What About Our Help?
One ingrained part of South African life is ‘the helper’ – the housekeeper, the nanny, the ‘ausi’. Most of us who grew up middle class have had one (or even quite a few) in our lives. In her latest contribution, Ennes Kay shares her own helper memories with us and gives an insight to what those experiences taught her.
Hot off Golden Globe wins and Oscar nominations, the film ‘The Help’ has seen incredible success for a movie based on a topic that could be seen as completely mundane. Based in Jacksonville, Mississippi at a time when the fuels of the civil rights movement had fully ignited and the race issue was boiling over, the stories of black maids working under difficult circumstances is told in shocking and at times hilarious detail.
But what about our help? Many of South Africa’s homes are run by domestic workers and indeed the children of those homes are raised by them too. This may be a world away from 1960’s Mississippi but would our modern day helpers in homes of all colours have revelations as dark as these? How well do you know the person who works in your home and what stories does she have to tell? These questions prompted me to share some memories of my own.
1. Auntie Mama
Like many South Africans I grew up in a home with a house-keeper or two or three at times. Both of my parents worked, so once collected from nursery school we would be home with Auntie Mama (yes that’s really what she was called) for the day. You could say she fitted the stereotype of a typical maid – down to the pink uniform with the white trim, head scarf and gappy smile.
She was a large, stocky woman with enormous breasts and a laugh heartier than a room of drunken sailors could produce. I wouldn’t say that Auntie Mama raised us but she was definitely a mother of sorts. She washed us, fed us, clothed us, comforted us when we cried, told us scary stories, put us to bed and was even allowed to discipline us.
We loved her and assumed she loved us. She worked in our house for many years, I was so young then that I have no clue as to why her employment ended or whether she even enjoyed working there or just enjoyed her time with us.
2. Auntie Elsie
During my primary school years and into junior high we had the pleasure of Auntie Elsie’s help. A far less endearing woman than Auntie Mama but in the nearly ten years she was with us she definitely became part of our family. She shared the intriguing stories of her difficult life and was a confidante to all of us in the later years, including my mother.
Her cooking and cleaning left something to be de desired and my mother often reminded her of this. I’m not sure how she managed to keep her job for so long, considering; but she would cry at the smallest criticism which probably played a part.
She lived in a room behind our house, so we got to see her rocky life played out in dramatic fashion on a few occasions – once when she discovered that her boyfriend had been cheating on her, another time when one of her friends had insulted her intelligence and the odd fight with her daughter. In a nutshell she was never one to shy from confrontation and her fists swung with such unbelievable wrath that it was probably logical that she removed her clothes before every fight. I’m assuming this was done to protect them from any damage.
After giving birth to her philandering boyfriend’s twins she was unable to stay on, despite my mother moving them into the house to make her babies’ lives a little more comfortable. The drama she brought to the house never waned and she wasn’t really able to do her job with her new family so that was that. She later tried to sue my mother for unfair dismissal on the grounds that she was let go because she fell pregnant. The case was dismissed as was she.
3. Auntie Rebecca
Aaahh, Rebecca. Definitely the sourest woman I remember working for us. I’m beginning to think that the only reason I have such fond memories of the house-keepers of my youth is because I was completely unaware of the psychological impact that cleaning after others has on a person.
As a young adult about to finish high school I now felt ill at ease with the idea of it and it bothered me that the accident of birth was all that had stood in the way of my own mother being a maid. I have always known that my parents treated the women who worked for them fairly and with respect, not least because we’re black too and not so far removed from their plight.
I now know that this isn’t enough and being a domestic worker is frustrating and demeaning in the best of circumstances. Auntie Rebecca, though unwittingly, made this very clear to me. I would often hear her on the phone complaining about one thing or another. She apparently had too much work to do – there were too many people in the house, too much food to be cooked, too much washing and ironing and not nearly enough pay. I can believe this, although I know for a fact she was being paid more than the going rate for a house-keeper and had more days off.
Still, the pay for this kind of work can hardly be described as ‘good’. The long absences from your own family, the long hours and the very nature of the work make it one of the most difficult jobs to do, no matter how empathetic the employer.
I didn’t have that much of a relationship with Auntie Rebecca. We did share stories and laughs over the years but it was clear that more was troubling her than met the eye. She finally resigned to return to her own home.