Sage's comment on my last post reminded me of something that I've been wanting to write about for a while. She said:
I was so uncomfortable with the whole maid system when I was in South Africa. We'd never had hired help in any way while I was growing up, so I didn't know how to respond or treat people. But I will say that I'd never had my whites bleached whiter; it converted me to clotheslines.I felt the same way exactly, the first time we went to South Africa in 2005. I was really nervous and shy, and felt that it was somehow wrong to have domestic staff, somehow exploitative. I suppose in some ways it is a bit of a legacy of apartheid. Certainly, I never saw a white person cleaning houses.
Pretty much all manual labour in South Africa is performed by black people: construction, landscaping, roadworks, garbage collection, pumping petrol. On this visit, I did see a white man helping to maintain some park or something I think. And I saw (and photographed) a white man in a blue uniform sitting with a bunch of other (black) men in blue uniforms, which are commonly seen on "the workers."
That's the white worker, next to Sugar Daddy's elbow.
But that was it, in a land where I saw probably hundreds of construction workers and landscapers. Most servers are still black or coloured, although we did come across some white servers, who were generally very snooty. (Do I need to clarify that in South Africa it's perfectly acceptable and not racist to discuss and acknowledge race? I get hugely uncomfortable talking about race in Canada, where we try to ignore it. But I think these observations are impossible not to make in South Africa.)
I found myself taking a lot of pictures of these men in blue uniforms. I think partly because in Canada, most people building houses and doing landscaping are white.
I felt hugely embarrassed and uncomfortable when the maid cleaned our bedroom, which I doubt I need to say was a total and utter mess. I would have at least made the bed and put things into piles or something if I knew someone was going to (come into let alone) clean our room.
For me, that is one of the great contradictions of apartheid: that black people couldn't move freely, or live outside designated areas, but they could enter the most intimate areas of white people's lives: they could raise their children, clean their messes, and wash their dirty laundry.
Anyways, back to our visit in 2005. Probably the best thing for me to get comfortable with the whole maid thing, was to stay with Sugar Daddy's Auntie J in Joburg. They had a young woman working as their maid, who stayed in the quarters in the garden. We spent quite a bit of time with her during the day, because the family was out working or at school. Her name was Happy, which sounded like "Hepi" to my Canadian ears. Anyways, she was from Zimbabwe, but spoke English very well. She said the situation in Zimbabwe was awful, with absolutely no opportunities. For her, South Africa was the golden land of opportunity. She was very clear that she didn't want to clean houses forever, and she was trying to get a visa so she could study and become a bookkeeper or something like that.
She was a very sweet young woman, and I enjoyed her softspoken company. She also ironed like no tomorrow. Though I can't say I've been converted to ironing (we still don't own one) but I am converted to the idea of nicely pressed clothes. She even ironed our underwear!
One day she was eating lunch and reading the paper in the original looking 1920's art deco kitchen. The light was soft and I wanted to take her picture. I asked, and she said not in her cleaning clothes and kerchief. She wanted me to wait until she had her nice clothes on after her eight hours were up. So I did, but the picture was disappointing.
All in all, she was treated very well, her hours were the same as mine, and like me when I worked shit jobs in high school and uni, she had ambitions for better work. So the whole maid thing no longer seemed like such a bad thing.
I did get to see Happy again at this visit. She only works a couple of afternoons a week at Auntie J's because she's gotten a job in a doctor's office, and she's studying by correspondence to be a bookkeeper. Her hair hung in long beautiful braids, and (I hope this isn't rude but) she was much more gorgeous than the last time we saw her (and she was pretty the last time we saw her). It was really good to see her. When she got ready to leave shortly after we arrived, she got changed into her street clothes, which were totally high fashion, complete with broad diagonal stripes, big earrings and dainty little high heels. She dresses better than I ever have in my life.
Anyways, it was good to see her looking so well and successful, and I'm so happy that she's able to study.
So... this time around I felt reasonably comfortable with most of the maids we encountered. Bridget, the one whose photograph I posted yesterday, seemed really sweet. After I'd cut up Swee'pea's birthday cake and distributed it to the family, I went back for a second piece for myself. She was sitting in the kitchen, hidden from the family by a partial wall, just sitting. I offered her a piece of cake, and she gestured that she'd like some. I felt good sharing the cake with her, because even though she was new, it seems to me that a closeness develops with people who spend so much time in the same space.
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On Monday I bought some bananas that were ripe, and I knew we couldn't eat them all on time. That's ok I figured; I'll make banana bread. And I may as well get the ingredients for the macaroni and cheese with leeks while I'm at it. Ooh and I can make my yummy lasagna too.
Yesterday morning I remembered that our oven is broken.
We need to buy a new one AND have it installed before I can use an oven again. Wah!
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To the person who came here wanting to learn "how to write Runny Poo in graffiti." I'm sorry. I don't know how. (But I am pleased that I am Number Two in the search results, even above a popular blogger like Dad Gone Mad.)
To the person in Australia who first came here searching for "getting caught without South African passport" and then a few minutes later came searching for "chances of getting caught without South African passport?" try calling the Ottawa Embassy. Who knows, maybe you're not actually a South African citizen.
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Poor Swee'pea sounds worse than a two-pack-a-day-for-eighty-years smoker. He's miserable. So are we.