Medals for the maids

A walk down Memory Lane, spotlighting a figure very humble in the home yet whose role is central to domestic harmony, as seen some 35 years ago, but a topic evidently still very current:

This column (the last before Christmas), is dedicated to a most visible but usually forgotten group: domestic servants. They are usually the first to be blamed when things go wrong in the home, but the last to be remembered when it’s time for praises or enjoyment.

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Forced by circumstances of birth into servitude they deserve charity but that is something they hardly ever taste.

Everybody has a home helps story: maids who grow fat on the baby’s food; maids who make savings from the market money; maids who steal; maids who are compulsive liars; maids who oust wives; maids who run away; maids who become mothers; and, even, some would swear, maids who are witches.

(One of the things I plan to do when I retire is publish a collection of home helps stories, but that’s another matter ….)

What we don’t hear so much about is the domestic servants’ versions, the untold suffering and indignities of the thousands of girls and boys without whose services many households would not be able to function.

There are many homes where the helps eat food different and inferior to what the family eats; where the maid is never included in the family budget or plans. It is not strange to find a ‘Christian’ home where the maid does not possess even an imitation of Sunday best, and cannot go to church because she has nothing nice to wear.

I’m sure there are many homes where Christmas Day will be no different a day for the maids. In fact, it will be an even worse day for them than usual because there will be more work for them.

In their girlhood my aunts were sent to live with a ‘good’ family so that they could get the right upbringing. They had to cook their meals separate from the household’s. When the family had palm nut soup, my aunts had to cook theirs from the pounded palm pulp after it had been strained for the family’s soup. And it was a priest’s home they served!

In other countries, ‘maid’ means a professional, an adult who earns a salary. They have set salaries, and in some countries – America, for example, they are even unionised.

Here, a maid is usually a teenager, but (there are also many under-tens. Some are school drop-outs. Many come from poor homes and their parents cannot afford school fees. The rest earn money for their parents or render service on condition that when they come of age, they will be taught a vocation.

Others, like my aunts, are sent to serve ‘civilized’ homes as a sort of finishing school, to be trained properly.

It is easy to take the home helps for granted because they come from poor homes and many people think the helps ought to be grateful even for the fact that they are being given shelter and ‘free’ food and clothing.

However, considered in the light of ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’, if you consider that it is just a matter of accident of birth that the roles are not reversed, then the understanding begins to dawn.

There are people who go on trips abroad and return with presents for all the family, leaving the maid out, and she is expected not to mind. Indeed, her feelings are not even considered.

Yet, blood apart, the home help is in all other ways family. Who knows more about your household than your maid? She is normally the one person who knows all the household secrets, as well as where everything is kept.

However, it must be said that if people are cruel or unfeeling where domestic servants are concerned, it is usually not a deliberate act of wickedness. Many would be shocked if you were to accuse them of cruelty, because they simply have never given thought, or deep thought, to the matter.

I’m not saying the home helps are angels. Many are sheer devils, but they are a necessary evil. It is easy to assess their importance: nine out of ten homemakers in the urban areas are either looking for a maid or a place to stay – or both.

The increased obligation of women taking more and more of the bread winning burden has naturally increased the importance of home helps.

Even those houses where the children can look after themselves need somebody either to clean the house or do the marketing, or keep watch while the home owners are away at work.

At various times, individuals and organisations have thought of establishing maid agencies but none has succeeded so far because, I suspect, people cannot afford salaried maids.

Some people view the maid system as exploitative child labour that should be banned, but our system both social and economic does not make the abolition realistic at present. It should be possible, however, for people to treat their domestic help more humanely.

Your home help may not be perfect, but then, neither are you. She or he needs your help, but, on the other hand, you need her services.
They all have their bad points, but if you are honest with yourself, if you think about it, I’m sure you can find at least one reason to give your maid a medal.


(This column was first published on December 24, 1982.)
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