The legacy of the Zim house maid

Zimbabwe is caught up in the Victorian era, of uniforms, race and class segregation in as far as maids are concerned

Zimbabwe is caught up in the Victorian era, of uniforms, race and class segregation in as far as maids are concerned

Sekai Nzenza On Wednesday

Today, it is unusual to walk into a big house in Zimbabwe and not see a maid in uniform. There is also a standard design for a maid’s uniform. It must be long and the hem must fall below the knee. Always.

Walking in front was the young European mother holding a baby in her arms. She was wearing a long green and purple sun dress with buttons at the front. Behind her was a buxom middle aged African woman wearing a pink maid’s uniform, an apron and a matching doek or headscarf covering most of her plaited hair. The African woman carried a thick rug or quilt.

I was sitting on the verandah of the coffee shop in Harare with my friend Terri from North Carolina, in the USA. Terri is here to do research on African history and labour laws in Zimbabwe. We both kept looking at the European lady with the baby and the maid in uniform. The two of them and their baby found a spot under a nice shade not too far away from where we were sitting.

The maid spread the rug on the soft green lawn and sat on it.

The European lady kissed the baby on the forehead and handed him or her to the African maid who was now sitting cross legged.

The madam waved and walked towards us with a smile on her face.

She sat on the table next to us, possibly waiting for her coffee or lunch date.

“Where did I see that picture before?” asked Terri softly, pointing to the maid sitting on the lawn playing with the baby.

“What picture?” I asked her.

“The one we just saw. The European young woman who moves around with her older African maid in uniform in public places. I saw a similar type of picture recently in a movie called The Help. Have you seen it?” Terri asked.

Yes, I said I had seen it. The Help is a film set in Mississippi during the 1960s. A woman called Skeeter from a southern upper class society returns from college determined to become a writer. Then she decides to interview black African American women who spent their lives working as housekeepers or maids in the big prominent mansions of the rich white families. Aibileen, Skeeter’s best friend’s housekeeper, is the first to speak about her experiences, causing a lot of discomfort among the close African American black community. Then more and more women begin to tell the stories and secrets of their lives living with the European madams.

I told Terri that a European madam and an African housemaid are not an unusual sight in Zimbabwe. This picture has been with us since the early colonial days.

In fact, an African madam and an African maid are also more common.

This was not about racial difference, I said. It’s the economy. Women need jobs as maids, cleaners, office workers to survive.

“But, who would have thought that Zimbabwe is still so caught up in the British Victorian times? Check out the old movies set in the 1920’s you will find maids dressed up just like the maid sitting in the grass over there,” Terri said. “Zimbabwe never ceases to amaze me. Have you guys always had people you call maids and houseboys? It’s so racist and colonial.”

I thought Terri was being rather unfair. House workers were not always a European settler creation. Back in the village, when my father owned a big store and rode a red Honda motorbike, he said we could have helpers around our new homestead.

At that time, we had moved from the main village compound where my grandmother, Mbuya VaMandirowesa and the whole extended family lived.

My father said we must live separately now because we were going to be educated then eventually leave the village.

The struggle to separate us had already started when a young man called Friday and a big beautiful girl called Mavis arrived to live with us. Both Friday and Mavis came from a place far away past Buhera in Bocha. My mother said they were like our cousins and we should treat them as such.

Then one day, when we were coming back from Muzorori and Sons stores with some oxen pulling a scotch cart full of maize-meal, we met the notorious herd boy called Panichi and his equally bad friends.

Pointing at Mavis and Friday, the herd boys said, “Who are these strangers with you?” My sister Charity quickly said Mavis was my aunt’s daughter from our mother’s village. Then she pointed to Friday and said this guy was also a cousin from our mother’s village. Panichi arrogantly said we were lying. “Mune mabhoyi enyu nhasi,” the herd boys said, meaning “You have your family servants with you today.” Then they started laughing, jeering and calling Friday, Bhoyi.

The term “bhoyi” was the derogatory term used by Europeans when referring to the domestic workers. Every African was “a boy” even if he was an old man.

Over the years, we Africans started joking and referring to each other as mubhoyi, to make little or to disarm the meaning of the offensive word. In America, they would say, nigger and in South Africa it was kaffir.

Either way, when we used the term to refer to ourselves, it was meant to mock the racism embedded in the word.

But then again, it still has a similar derogatory impact when we say, “That one, I tell you, is a typical African. Mubhoyi.” We adopt the same derogatory terms that we are trying to forget.

Terri would not stop talking about Zimbabwe’s backwardness when it comes to the treatment of domestic workers.

At first, I felt a little defensive. Terri was a newcomer and did not understand Zimbabwe. Then I thought about the maids I know in many households around Zimbabwe.

We are copying the ways of the British upper class in the way we live with the maids. In Zimbabwe, before independence, having domestic workers among affluent black people was not new. Rich Africans in Marimba Park were the first to hire maids, chefs and houseboys. They dressed them in uniforms. It was a sign of money and class to employ domestic workers to work in your garden and in the house.

Today, it is unusual to walk into a big house in Zimbabwe and not see a maid in uniform. There is also a standard design for a maid’s uniform. It must be long and the hem must fall below the knee. Always. The uniform is shaped like a tent with buttons in front and a little apron that can be tied at the back. If the maid has a big bottom, then she must not tie the apron because that might accentuates the definition of her bottom, causing some discomfort to visiting relatives, the husband of the house or those we have a distance type relationship, vanyarikani.

A maid must always cover her head with a headscarf and not wear a wig or weave around the house in case people confuse her with the madam of the house. But, if the madam of the house no longer wants her wig or weave, she can pass it on to the maid. On her day off, when she goes to meet relatives or lovers, the maid can dress up in the madam’s former wig.

The housemaid’s job description is very long. She irons, washes, sews, cooks, cleans everything, mops, polishes floors, shoes and makes beds. She must know how to cook every dish from mazondo, the trotters to derere, okra and even bake cakes and make corn bread, chimondi mwii.

She starts work before everyone gets up, which is usually around six am or earlier. Then she works all day, stops to eat and goes to bed when everyone else has gone to bed which is usually 10 pm or later.

The maid must be very nice and friendly to every relative who visits the house. But, when she is instructed not to welcome some guests, she does exactly as she is told. Her salary can begin from $80 to $200 per month depending on how generous her madam and master are. The maid is often fired without notice. The crimes that lead to dismissal vary from the madam or the master simply not liking the maid. Pretty maids are a threat because they can lead the master of the house into temptation when the madam is away.

This means the madam of the house must only hire less attractive maids, preferably those who are reasonably older and no longer interested in love or romance.

“What you see here my dear friend is a Victorian maid and her madam. Zimbabwe is caught up in the Victoria era, of uniforms, race and class segregation,” said Terri, digging into her lettuce and avocado salad.”

Then Terri raised her voice a bit and looking across the table to the young mother, and said, “You have a good maid.” The lady smiled and said she would not wish for anyone one else. “Stella is just superb,” she said.

Then Terri nudged me and whispered, “Have you got a maid?” I shook my head and said that sometimes, when the need arises, I have home help. Terri laughed and said, “You are no different. It seems there is no difference between black and white people in Zimbabwe when it comes to the way you treat the women who work for you around the house. The colonial legacy lives on.”

 Dr Sekai Nzenza is an independent writer and cultural critic.