Why I Have a Cleaning Lady

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It was one of my first evenings being hosted in a corner of Africa. Not in a hut, bent over, eating pieces of oily fish in the dirt. But in a grand western-style house, with a western-style family. I didn’t know them well, but they had let us sleep in their guest room for the night as we journeyed through the continent. After a warming beef stew, I got ready to sink my hands into the dirty dishes. “No,” the host said, briskly. “You don’t need to do that.” I insisted, but she was was firm. “I have somebody to do that tomorrow,” she said.

A maid.
And I judged her.
Fast forward a few months, and I am settling into my little Mozambican home. We have no money and live on beans and rice every day, with one bread roll for breakfast. The two wooden bowls we eat from are sprouting white, fluffy mould – beans growing inside the wood. We haven’t made friends yet. The evenings are hot and too quiet. We don’t speak the language. We try to spend a Saturday afternoon at the beach to relax, but a strange boy follows us relentlessly shouting “white, white, white” hundreds of times.
And even in the midst of this tremendous transition, I am desperate to live like the village mamas. I will not ask for help. Not a single bit. So I try a bit harder. I wash all our clothes my hand. I scrub the fluffy-white wooden bowls. I eat my bread roll. But the bowls still smell of beans and I’m hungry by mid-morning. The dust flies in the windows every day and I can’t fight it. I will not pay someone to help. Not a Mozambican woman in my house. Washing my dishes, doing the jobs I should do. I can do. I want to know these women, I want to be their friends, not their boss. I want to sit in their houses, not have them clean mine.
Nothing breaks you quite like Africa. Except having babies. And combined, well, it was as if I could literally feel my human skin stretching. Dirty nappies on the floor. Toilet water leaking. Dirt in my food. No water in the taps. Electricity off again, the babies crying. I was navigating an entirely new terrain. Of course there were splashes of beauty and laughter and joy in those early days, but still this terrain felt too difficult, too steep, too hard.

And then she came. Mama Alima.

With her round, smiling eyes. And I could cry, even now, just thinking about how she lovedus.

I just asked to her to help me with the basics, but she insisted on helping me with much more. The windows, the fridge, the floors, the mosquito nets. She busied herself around the house, and I felt like a teenager who’d just left home and didn’t know how to take care of things. But I didn’t mind. I was so grateful she was here. She held my babies when my arms were tired. Still holding on to my desire for independence, I would pretend I wasn’t tired and ask to take them back. She would say they were her grandchildren and that was that. 

We listened to her stories. When her toddler-grandson ran out of the house oneafternoon, and hours later nobody could find him, we drove to the village to help. One day she cried on our shoulders. One day Nick cried on hers. And one day, how did she know, when all my family were sick for days on end, and I couldn’t cope, to call me just when I needed it? And still – holding on to my need to be superwoman – I told her I was fine. But I was swallowing tears on the other end of the phone, and I was grateful He sent her.
I began to breathe again. On the three afternoons she came, I felta little more normal in this chaotic world that is much harder than I dreamt about on my comfortable British sofa. And I began to soften. To let go of thesuperwoman I wanted to be, the white girl carrying water, instantly fluent in the local tongue, flinging my babies on her back. I asked for a bit of space from her. She had always felt unforgivingly hard with her impossible standards. I laughed harder, and I stopped seeing my mama friends so mathematically, like a swarm of sufferers that I could never befriend, because I could never be like them. I met them one by one. I stopped hiding the peanuts I snacked on in my bag, and when I did, I started realising they too carried peanuts in their bags. I became me, with all my desire to love in Mozambique, but too with all my history of growing up in pretty, rainy Milngavie. I became me, living out a thousand tensions every day. Softened.

How I would judge me years ago. Years ago friends would talk of their househelp as“part of the family”, andI would silently think you pay for her food and her children’s education. You are more powerful than you think. This is not family. Well, it’s true. Mama Alima is part of our family. She wants to be. Who amI to exclude her from my family, just because she is in need of the money we steward? And who amI to exclude her from my family, when I desperately need her help? I need help in my house. I need help with my babies. I need help with my torn mosquito net. I need help to learn her language. I need someone to make me laugh, and I need someone to call me on a Tuesday morning when everyone is sick, to unlock the pride in me, and let it all come out like salty tears.

I came to Africa in my strength. It didn’t take long before that strength fizzled out. And there to hold up my arms, was the person I last expected to. Mama Alima – the kind of woman I thought I was here to help – was helping me. I may pay her a good salary and she may cry with sheer gratitude for the difference it makes, but we both know I am the one receiving help. It’s asweet, refreshing relief to receive, to be interdependent.
God was kind enough to answer prayers I was too proud to pray.
God was beautiful enough to meet needs I couldn’t admit.
And when I thought my heart was far from the standards He had set, He smiled and lavished His love on me. As Mama Alima.

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1 Comment
  • Anonymous
    August 27, 2014

    What wise insights Cate. Having read this article, I feel I have learnt more about what it means to be inter-dependent, and the blessings that come from that. xx Joy

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