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I Have House Help (And So Do You)

I may have laughed out loud when experienced missionaries told me I would “need to hire house help” abroad. Where was I moving? The Deep South in the 1950s? The irony of watching The Help on a plane just before moving abroad was not lost on me.

I did not need “help”.

I had worked full time, while doing nearly all of the picking up and dropping off from daycare, cooking, cleaning and shopping -- because I was married to a resident who worked unspeakable hours. I had not needed help then, and I certainly would not need help in the future. Or so I thought, in my little individualistic cloud of American superiority.

I had not anticipated the amount of time required to walk to market with two children in tow, barter (include cost paid for “white man” markup), wash/bleach all produce, grow/kill/prep chickens (skills I have no desire to acquire), make tortillas/bread/bagels/granola/yogurt/dressings/chips/cookies/sauce, reconstitute milk, filter (and recently, haul) water, find recipes with spotty internet, kill spiders/roaches/ants, bring garbage half a mile up hill to the incinerator, and remove the thin layer of dust or the thick layer of mud that cover all surfaces year-round. I took on early potty training (basically, cleaning up messes on the tile floor) and started using microfiber towels to cut back on laundry. We decided not to buy any floor coverings since vacuum cleaners are even more of a luxury than the time required to beat rugs clean. Shortcuts notwithstanding, there are simply not enough hours in the day to keep us functioning without a dishwasher, high efficiency dryer, consistent internet (how dependent we have become on this luxury!), barber, or takeout.

For less than $150 per month (total), “Uncle Kenef” and “Auntie Janet” keep us from nutritional deficiency/domestic squalor and are able to improve their families’ standards of living – all for less than most American families spend on a cell phone plan.  Importantly, these two wonderful Cameroonians have become cultural mentors, providing education that otherwise would have required years of missteps and misadventures.

Remarkably, even with two extra able-bodied individuals gardening, shopping, and prepping food multiple days per week, I am on my feet far more here than I ever was in the U.S. We are fortunate to have running water, a (tiny) washer and (an even tinier) dryer, but I spend more time than I could recount standing in front of a trickle of water at the kitchen sink and hanging laundry around my yard (in dry season) or house (in wet season).

But I digress.

The thought of hiring house help had been despicable to me, an American woman who considered herself incredibly efficient and independent.  But before we left the U.S., a missionary said something that forever changed my perspective on this issue:

“Everyone has house help. The only difference is whether or not you know who they are.”

In developed nations, the “help” is nameless: the guy at Walmart/Wegmans who packages your chicken, the teen who tosses your pizza, the line workers who construct your high efficiency washers/dryers/dishwashers/vacuums/vehicles, the trucker who delivers your fuel, the factory employees who oversee packaging of your canned/baked goods, the workers designing and operating municipal water systems, the sanitation engineers who haul away your garbage, and the farmers who grow/clean your produce.  There are innumerable, indirectly compensated people making life easier for those of us who live in high income countries; we neither consider them, nor consider what our lives would be like without them.

Here, I would notice if Keneth or Janet didn’t show up. My week would go from full to overwhelming. But in the U.S.? The closest I came to noticing these people was being annoyed when the price of eggs went up because of an increase in grain prices, or wondering why the garbage was picked up a day late.

While I was initially feeling badly for stepping back in time to “hire” other people to do “my” work, I now realize: I have the better deal. I know the people who help me, and they are beautiful, kind, resilient, funny, strong, and inspiring. When I am back in the developed world, I hope I consider the nameless crowds whose work improves my life. I was never as self-sufficient as I assumed.

Auntie Janet never looks like she has her hands full (even though she does).
Uncle "Kenef": gardener, soccer coach, and baby whisperer.

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