I am not sure why it is always the tablespoons. But it has happened repeatedly over the past year that I have been living here at the outskirts of Nairobi. A few days ago it happened again: We had another spoon situation. If you think the spoon situation is unique to me or this household, you are dead wrong.
And no, it does not only happen to wazungu (plural of mzungu = Westerners with white skin), it also happens to Kenyan Indians, and regular Kenyans who employ domestic helpers. Trust me, I have done a totally unscientific and informal survey among my friends and acquaintances on the matter.
[Having domestic help might sound slightly decadent to those of us who hail from the Western world, where only the wealthy can afford such services. However, in the so-called developing world it is very common, including for ordinary, middle-class families. It is also an important component of the local labour market.]
Quick and without a sound
Every once in a while – there could be months of uneventful calm in between – all but one of the whole set of tablespoons disappears. It happens from one second to the other. You open the kitchen drawer in anticipation of grabbing a spoon and digging into your yogurt with fruits and “WTF!” “Where are the spoons!?” ”Oh not agaaaaaaaain!”
What follows has become standard operating procedure: the obligatory cursing while one looks for the disappeared cutlery (with the yogurt in the hand); the helper, who went home a long time ago and tells you on the phone that she has no clue where the spoons could have disappeared to, yet emphasizes the next day that she could not sleep all night because she was thinking so hard about the whereabouts of the spoons; the collective contemplation on whether the cats could have dragged the set of spoons somewhere; and much shoulder shrugging and embarrassed smiling. Then, a day or two later, one tablespoon magically reappears.
“PRRRAISE the Lord”, exclaims the helper. “Yay”, I mumble, “the spoon has returned to the mothership”. And, again, it happened in such a smooth way that nobody was able to witness the moment of the miraculous reappearance of the corpus delicti.
The gradual reappearance
After hearty thanks and encouragement to the helper, another spoon returns the day after. The helper happily announces that she found the third spoon somewhere in the kitchen, and that I must have overlooked it. Oh yes, of course. “Thanks for finding the spoon, dear. Please find the remaining ones, too!”, I say.
But who really knows: maybe our cats, those sinister little thieves, took them to surreptitiously refill their food bowls at night when nobody is watching.
Getting upset is a waste of energy
Initially, the spoon situations used to upset me; I hate being lied to and once even considered firing the helper, as I thought she could not be trusted. And let me assure you, she cannot be trusted when it comes to tablespoons (and socks, by the way). However, I have figured that – in grosso modo – she is trustworthy (within certain parameters), particularly compared to some other cases I have heard about. One has to see the positive side of things: My cats are still alive despite my frequent periods of absence, and, yeah, the house hasn’t been transformed into a hotel during my absence either. Even the TV is still here without being chained to the wall.
I am beyond the point of getting upset now. I am also no longer asking myself “How the f… can she do this, given that it is crystal clear to us that only she could have taken the spoons, and we pay her twice the average salary so that she can purchase tablespoons for herself.” I have come to accept that this is a recurring theme … the absurdity of which occasionally makes me giggle in disbelief. On a more serious note, the concept of “taking” seems to be quite accepted around here, and throughout all social strata. I doubt that she considers what she does to be theft. We have spoons, she might have none – so she takes a few. Why buy them, if they are in front of her.
Finally, let me assure you, our employee is not an exploited poor worker who has to slave away in the household of arrogant neo-colonialist oppressors and therefore needs to retaliate for this abuse – far from it. We have a cordial relationship, and for a relatively generous and livable wage, she works 18 hours per week over three days. During our absences she resides at the house to take care of the cats.
Treating domestic workers in a disrespectful way (let alone exploiting them) – something no one should do regardless of the consequences – can lead to extreme reactions. When I first got here, I tended to believe that the stories of poisoned employers were exaggerated….
If people feel systematically cornered and vulnerable, at a social as well as a economic level, they tend to fight back at one point. Thereby the target of their aggression does not necessarily have to be the actual reason for their misery. Sometimes one is targeted because one represents what is perceived as an aggressor, at a conscious or a sub-conscious level, be it based on reality or not. And, no, the spoon situation is of course not an aggressive act of retaliation but probably expression of a frustration with an incredible gap between the wealthy and the poor in this country.