even chopped up into multiple separate body parts (I attended the funeral of a retired marine out of Subic who died like that about 4 years ago). Nope, as good as she’s been for the last year, she’s gone. I told Divine to make it happen.
So, here we are again—where to find a maid, someone we can trust? Perhaps a family member this time? Oh well, something will turn up; it always does.