I have a confession to make – I have a housekeeper here in Ethiopia. Her name is Wubi. She is widowed. She has 4 children that she has raised on her own. Her oldest works as a receptionist, the next as a stewardess at Ethiopian airlines. Her two youngest are both boys – one is finishing off high school, the other is in college. Given where she has come from, this is an amazing accomplishment. She does not know how old she is but she says she is “around 46”. Like most Ethiopian women she is beautiful and looks atleast 10 years younger despite the hardships she has faced in life.
I met Wubi 6 years ago during my fist stay in Addis. When I first arrived I was asked if I wanted to hire a housekeeper. I politely declined. I was a resident at the time and having a housekeeper was certainly a luxury I could not afford. I was then told about Wubi and her children and how she needed to work to support her family. The cost was $10/week. I was sold alone on the story. For $10/week Wubi cooked 1 meal a day, did my laundry, made my bed, cleaned the apartment and went grocery shopping. That was a bonus because she was a local and she knew where to shop for food cheaply. I found out shortly after I arrived that this is the way things are here. There is a clear class system and everyone above the poorest of the poor has people hired to help them.
Most surgeons I know here have 3-4 full-time helpers depending on the size of their house and their wealth. This includes cooks, housekeepers, gardeners and sometime even drivers. Even the residents who live in the same apartment building as me have housekeepers and cooks. Often they share them. These housekeepers live in dorm-room style with bunk beds in a windowless room in the building. It can’t be a fun existence. Usually they are young girls, poorly educated, who come from the countryside in search of work to at least support themselves if not their families. Many look very young – not much older than teenagers if even that. I see them wearing the same clothes day in and day out.
I have visited Wubi at her home in the past. I think I was probably the first ferenji (white person) to step foot inside the complex – I actually felt I was a bit on display. She lives in a small complex that consists of 4 small 1-story buildings divided into 1- and 2-room units for about a dozen different families. It is it’s own little community. The buildings are arranged in a circle with common space in the middle consisting of a dry muddy surface. There is no greenery. There is one outhouse for the whole complex and one source of running water. Wubi and her family live in one of the larger units – a 2-room unit. Her children share the small bedroom where 2 bunk beds are crammed in and one chest-of-drawers. 1 drawer per child for their clothes and personal possessions. No closet. Wubi herself sleeps on the couch in the main room. In the corner there is a kerosene burner to cook on and a few kitchen implements. There is no electricity – at least not in her apartment. They work by candlelight at night. I gave her one of the solar lighting units I brought over on this visit. I think it will be useful.
Secretly, I love having someone making my bed every day. It is a chore I detest. The cleaning too I am happy to give up. Although, I am not so sure if what she does for me is truly cleans as much as moves dirt around – my current apartment floor in particular is filthy with years of dirt and grime caked on. Truthfully, I am not crazy about her cooking – it is fairly bland and she uses way too much oil. I usually have her cook only once or twice/ week as a result.
I trust Wubi too. Although I am not there when she is, I am pretty sure she has never taken anything from my apartment. In the past whenever she has needed anything – like medications for her children – she has asked for money. And, even then, she has asked for a pay advance only. I am sure, however, she does take advantage of the situation. Despite the $10 a week I pay her for 1-2 hours work per day, I know by comparison to what she would be paid if she worked for a local family, it is generous. It is what they would expect to pay for a full-days work. Other Ethiopians have in fact told me that it is “too much”. Usually if more than 1 foreign physician is visiting she can help out several a day. Often when I have too much food left at the end of the week I give her the bulk of it to take home – most often it is fresh fruits and vegetables from the week. With limited refrigeration, they spoil easily. Now, I am pretty sure she buys too much on purpose – knowing that I will give her the extra. It is hard to know what to do knowing this as it is so little for me but probably means so much for her. I usually leave her a “bonus”when I leave as well as odd and end things I don’t want to take home or think she can use. I notice on this visit she has my old croc sandals stashed in a corner from my last visit – she puts them on to clean. I think they are in better shape now than when I left them. They are two sizes too large for her but she doesn’t care – she still tells me how grateful she is for them and and all of the other things I have given her over the years. Her gratitude is humbling – especially knowing that most of what I do leave behind is well-worn, and yet she is thrilled to receive it.
Maryanne – if you are reading this – I gave your generous donation direct to Wubi for her and her family. With tears in her eyes, she thanks you.