Wednesday, December 19, 2012

When 'goodbye' really means 'farewell'

Last week was a week of 'last times', as we said goodbye to our friends and colleagues, packed our possessions and made for the airport. Of all those farewells, one of the most poignant was to the caretaker and maids in our compound. We knew that we would be able to keep in touch quite easily with those colleagues and friends with whom we had been particularly close, thanks to Facebook and email. However, when we said goodbye to Sarah [name changed to protect her privacy], the caretaker for our block of flats who also did our washing and cleaning, we knew it would almost certainly be for good. There is no postal delivery service in Uganda. The houses lived in by the poor do not have house numbers and rarely even street names. Most people cannot afford to pay for a PO box or make international calls and so  'goodbye' really is 'farewell'.

Sarah has been the lynch pin of our domestic life for nearly two and a half years. She has scrubbed our floors, cleaned our kitchen and bathroom and tidied up our untidiness. Above all, she has washed and ironed our clothes. Washing clothes in Uganda means soaking them in cold water and solid block soap or detergent and rubbing them fiercely by hand to remove all stains. This is easier said than done as the water itself is full of red earth. Following multiple rinses, the garments are then hung on the line to dry in the sun, usually without the use of pegs. None of this process is mechanised or electrified. Only middle class urban households have electricity and few have washing machines. On my way to Entebbe airport, I got red mud all over the hem of a favourite black skirt. It has been through two washes here in Scotland and been treated with Vanish, but the stains will not go away. I realise now, if I didn't before, what 'doing the laundry' means in Uganda.

Omo is the market leader, used in unbelievably high concentrations which sometimes burn the skin. Why so high? Partly because of its reputation for efficacy but also because the labels on almost all household products are written in English, a language in which few maids are literate. Omo is magic. It is used for almost all cleaning activities, whether of clothes, floors or cars. In high enough concentrations, it even removes the paint off your car. Believe me, we have evidence to prove it.

Most ironing in Uganda is carried out using flat irons with a cavity for red-hot coals. Again, we were fortunate. We had an electric iron, indeed, lucky people that we were, a steam iron. In Uganda, clothes dry in the sun rather than the wind, as in Scotland. The sun kills germs and infestations but also tends to leave lots of creases. So, ironing is essential. It also kills the mango flies which can bury themselves in washing dried outside and then burrow into the skin.

And the other household tasks? Scrubbing the floors is a never-ending job, given the dust which blows in in the dry season and the mud tramped in in the rainy weather. During our first week, we bought Sarah a conventional British-style broom and a mop and bucket. How naive! Ugandans brush floors with a bundle of dried grass stems or papyrus - like a 'witch's broom', but without the long handle. The sweeping is carried out bent double. And the mopping? By hand, kneeling on the floor and scrubbing inch by inch.

Washing, ironing, cleaning and scrubbing: these are time-consuming tasks. Add to them the shopping and cooking which most households (not ours) require and it becomes  clear why most middle class families in Uganda have at least one maid.

And who are these maids? Sadly, many of them are young girls who have not finished primary school. You might think that, given their youth, they would have few of the domestic skills required, but no. Trained to carry out household drudgery without complaint from the moment they learn to walk, Ugandan girls buckle down in the households in which they are employed, just as their British counterparts did in Victorian households a century and a half ago. Of course, many of these young girls are working illegally, as child labour. All children, in theory, have a right to primary education, but not these girls. They may have been lured from the village by wealthier neighbours or relatives with a promise that in exchange for housework and childcare duties they will be allowed to attend school, but these are usually empty promises.

Why do middle class families want to employ children as maids? Obviously, because they are cheap but also because many wives fear the wandering eyes and lascivious glances of their notoriously unfaithful husbands and think that employing young girls rather than mature women will restrain their partners. Alas no: rape, pregnancy, shame and destitution often follow - for the girls, that is. In Christian Uganda as in Victorian Britain, there is little compassion for the damaged and exploited.

Many children in Uganda are brought up by other children. Often this may be within the child carers' own families, but it may frequently be within the houses of strangers where, in addition to all the scrubbing and ironing, maids barely into their teens are expected to look after the children of the household as well. Most educated women go out to work. You quite often hear middle class women grumbling about the poor-quality spoken English their children pick up as a result of interaction with maids brought from the village. Hardly surprising when their 'nannies' may scarcely have got beyond Primary 4. All this, of course for a pittance, for many maids are to all intents and purposes slaves, with little freedom of movement and scarcely any rest time.

And of course, along with all the usual grumbles women have about their maids, little different from those you hear in comfortably-off households in the west, there are genuine fears. There are fears that maids will bring boyfriends into the house who will then proceed to empty it of valuables. There are also fears that maids will be bribed to kidnap their young charges and hand them over to witchdoctors to be sacrificed. Both these things happen, hence one reason for many families choosing boarding schools for their children from a very early age.

However, not all maids are young girls. Quite a lot are women with children of their own but without any male support. Sarah comes into this category, bringing up, and paying school fees for three children on her own. We were privileged to be invited to visit Sarah and her family in their home a couple of days before we left Uganda for good. The three children, Sarah and her elder sister live in a two-room 'terraced' mud-brick house in a 'slum' area beyond the northern bypass. To get there, we had to bounce our way through a dark warren of rutted and flooded mud tracks. However, the house had electric light and a television (with terrible reception!). Water, as everywhere in Uganda, was collected from a standpipe. We have no idea of the arrangements for sanitation.

The family income comes from Sarah's wages as a caretaker and what we paid her for washing and cleaning. The landlord routinely paid her wages late. That meant that the month we left she was four months in arrears. This is common in Uganda where the more privileged really do not care very much for those poorer than themselves, and specifically for their employees. If it hadn't been for what we gave her, goodness knows how she would have survived. And now, of course, we have left. The rest of the family's income comes from what Sarah's sister makes with her old treadle Singer sewing machine. She sews school jumpers and other garments. She also sews a backing of absorbent towelling onto locally-grown loofahs for sale in local shops, well, kiosks, really.

Sarah succeeded in keeping her eldest daughter in a day secondary school until she sat her A levels, a major achievement. Her two younger children are both in boarding schools. The younger boy is doing very well in a city boarding primary school. His elder sister is struggling with English at the local village school. She also boards. Sarah works from 8.00 in the morning until 7.00 at night, her journey to and from work taking her an hour or an hour and a half each way. Sarah's parents, who live in a village near Jinja, are too old to care for the children when she is away from home, hence the boarding arrangements. All this takes money. Our guess is that the boarding schools for the younger children are poor-quality private schools. The decision to send the children to boarding accommodation is purely pragmatic.

Sarah, a Muslim, is the most honest and morally upright person Stuart and I had contact with in Uganda.  Her English used to be minimal but she was improving it with the help of a Luganda-English dictionary which we gave her. We didn't spend much time talking to her as we were pretty busy and lack of a shared language was an obstacle. However, we grew to respect and care for her more than for nearly anyone else we met.

In our block of six flats there were two other maids, three until recently. All of them were lively, intelligent and friendly. They would wash our car, especially at the weekends when the extra money helped them go and visit their families. Our memory of them is of them in their leisure time sitting and doing each other's hair, carrying out manicures with a razor blade and, latterly, playing Ludo with a travel set we gave them.

Often Sarah would be making mats or other craftwork in the traditional Kiganda fashion, with banana fibre dyed in vivid colours, and beautifully shaped raffia baskets. These skills she learned in childhood in her village, and thought nothing of them. She laughed when we expressed our astonishment and pleasure at the beauty of what she produced and her skill in making them. Here are the wonderful gifts she has made for us at one time or another.

I mentioned that there had been a fourth maid until a couple of weeks before we left. Like Sarah, this maid whom we will call Lydia, had three children, the youngest of whom was four years old. The children lived in her home village near Tororo on the Kenyan border, a four or five hour drive from Kampala. Lydia worked for the three young men who shared one of the upstairs flats. She was pleasant and friendly, like the other maids.

One day a couple of weeks before we left, Sarah told me how long her employers had held back her wages. She said that once we left, she would leave her current job. I was very worried as jobs are scarce and Sarah has so many domestic commitments. However, what was she to do as she wasn't getting paid? It was then that Sarah told me that the maid upstairs had left the day before, with no warning. The young men for whom Lydia worked had said that they would take her to the UK, that land of milk and honey. She would then be able to send money back for her family. It was clear that Sarah was tempted to follow suit.

I was appalled. Nobody can get into the UK these days and certainly not at short notice. It was quite clear that this was a case of human trafficking, of which there have been a number of cases recently in Uganda. Nobody had seen the warning signals or recognised them and I was too late to do anything.  The young woman had already left. Who knows what country she will end up in or when, if ever, she will see her children again? She had said goodbye to Sarah, and that was it. This 'goodbye' was definitely a 'farewell'.

These anecdotes about the maids in our building are part of a common story, a story of people living on the edge, of women working hard to feed and educate their children. No doubt, you will all have heard the recent news stories of corrupt elite Ugandans stealing the international aid meant for their poorer compatriots. The maids in our building are not the recipients of aid. They struggle on their own or with the help of their parents and siblings to keep their heads above water and give their children a chance. Sometimes, sadly, they sink beneath the surface through no fault of their own.

So, with the memory of Lydia haunting us, we waved goodbye to Sarah and left the country for good.

Farewell, Uganda.


  1. Sad to learn that you've left Uganda. I discovered your blog just after the Olympics (the Kiprotich post) and I've since practically combed through all the posts. As a young Ugandan who had the privilege of spending a couple of my early years in England, my thoughts completely resonate with most if not all that you've written since arriving here. I often struggle to comprehend why this country has turned out the way it has, why we do the things we do, how our actions are often at complete odds with our religious beliefs and so on. Needless to say, I'm often left bewildered when I think too hard. At least, personally, I do my best to be as 'un-Ugandan' as possible (if you get my drift). No littering, plenty of common sense and courtesy when driving, corruption-free, treating those less privileged than me the way I'd want to be treated. It's the least I can do and I know for sure there'll come a day when this will be the norm in this country.
    I wish you the very best as you settle down back home...

  2. Dear Ronald, thank you so much for this comment. It is much appreciated. I will keep going for a few more posts as I bring to an end the outcomes of my exploration of Uganda. I understand your puzzlement about so many elements in Ugandan society. Uganda could be one of the most wonderful countries in the world. Thank you for your good wishes - much appreciated. I hope all goes well for you, your countrymen and your country. Elisabeth

  3. Winfred Baguma
    I have read and taken in everything you have said about Uganda. It is the truth. I passionately feel that something should be done to help these rich families exploiting the young maids. Firstly, they are deprived of their childhood and nobody ever cares at all. I know that all the children on earth under the 1989 children Act have the right to enjoy their childhood. It is also a moral issue. Love your children and do equally the same to those those who are less fortunate. So I would think.

  4. Thank you for commenting, Winifred. I think one way forward would be to make primary school compulsory, not just free. That would mean that anyone employing underage maids would be acting illegally and could be prosecuted. How this would be policed, though, I don't know.