Thursday, October 26, 2006

Rant no. 2:

Last week it was left to me and Eran to hire cleaners for our house. Hal was increasingly complaining about the state of the house and not doing anything about it, so we weren’t really left with any other choice.

There aren’t exactly any cleaning agencies here, so pretty much anyone hired will be without any experience. So generally you speak to someone you trust and they put forward a friend or member of their family – this is the Angolan application process – and then someone on the luxury side of life shows them everything they want doing. Whether it was because I spend the most time in the house, or whether is was because I’m female and therefore know everything about cleaning (!) – I was somehow passively elected (no-one asked – it was basically assumed) to be the one to ‘train’ the two cleaners we’d hired.

I tried to keep the job down to just the necessities, but when Gary came home he asked me if they’d made my bed, because they hadn’t made his. I told him I make my own bed. The next time they came he asked his translator, since he doesn’t speak any Portuguese yet, to ask them to make his bed. I know that he did this because they came straight to me asking me what he’d meant. So I showed them. What was I supposed to do? But I was angry, and when I get angry I have a tendency to get self-righteous, so I’ve had to think about exactly what I was angry about.

I was angry because I associate changing sheets and making beds with hotels – maybe because I was a “chambermaid” a few years ago (complete with period costume for one hotel I worked in – puffy sleeves, corset waste and full skirt! – the male “chamber…maids(?)” wore black trousers and white shirts, but anyway…) – and not with cleaning houses. I had thought we were hiring cleaners, and not maids.

The difference, I suppose I thought, is that a cleaner has a profession and a maid has a master! For me, I wanted to be sure that we were paying for employees, not for servants. But then, who is that really reassuring – them or me?? And, as Eran pointed out, with what am I measuring the line between cleaner and maid – why should mopping a floor be any less demeaning than making someone else’s bed? I guess this is what stopped me confronting Gary, because how was I going to explain my definitions?

I just know, from experience here, that there’s a frighteningly fine line between what happens outside the bed sheets and what happens inside. The main hotel in Wako-Cungo, the Ritz, expects its cleaners – its maids (?) – unofficially of course – to be available as prostitutes for well-paying (or just paying) guests. This might well be self-righteous, but I’d like to keep whoever works in our house as far from that line as possible. But how am I supposed to explain that to everyone else who stays in this house?

Eran told me that it wouldn’t matter how much I personally persisted with referring to the women as cleaners (and don’t get me started on the same problem with the westerners here referring to them as ‘girls’ and not women), Hal and Gary wouldn’t know, or accept, any other name but maids. That’s what they’re accustomed to, what they’ve grown up with. Well, I’m sorry, but this isn’t South Africa, and Angola has not been subject to colonial rule since the early seventies, and this project is not in Wako-Cungo to reassert colonial customs.

I was also angry at Gary’s assumption that he just needed to ask the two women to make his bed, and just like that they’d do it, as if they’d been doing it all their lives, as if it was second nature to them, as if they’d been born to make his bed. But most of these women live in houses made from mud without electricity or running water. Fortunately for Angolans, theirs is a very wet country – the wettest in Africa – so most have access to water. Some, as in Wako-Cungo, which is amid a mountain range, have relatively clean, spring, water. They haven’t used, maybe not even seen, flush toilets and they sleep on mattresses on the floor. Making a bed does not come under this much-loved and truly mythical reference to Common Sense that is so often batted around in situations like this.

I was angry because, in fact, what happened in the end was that I had to make his bed! I had to fold his bloody pyjamas and brush his dead skin off the sheets in order to show them what to do! I could have been overreacting, and overanalysing, both of which I’m prone to, but I always feel my gender in situations like that: there was no way that he – Gary – was going to show them what to do – on his own bed!

It’s difficult for me because I don’t feel comfortable having other women clean the house I live in – because it would always be women – because hiring guys, or doing it ourselves, would only remove one of the few employment opportunities women have here. And when I say ‘do it ourselves’, what I really mean is doing it myself, because I’m the one in the house more than the others, and I know that it wouldn’t have any affect if I was to try to explain how, although I might be in the house, I might actually also be working there! That wouldn’t cut it… not in this chunky-calved men-of-the-outdoors environment, as they all march out into the field every morning in their khaki shorts and Cat boots – doing Real jobs! So then it would be me cleaning and so the gender issue doesn’t change, which is, for me, the distinction that out-races race, and out-classes class. Everything always comes down to gender. And that’s not very postmodern or postcolonial of me, but there you have it… perhaps this is more about me and my own discomfort at my part in all this: that I’m not able to convincingly justify my own participation in this perpetuation of class, race and gender imbalance. Anyway, Gary leaves on Thursday and Hal returns next Thursday, and I’m certainly not going to ask Ramisia and Flora to make Hal’s bed, so we’ll see what happens…

1 comment:

thury said...

Guess this lack of internet over there is the reason why I haven't seen you online for ages. Miss you loads. Love your blog Jenny! Feels fantastic to be able to read your "rants" ;) Take care!