About a month ago, we had a conversation here about one of those unsettling and sometimes divisive (at least as far as opinions about best practices) components of our expat, international lifestyle – local men and women employed to handle those domestic tasks and home maintenance labor.
One thing I did pick up from that conversation was that for many of us, we find it a challenging life choice wherever we fall on the continuum, and it often involves great extremes of feelings… and opinions we are often too willing to share.
In our time overseas, we’ve had full time help, live-in help, part-time help and no help at all. That about covers the range of possibilities! We’ve had great help, adequate help, annoying help and bad help. That also about covers most of the possibilities. We’ve hired, fired, discovered, trained, trained for others, paid medical bills, advanced education fees, financed motorcycle and car loans, submitted the equivalent of social security to the government because of our help, and doled out retirement and indemnities – to name a few. At the risk of repeating myself, That about covers the gamut as well.
As expat, international workers, we all shared our thoughts, ideas and opinions. I thought it might be interesting to hear from “the other side. ” What do these hired workers, men and women who come into our homes and practically live day in and day out with us:
- think of us,
- think of what we’ve come to do, and
- think of how we go about doing it?
But the very biggest question I had?
Could I convince someone to actually really, truly, openly and authentically talk with me, risk the revealing and answer some possibly difficult questions about his/her interactions with expats, about what it is like in his/her shoes… or would he/she simply parrot the answers he/she believed I would want to hear?
God was gracious.
I have a friend who has spent almost 30 years working as “la bonne,” (or domestic help) in the homes of expats. She is currently working in the home of expats and she agreed to talk with me… as long as I would protect her identity. (You know? I bet I could sell this as a book or movie idea… except? Drats! It has already been done!) Thus for the sake of her privacy, I will call her Aminatou.
1. In what ways do you have a connection to missionaries or foreign aid workers?
I have worked in the homes of foreigners and strangers for most of the last thirty years. I married my husband when I was 16 and immediately began working as a house helper. My employers have been Lebanese, French, Canadian, American and German. I have always had a very good relationship with the wives and women in the homes where I have worked. I consider those women not only my friends, but my sisters.
2. What is the honest opinion about missionaries and foreign aid workers held by the people of this region?
We are a very poor and needy people here. We know that the aid workers and missionaries who come make mistakes and sometimes people get hurt and things get messed up. But it is good to think of others. It is good to teach others how to help themselves. I believe that is the goal of most of the workers who come here. We have to be patient with the times bad thing or injuries happen. We must be thankful for the good.
3. How have missionaries or foreign aid workers helped you personally?
They have employed me and sometimes members of my family. They have become like my family, praying for me, listening to me, sharing their lives with me, living in community with me and sharing things when I need them. I want to be very careful with my words and the things that I say because my employers, even those who have not been kind, have helped me and my family.
4. How have missionaries or foreign aid workers helped your region specifically?
We have faith based international workers (Christian and Islamic) here and also those who come to help us grow our economies and to figure out and learn better and smarter ways to use the resources God has already provided for us here. I think both groups have helped Niger, although it would be good to see the different groups collaborate more. I do think it is the Christian missionaries who do the most to help this land. Muslim missionaries rarely listen to the people. Christian missionaries do sometimes. It is the developmental workers, the Peace Corp and aid workers who do the best job of listening to what we want, where we think we need help and then try and assist us in coming up with and funding a plan.
5. Do you see any negative effects of missionaries or foreign aid workers in your region? If so, explain.
Sometimes. But I feel it would be ungrateful and disloyal to answer that question. I believe I said earlier that the positive far outweighs the negative. People will make mistakes and God uses those mistakes to teach us more patience, more suffering and more thankfulness.
6. What advice would you give to new missionaries or foreign aid workers coming to your region?
Focus your attentions and efforts on working with young girls and young women. If you want to see this country truly change, that is where the work must start. People assume that because so many of this people are Muslim, that girls and women can have no impact. They are wrong. They are your best resource and will have the most significant and explosive impact for changing this place.
7. What advice would you give to missionaries or foreign aid workers who have been in your region for a long time (many years)?
Don’t plan so much, inchallah. Leave the future in God’s hands and have faith. Be prudent when you do feel compelled to plan. Never stop praying because God works through his Jesus followers, and even in places like this, where missionaries and others often keep to busy and get discouraged, God keeps working.
8. What is the oddest thing you have ever seen a foreigner do?
We probably don’t have time to list all of the strange things I’ve seen foreigners do? One family I used to work for had me watch their children at the pool. The children would swim for awhile and then I was supposed to take them home and give them another bath. I still don’t understand the point of that.
9. Do you feel like you have a say in what you do or do not do when working in an expat’s home? Or do you feel obliged to do what is asked, even if it is hard or uncomfortable for you?
I am a Muslim. I am happy with my faith and do not plan to ever change or convert. I also believe that I honor Jesus well as a Muslim. Some of my employers will ask me if it bothers me to cook using pork or food that does not qualify as “halal.” I appreciate that. Some do not ask but simply assume. I try to do whatever it is that my employer asks because my job is important. I am thankful for my sisters who try and understand that there are some things that are very hard for me to do, and are willing to find out about those things and offer to let me live and work according to my conscience.
10. Do you like this job? Or do you dream of something different? Do you ever feel completely comfortable in this job, helping others live at a standard you cannot achieve for your own family?
My husband used to be a school teacher. But he is from another country and then laws were passed so that he could not work as a teacher in this place. He sometimes gets jobs as a répétiteur (like a tutor, a person hired to work with students to memorize the text of their lessons so that they can recite them in class the next day). But I have to work or my children cannot go to school. Some day, I dream of becoming a small business woman, with my own tiny boutique where I am my own boss and still able to help provide for my family.
There are some days when I am not easy of heart working for expats. I daily work with luxuries and realities, like you said, that my family cannot access or achieve. But because I work, my children eat, have clothes and a home, can go to the doctor when they need to and we have the hope that our life will continue to get better.
Even with all that my employers have, I would not like to live as they do.
11. If you could give one message to your past, present and future employers, what would that be?
I am smart and I am strong. Treat me as your sister and respect that about me. Treat me as an equal, even if I didn’t finish primary school or can’t read.
When your house helper makes a mistake or does something you don’t understand, ask him or her about it. Don’t first assume bad motivations.
If you feel compelled to talk with your other expat friends about your helper, please be sure to let your helper know whether the recommendations will be good or bad. What you say when you get together can ruin careers… and lives.
That is the way I strive to treat you.
12. What have you learned from your connections with foreigners?
I have learned that no matter where in this world people begin, we are, in the end, more alike than we are different. When I was young, I did not believe that and foreigners where different, dangerous and from the devil. Some days that is true of all of us. Some days it is true of only some of us.
What did you find most interesting, most informative or most unexpected about Aminatou’s responses to these questions?
If you could ask her any question at all, what would it be and why?
– Richelle Wright, missionary in Niger, W. Africa