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.