Charity and Nicole – a wonderful expat tale.

Whenever I think about the many places I have lived over my years I am reminded of the domestic staff we had at the time: Enca the cook in Manila, Arricelli in Caracas, Anne Marie in Kingston, Ansa my saviour in Islamabad, and now here in Pretoria Sarna who keeps the house clean and  me sane at the same time with her company and funny tales.   They play such a huge part in our lives and yet so little is heard from them. All these people have stories of their own and when I get the chance I love to talk to them about their lives, their upbringing and also about things like their take on current politics. After all, what better a place to get a feel for the thoughts of the “man on the street” than from someone who is out there living it?

So I was delighted when I came across the story of two women right here in South Africa, German expat Nicole and her Zimbabwean helper Charity, who have collaborated to produce a book about Charity’s life. As far as I am aware this is a unique product but do let me know if you think otherwise. But in the meantime I leave it up to Charity and Nicole to tell their story and why they have produced this amazing book together:

Charity Musayani - Coverfoto 800 dpi

It´s a common situation on the African continent and in many other places around the world: A family has a domestic helper, a nanny or a gardener, often staying with them under the same roof. For many years they might be living on the same grounds, spending the day together, but how much do they really know about each other’s lives? We are not aware of the path that this person went along before ending up in our household.

First of all, how did this project come about? Who came up with the idea and what was the inspiration for it?

Charity got to read all these books in the house, because we didn´t provide her with a TV. Many different stories, lots of them stories about women. Women on all continents in all situations. So suddenly one-day Charity comes up to me and asks/says if she shouldn´t write down her story. We had a short chat about it and I really liked the idea a lot. So I encouraged her. I got her a notebook and two pencils and then obviously she sat down and started it.

How did you work together – Charity, did you tell Nicole your story? How hard (or easy!) was it working together?

Charity: I sat down in my room many nights and weekends writing down my story into a notebook, handwritten. When this was finished, Nicole provided me with a laptop and showed me how to type and save. As I was only typing with one finger, it took forever. My daughter, who is attending IT school in Harare came over in her school break for two weeks and typed the whole rest that was left for me. We sat together many, many hours. It was tough times also, because she learnt so much more in detail about her mother´s life. Many tears rolling down our cheeks during that time. Only when everything was saved in a word document, Nicole got to read my story. During the time of writing I often asked her about her opinion on certain types of writing, which we discussed then.

Nicole: Only after Charity´s whole book was digitalized, I started reading and correcting it. We often sat together, when Charity had to explain to me what she wanted to say and how certain African traditions work… I often needed to ask about types of food that are described. It was a very interesting process. We worked very hard.

Here is a story, the story of Charity, of her life, that is really touching. It´s the story of a not so ordinary Zimbabwean woman. Charity was born in 1972 and although her childhood wasn´t very easy she succeeded in getting a decent job. Unfortunately she picked a difficult husband, she lost a child and soon life was turned upside down. But still Charity could afford a maid looking after her household and her two kids while she was working. One day she made one big wrong decision. She gave up her job to go out and dig for gold. That didn´t bring her any luck and life got worse. Trying to survive with her family she ended up risking her life in the diamond fields. Also without any success. She went through extreme times in Mozambique, trapped by her own family. Many times betrayed she finally ends up in South Africa. Now working as a maid herself.

How important do you think it is for this story to be heard – not just for Charity but for all the women like her out there?

It might be a typical story of many women out there that went through similar stages or situations in life. But I still think that Charity´s life was/is very interesting to tell, because she went through so many different types of struggle, in different countries, that she managed to get through and always got out of it somehow. Always and forever having her two kids in mind and mostly wondering about their wellbeing.

What can we (as expat employers of domestic staff around the world) learn from Charity’s story? What would you like us to take away from it?

The story/book will give an expatriate an inside/background on what a woman in their household might have gone through before ending up in their house. I can only speak for Charity, but it seems to me that she just works to get a good education for her kids, that´s the most important for her. Because she knows she doesn´t have a retirement fund or similar. Her kids are her guarantee for later. If they will not be able to feed their own families and Charity, she will have a problem. She knows that she needs to finish her house in Zimbabwe and pay for their education. All she wishes for is that they will have a better, easier future/life than she had. And sure, that they will be able to look after her, when she is too old to earn her own money one day.

Charity – what would you like to see for your own future, and that of your children and grandchildren?

Charity: I want to have a better life. If I manage to finish my house I know I would have the possibility to rent out a room and earn some monthly income to get me food, even if my children wouldn´t be around, when I am older and back in my home country. Kids should have a good education and I hope that my ones can finish their courses one day and get a chance for a decent job.

I am very proud of my kids. They are always studying. Although I can only barely afford to send one of them to school at the moment, they still sit together in the afternoon at home and share their knowledge. My daughter, who is one year older, is still going to IT school and doing very well. I hope that I will be able to pay for her school fees in the future. I managed to pay for a driver licence for my son, but at the moment he is the one staying at home and studying the books for a ACCA course. Maybe I can pay for his exam fees also one day.

So a better and more stable future for the three of us, that´s what I am hoping for.

I understand Nicole is leaving soon (to go to Germany?) – will you stay in touch?

We sure will stay in touch. We have this important project going on together which is long not finished. There is still a long way to go and we will go it together. I am still looking for a publisher for the printed book for Charity.

My plan is also to translate the book in German for her. And maybe I can find a publisher for her in a Germany then.

To find out more about the book and to buy a copy please click here.

Expat World – it’s very weird

“Where do you go for a new tyre on a golf cart?”

This was one of the questions posed on a local expat forum last week. Nothing wrong with that at all, and people started adding thoughtful replies and suggestions. Hopefully whoever posted the original comment soon had her new tyre and her golfcart was once more back on the road…errr, green….

But occasionally when I see comments like this I stop and think what an absurd world we live in. Back home, how many of us would ever ask where we would need to replace a tyre on a golf cart on anything but a specialist golf forum? And how many more of us wouldn’t bat an eyelid when we saw such a question posed? Yes, it is a weird world we live in.

Many people call it the “expat bubble”, although really, given all the debate there is over the word “expat” and how it differentiates from the word “immigrant” or “migrant”, I think it is more about a certain type of expat bubble. Really, this is the bubble of those of us lucky enough to be posted on corporate or government packages which include housing and schools, and to countries in which we are able to afford to do things like play golf all day. The down-side to this, of course, is that we often also can’t work – finding a job as an expat partner in many of these countries is downright difficult thanks to the local labour market or things like visa restrictions. Hence the need to find things to do – like play golf. So long as our tyre isn’t busted!

As I read the question about the golf cart tyre I was reminded of the chapter I wrote for the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide about domestic staff. The chapter starts with a discussion on a parenting forum between women living in a country like Singapore or Hong Kong, where having a full-time nanny is normal. They talk about whether it is better to have a live-in or a live-out. Had the discussion been kept just to those expats who had experienced this way of life then it would all have been fine. As it was, they were interupted by others – others who had only ever lived in countries where in order to have a live-in nanny you would have had to be married to a hedge-funder. Or be a hedge-funder yourself. Or both.

Children and their nany - 1924

Children and their nanny – 1924

It wasn’t a bad-natured exchange between the different groups of women but it did show the original group up for what they were – immensely privileged women living in a world where everyone else was in exactly the same situation so they possibly forgot how unusual their circumstances were. Not to say we don’t all appreciate our lives as expats  – it’s hard not to when you pass men literally on their knees begging for a bit of food for a few rand at traffic lights every day. Or you donate some scuffed old shoes to your helper who tells you she will give them to the school where her granddaughter goes because there are children at the school with no shoes at all.

So it’s not that we aren’t aware or that we aren’t grateful but I do think sometimes we forget how weird it all is. That it’s normal that every single other expat I have met here has a swimming pool in their garden. That we book safari weekends away in the same way that we would book a shopping trip to London back home. And that asking about a new tyre for our golf cart is as normal as asking about where to get the half price offer on cocoa pops.

Yes, it’s a weird world we live in. But a rather wonderful one as well.

(Nanny picture: Robert of Fairfax)

Expat life and domestic staff: from the outside looking in.

This week a friend of mine who is not an expat, has never been an expat and probably never will be an expat, asked me a question about one of the topics I cover in my book. I am really grateful to this friend of mine, because she didn’t have to buy or read the book – but she has, to support me. I don’t expect people who have no connection to the expat life to read the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, even good friends and family members. So thank you to this friend, she is a good friend.

Anyway, as she made her way through the book, she reached the chapter about employing domestic staff. And she asked me a question. Earlier in the book she had read about how to find ways to occupy yourself. Then she came across the chapter about employing staff to do your cleaning, ironing, gardening etc – all those things that we get people to do for us when we move to certain parts of the world. And she, quite reasonably, asked why not do the work yourself – wouldn’t that at least partly solve the problem of trying to find ways to occupy your time?

It’s a good question and one I do tackle in the chapter my friend was reading on Domestic Staff: Finding Them, Keeping Them and Treating Them Like Human Beings (perhaps she just hadn’t read far enough into the chapter). From the outside looking in, as my friend was, this is one of the aspects of Expat Life that is hard to understand. I did explain to her that not every expat has domestic staff – if you are in Europe or the States, you’re probably looking at a cleaner a couple of hours a week if you’re lucky.

But many of us do, and it is one of those difficult topics that’s hard to discuss with people who haven’t lived in certain countries in the world. I know a lot of us don’t particularly enjoy having staff to do all the crappy jobs in our house that we could do ourselves…if we really had to….but we don’t, because we can afford to pay someone else to do it, and because it’s so damn hot, and the house is so damn big….

Our helper, Ansa, in Islamabad with my younger daughter.

Our helper, Ansa, in Islamabad with my younger daughter.

But how does it make you feel to be sitting on your sofa reading a book, or lying by the pool, while someone else is down on their knees scrubbing your floor? It feels pretty bloody awful doesn’t it?

So how do you deal with it?

Well, the advice I give in my book is first and foremost to treat your staff with respect. And treat the work they are doing with respect as well. It may feel like crappy work you don’t want to do, but it’s an honest job that helps people earn an honest wage. A wage which will almost certainly be supporting a family, possibly even an extended family. It may be paying for their children’s education (in Pakistan, our helper Ansa’s wages were paying for her daughter’s schooling), or for your staff to make a better life for themselves  (in Jamaica, it ensured my helper Anne-Marie was able to move away from the dangerous inner-city and allow her and her daughter to live in relative safety). It would almost certainly be difficult, if not devastating, for that member of staff to have their job taken away from them – just because it made you feel awkward.

Yes, it’s hard – I hate being in the house when anyone is cleaning it, whether in this country (the UK) or abroad. I usually find a reason to be out of the house, but that’s easier when it’s two hours a week than when it’s two days a week. Or longer – in some places it’s quite common still to have live-in maids. But it’s MY awkwardness, not theirs. And my problem, not theirs. And I shouldn’t make them know that I feel awkward because that would mean that they would know that I thought there was something wrong with what they are doing….

…it’s a tangled web, isn’t it?

There are things you can do to make things easier between you. Sit down to lunch with your staff, make it for them or serve it to them. Find other “chores” to do while they are cleaning, like cooking or tidying the bedroom. Lock yourself away in a study with your laptop and furiously beat away at your keyboard, very loudly, so they know you are working too. Help them (but don’t get in their way. They know what they are doing and are probably a lot better at doing it than you are). Just talk to them, ask them questions, use them to find out more about the place you live, their views on local politics, where to shop etc – it’s amazing what you will learn.

These are all my tips, but I would love to hear from you. If you live somewhere with staff working in your house, do you find it difficult? If so, how does it make you feel? Or if you’ve never been in this situation, how do you think it would make you feel? Or if you yourself have been a staff member, cleaned someone’s house or gardened – did you ever think about this at all?

In the meantime, I’ve got to go. My cleaner will be here soon and I really need to be out of the house……

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