Are we keeping the keepers?

By Annemieke Nel

She bustles through the house, cleaning dishes, washing the laundry, mopping the floors. Every now and then, she switches on the kettle for a cup of tea, always offering a cup to all present. On cold days she reminds us to take along a jersey or something warm to wear on our way out. She is very intuitive and picks up when one of us is feeling down or is looking tired, always eager to hear of news or share her own.

From a certain perspective this brief description would suit that of a mother, and really the women I describe here is not very far removed from that. Our housekeeper, Nora, plays a central part in our household, often being more aware of the general goings-on than we ourselves sometimes are. Every morning she greets us with a sincere and hearty smile, saying, “Hallo my skattebol!”

I personally believe in the importance of connecting with and taking a personal interest in the woman who is keeping my house, and, in other cases, taking care of children. By employing housekeepers in our houses, we take on the same responsibility of an employer in any other industry.

We need to make sure that our employees are being treated fairly and paid fairly. From the beginning we need to ensure that the basic and legal terms of employment between both parties are understood and agreed upon, and also that a comfortability exists for both to converse openly with each other. Wouldn’t you want to know the person you are employing on a deeper level than just a chore list and polite greetings?

By opening a channel of communication with your housekeeper and showing a sincere interest in their family life, you are creating a platform on which you can develop a relationship of trust and respect with the person who is involved in your household, and on who you are often more dependent than you would admit.

It has always baffled me how some people can entrust the care of their own children to a woman who they do not care to know more about than her first name, not to mention the surly manner in which I’ve heard others address their housekeepers and child carers. It is sometimes easy to forget (or purposefully ignore) the fact that the woman cleaning your house is so much more than just a cleaner – she is a mother, a sister, a self-sufficient woman with her own goals and dreams for her family and loved ones.

South African artist, Mary Sibande, created a thought-provoking exhibition inspired by the South African domestic worker, in which she portrays the different generations of women in her family as maids in the form of “Sophie”. I highly recommend looking it up. The artist explained that her interest was in “looking at … humanity and commonalities of people despite the boxes we find ourselves in”.

Just before the recent report of Kenilworth resident Tim Osrin’s assault on housekeeper Cynthia Joni hit the newspapers, I happened to see a Facebook post by one of Cynthia’s employers, portraying the story. I was moved by the overwhelming support that she received from all spheres, and the almost unanimous voice that arose from these posts, encouraging Joni to press charges and stand up for her rights. This has given me hope and is proof that we have come a long way from a time when the voices of others like Joni were but a mere whisper above the drone of oppression and apathy.

Nora is part of our household and by extension, our family. I can only encourage other employers of housekeepers to take a keen interest in their employees, and treat them with the same care and respect as they would a family member or close friend. It is a rewarding and enriching endeavour that can only contribute to a more positive home environment.

Annemieke Nel is a student of history and passionate foodie who has a love for classic British literature, the compositions of JS Bach, and uncovering the stories of life in general that are often hidden around us.

Image: Fiona Watson, Flickr