“ALIIICCEE!” R calls from the foot of the stairs, eyes cast skywards. “I’M LEAVING NOW!”
“Okay,” says Alice, standing beside him.
“Alice,” he says, “I didn’t realise you were there.”
Alice came with the house. She is the maid. An observant, motherly figure in her late fifties, Alice could be a character in a silent film. It is possible to walk into a room and not know that she is there, levitating through the house like a human hovercraft. Alice doesn’t say much, but when she does, her delivery is usually slow and dry, often accompanied by a barely perceptible, faintly amused roll of the eyes.
“Here’s the tupperware box I took to work,” said R one evening, rooting around in his bag and handing it to Alice.
“I only had one.”
“Two,” said Alice.
“Two?” repeated R.
“Two,” Alice nodded, glancing at me and trying to contain the smile forming at the edges of her mouth.
“Yes, it was two,” I confirm.
On another occasion, Alice drafted me in to witness two baffled plumbers at work in the bathroom. The first plumber had called in the second one for back-up and Alice and I had watched from the hallway as they attempted to work out the problem with the shower.
Alice had turned her head slowly towards me, eyes lit with mirth, and wordlessly raised her eyebrows.
I like Alice but am not sure what to do with her. Alice works for R’s company and always runs the director’s house. I struggle, though, to reconcile her presence with the fact that I once declined a friend’s suggestion to rent out a fully staffed house on the coast on the basis that, after volunteering in Kenya, as we had been, it didn’t seem right to have cooks and servants. Then there is the fact that you must get to used to having someone around all the time, to playing out your private life more publicly.
And now, here I am with a cook and a servant. I do the cooking though. And, on Fridays and weekends, so does R. I have also taken over the shopping that Alice used to do and have only recently stopped washing my clothes in the shower, a habit formed after years of travelling. My friend Sally once shared a room with me on a trip to the highlands and had woken up most mornings to the sight of my underwear hanging from the curtain rail in the shower.
“Try not to do that with R,” she had advised before I moved.
THIS THROWBACK to colonial times is a curious one to find in your own home, though it exists everywhere. It is not only the wzungus, the wealthy and the expats who have maids. Lucy, my mentor-colleague from my days as a volunteer, lived on a meagre teacher’s salary and had two, as do many people living in towns and villages. How much housekeepers, cooks and childminders are paid depends usually on who employs them.
And here’s the thing. To not have a maid is to deny someone the chance to earn a living and to impact on the lives of the children, siblings and parents that they are probably supporting. It is assumed that you will employ people and your reputation in the community can quite easily plummet if you don’t. It is common, too, to create jobs for locals who are more likely to provide a loyal workforce and to support local development. Our friends in Koru have employed only locals for two generations, generating incomes for fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, establishing a school on their farm and providing a hospital ambulance.
When later we were about to move from Kisumu, our Koru friend’s driver collected me one day to take me to the farm for my weekly lessons and promptly said:
“So, you are moving?”
“Yes,” I said.
He had clearly been chatting to our security guard.
“I have a daughter,” he began. “She lives where you are going. I will give you her number so you can call her if you need some work doing.”
IN A COUNTRY WHERE over 50% of the population is living below the poverty line on less than $2 per day, and where youth unemployment (those aged 15 to 34 years old) stands at around 35%, everyone is on the look-out for work if not for themselves then for someone else. Most will tell you they would rather have a job than a handout. R’s company initially employed four askaris (security guards) to guard our property (normal practice in Kenya) on a rotating basis even though we only needed two: a day time and a night time askari.
One particular askari, John, thought that he was also there to guard me, the lone white female. This became a challenge when I wanted to leave and John, who had the keys, would not open the wrought iron gate.
“John,” I would calmly begin, “please open the gate.”
“Madam,” said John, shaking his head under his balaclava (Kenyans can be cold even in 30 degree heat). “I cannot.”
“John. You cannot keep me locked up.”
“It will be dark soon,” countered John.
“That’s fine,” I replied, “but I’m leaving now.”
Sometimes, I would call on Alice to help me make my case. At other times, R would speak to John over the phone and, on rare occasions, I was able to convince him myself. Many times, I thought about scaling the fence.
“You must be going spare,” said Sally when I told her.
To go from an autonomous life to this, when it happened, was a source of great annoyance.
THE ONLY ONE who objected to Alice was Fuzzy. Fuzzy, the dog that had once been carried everywhere by R’s young daughter, had, and still has, a few racial issues. Fuzzy was prone to chasing Alice out of the living room whilst attempting to bite her ankles. Not that Alice ever flinched.
“Fazzy,” she would say, trying to coax our yapping dog towards her, “Fazzy, come here.”
All the askaries and any black visitors who came to the house were subjected to the same treatment from a dog who went into such a state of mania, you had to be in her line of vision to stop her. This was followed by what R came to call: The Walk of Shame.
Fuzzy’s split personality was no more evident than when R and I would leave her running around in the yard, chasing birds, lizards and whatever else she could find, and playing with Alice’s young granddaughter, Hope, who had a tendency to pick Fuzzy up by her front legs and carry her round like a chicken. This would result in R and I standing in the yard, each cradling an invisible baby as we tried to show her how to hold a small dog, with no lasting success.
As soon as we pulled out of the driveway, Fuzzy would wriggle free, run round the corner and take up residence in Alice’s house.