Stephen hired her a long time ago before I even arrived on the scene. In general maids are at the bottom of the social order. It sounds like a fabled privilege to have such a luxury. However everyone in Uganda has the real story of their struggle with this or that maid. The one who was caught stealing the TV, at midnight. The one who would eat food away from the children.
It’s hard to talk about maids to western people because it is considered such an elitist thing to have… Even my Google voice recognition refuses to understand the word, “maid” as a noun. But in this society it replaces all the automated appliances in an average American house. Here, maids are paid very little and even those with little can afford them. Some maids are yet children. Many are from a deep village sent to work for folks with slightly more means who are able to feed and provide for another person. It relieves the home they come from, of another mouth to feed, which is often a significant relief. It is telling that when I was here in 2015-2017, that I started with a maid in the house but quickly we had none. I came to learn at that time, what the median income was for the area. The daily struggle for food was real but relief was provided by that one meal per day, which the employer was to provide, while you were at work.
My husband tells of the story when auntie Joyce first came to help him cook but mostly to wash his clothes and tame the weeds in the garden. He said she was ungroomed and ate like a horse. It’s not that she was starving but rather the distance to starving is much more palatable here. One plants beans and cassava and works incredibly hard to plant, weed and harvest, only to see and feel how little it puts on the table. Seeing that short distance drives one to eat in earnest. It’s quite different than complete dissociation between one’s plate and the garden, which exists in the US.
Many maids work as maids to relieve themselves from the stress and constant worry of “looking for what to eat.” This is a very common expression in Uganda. For auntie, she was very satisfied that she was able to eat the whole variety of food growing in my husband’s garden and take a paycheck home also. She could definitely fit the local definition of unrefined and poor paired with hopelessness that comes, after the desperation has waned.
When she first came, she ate and ate and ate and ate. Once my husband’s visitor gaped in astonishment at the amount of food she had eaten. He asked my husband about. Between the two of them they wondered if she should be talked to about this habit. My husband decided not to talk to her about it. After all, he reasoned, eventually she will get tired of eating all that food. After all this food is all available from the garden, if she harvests it. It was a good decision. Later, we noticed, when she was put in charge of feeding the children, she ensured that the children were fed first and cut back on her eating. This is a good sign.
We call her auntie Joyce. It is a sign of respect to give the title auntie. Gracie and Glory enjoy making American treats and sharing them with her: waffles, bread, banana bread, mango and guava popsicles. Sometimes I catch auntie dancing with the girls in the spare bedroom. The girls tell me that when only auntie is babysitting them, she has them read the Bible in Lluganda with them. She sings songs with them in Lluganda.
I wonder about her life and am actively looking for a way to support her in tangible meaningful ways. At times she brings her grown son, who is able bodied but mentally challenged and does not speak. At times we wonder about her own mental capacity but are very grateful that she has a humble spirit. Usually western folks living here do not hire out of the village like this. They hire folks that have the history and capacity to make the transition between Buganda culture and Western culture. This is a privilege for me, and my husband makes it possible.
When I first came, my husband informed me that he had not told her his wife was coming. She was so shy and embarrassed that she knew no English. My husband informed her that her salary would increase due to the increased responsibilities. As the days went by, I could see she walked with her head held high and a swing in her step. She worked for the muzungu! She had purchased a new dress, a phone. She got her hair done at the salon and painted her nails. We held our breath and hoped that this was entire reach of her pride, success—simple enjoyment. We worried that others around her would trick her into a foolish alliances and negotiations because of the muzungu.
It’s difficult to mentally process the fact that the muzungu is both loved, revered and hated. At worst I am loved on face to face but in secret my trust is betrayed. The closeness of friendship is used as a weapon to exploit what can be gained. But mostly I am seen as a gold coin in the back pocket or a lucky charm. Because why not!!? So many times there have been real instances of someone getting into trouble—in an accident or a health crisis and along came a muzungu and magically paid for it all and the trouble was as if it never existed. For the muzungu side—of course one should raise funds quickly for a desperate need! For the side of the national—of course one is happy, grateful and anticipates more from whence that windfall came. It came and went dramatically…almost mythically. But then there are those left around in the aftermath of that awkward imbalance between the muzungu and the national and their compiled and sorted history. On the surface the crowds cheer with much elation. Yet the outliers hate the white man. Some of them write their alternative histories on Facebook. Sometimes their narratives ring more true than the ones written in books.
Some outliers come at night to exact the imbalance they feel. I’ve never before been a gold coin or a lucky charm and when someone comes at night to get that gold coin and lucky charm, as they stare at me intent on the prize I wonder to myself what they see, as I look behind me then back at the one who is surely seeing it, desiring it. And before I know it, I’ve been torn apart in the quest for that desire.
I fight to ignore how I feel when auntie kneels to greet me. The act is traditional respect but that combination with the known imbalance feels awkward. Again I have forgotten the Lluganda greetings.
Between my husband and I there is the outer pressure of dramatic economic imbalance entwined with power and control. Love and commitment has brought us this far… and the money I must labor frantically for and the feeling of smallness he must endure, for the sake of the relationship.