We ALL Benefit from Human Labor

It’s hard to know where to start in talking about what it is like here, but one has to start somewhere, I suppose.

One of the strangest things is that we have hired help. And I’m not talking about having a Molly Maid come in to tidy up once a week or so. We have a full-time servant who lives in—get this—servant quarters, or ‘boy’s quarters,’ as they are rather unfortunately called here—behind our house. He will tend the yard—include cutting the grass by hand–do some of the shopping, wash and iron our clothes, and clean the house.

This is a particularly odd thing for me, because not only have I never hired anyone to do domestic work, I take a sort of inverted pride in that. I clean up after myself, thank you very much. What can I say? My grandparents met at a Catholic Worker meeting. It’s in my blood to take pride in such things. Malawians who have been to the States know that hiring help is odd for us. One person said, “it’s because in your country you have machines to help you with all that. Here, we don’t.”

And so here, people do what machines do, almost without our thinking about them doing it. Servants cut the grass by hand with a long blade. They wash the clothes by hand in the sink, peg them up to dry in the sunshine, and then iron them crisp so as to kill any putsi-fly eggs. (Because putsi fly eggs? They embed into your skin and grow there until you get a boil out of which a WORM eventually emerges. So, yeah, you want those killed before slipping on your pants.)

One of the things I keep thinking about is how, while I might have been a proud part of the 99% (heck, even the 47%, a lot of the time) in the US, when I come here, I am the 1%. If you’re reading this, chances are, you are part of the global 1%. And yet I have done nothing to land here, and, chances are, neither have you. It’s by pure chance that I am the one hiring someone to do dirty work by hand for me instead of walking several kilometers, barefoot, from my village to ask someone to employ me.

Maybe you’re wondering why I don’t simply forgo hiring anyone and do this work myself, if I’m such a proud little pinko worker. It’s for two reasons, really; first, if I had to do all this work myself, I’d have no time for anything else, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of my being here, and, second, if I—with my resources—do not hire a Malawian, I am being very selfish by withholding a good job from someone who needs it.

The other thing I keep thinking about is this: at home, I am helped by people’s labor all the time. Who built my washing machine, the dishwasher, the food processor, the lawn mower, the vacuum, and all the dozens of other things that represent human labor put to my service? By now most of us are dimly aware that the conditions in factories where these machines are made leave much to be desired when it comes to human flourishing. My pride in not hiring someone in the US is a bit naïve, really: we all benefit from the labor of less-well-off people all the time.

It’s just easier to forget that when we’re pushing a lawnmower; harder to do when we are watching someone cut our grass, one blade-stroke at a time.

12 thoughts on “We ALL Benefit from Human Labor

  1. Rachel I am coming there to live forever what a nice place to live. You are so right when you said that you could not turn down there help. It would be an insult to them,here people would say GOOD! We are so glad that this will free you up to do the Lords work.Tim must be thrilled to have the time he will need as well.

  2. My sister lives in Kenya and has had house help for 20 years. Yes, it’s certainly a strange custom to get used to, but yet an essential part of the local economy. It’s like you said, you have to because you have to fit in with their culture and provide employment. Yet, it’s difficult to watch someone else labor for you, on your behalf, to do the things you can physically do. I’ve visited my sister quite a few times and it’s always hard to watch the house help, but I also see the need. You were right again when you said that if you did all of that work, you wouldn’t have time for anything else. That’s no exaggeration!

  3. First time commenting, but I simply couldn’t pass on this great post.

    In addition to the insights you offer, there is also the understanding–particularly in poorer cultures– that those with the resources to employ other people have the responsibility to do so. Like you mentioned, in our affluent western mindset, we tend to think of responsibility in terms of not burdening others with our menial tasks–but social responsibility can just as easily mean extending the opportunity of work to someone who needs it. In this sense, if you did not hire people to work at these tasks, you would be considered selfish and parsimonious. This concept has profoundly changed how I live even in the US; now I actually try to think of people that could benefit from the work instead of always trying to diy.

  4. When I was a little girl, my family lived for about a year and a half in South Korea. At the time, the standard of living in Korea was very low. We weren’t military, so we lived “on the economy”. It was considered crucial that we employ a live-in full-time housekeeper, partly for security purposes as the local thieves wouldn’t break in to homes that were occupied. Our first house there was a Korean home with an outside tap and ground-level basin. Kum Sun would kneel on the ground to wash our clothing by hand there, complete with wooden wash board. After about six months we moved into a Western-style home and she got to use a washing machine for the first time. She had extensive dental problems, which my parents paid to have taken care of. She was able to make enough money that shortly after we returned to the US, she was able to get married.

  5. Rachel, you made me laugh with this line: “Maybe you’re wondering why I don’t simply forgo hiring anyone and do this work myself, if I’m such a proud little pinko worker.” Yeah, you’re such a leftist.

    The two reasons you gave in explanation are superb. The second one reminds me of a scene from the first season of Downton Abbey (a series that will probably seem even more remotely set from your present surroundings than it did in the States). In this one scene, the young man who is heir-presumptive to the earldom is trying to resist having a valet foisted upon him, insisting he can manage his own cufflinks thank you very much. The Earl of Grantham asks the young man why he would want to take away someone’s livelihood like that. The young heir accepted the valet’s services.

  6. This reminds me of the awkwardness I felt on my first stay in Guatemala when I noticed that while we students sat to eat lunch with the family faithful Ana would stand by, waiting to clean up. I feel a very similar thing on those mercifully rare occasions when I find myself in an upscale restaurant. I find I am basically incapable of not identifying with the help!

  7. PS For all that, were I there I would probably hire a second person to re-wash and re-iron the clothes after the first one, just in case. Putsi fly maggots emerging from my skin are so not ok…

  8. PPS I also remember inwardly wincing at hearing women like Ana, regardless of age, referred to as “muchachas.” And yet Ana, completely contrary to all cultural patterns and expectations for a Guatemalan of her age and class, has always addressed me with the informal “tú.” Curious…

  9. Such great thoughts, Rachel. I love your willingness to examine situations from all points of view. I’m sure you will find many ways to bless the man who is helping your family, not only in providing his livelihood, but in recognizing the value of who he is and what he does.

  10. I love reading your blog made available by my friend Char. What was impressed on me as I read your story was not that you had a servant available but that you had the opportunity to serve this young man. Not so much in doing for him but in your gracious response to his service to you. A kind word of thanks, a gracious attitude of appreciation and maybe even a cold glass of water on a hot day as he cuts that grass one blade-stroke at a time. No one likes to be taken for granted even when we are doing what is expected. Not that I think you would do that by any means. I wonder what his expectations of you are? So very interesting. I am always uncomfortable being the one to receive and would much rather serve(I am a nurse). I can’t imagine what it will be like adjusting to this life. God bless as you begin this new adventure!

  11. Rachel-Thanks for your posts, I enjoyed catching up on reading them. This post makes me think of what I witnessed time and time again in India. What initially seemed nuts and inefficient to me would more often than not have a good reason behind it. For example, I marveled at 4-5 different people being employed to work in the front lobby of small hotel. After observing them for a few days I realized they each had a very specific task- one to open the door, one to sweep the stairs, one to sweep the lobby etc. None of them would have been paid much but each of them was paid something… For my part where I volunteered, I did all my laundry and cleaning by hand. It was manageable only because there was only myself to look after, all my meals were prepared for me in the communal dining hall and I only had a small room and toilet to clean. It turn out my standards didn’t meet the local ones as I eventually realized I was being made fun of for not ironing my clothes 🙂 I insisted that if I didn’t iron in Canada, I was not about to start in India (and certainly not a 6 m cloth a.k.a Sari). They thought me a strange bird… Keep the posts coming and blessings as you continue to settle in.

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