A story that explores the issues surrounding domestic service.
It was offertory time and the drumming by Zumunta Mata charged the church as parishioners marched on towards the altar. While waiting to take my turn on the growing line, I flipped the bulletin to the back, to read the notices. Somewhere tucked towards the page’s bottom to the right was an ad that caught my attention. It was brief. “House boy needed urgently.” Beneath were two mobile phone numbers. I became interested. There was no job description, nor person and professional requirements. Nothing to suggest whether the pay was fixed or negotiable. I decided to indicate my interest, waiting for Mass to end. The phone rang and was picked at the fourth beat. The voice, as that of a middle-aged man, sounded the “Hello.” I introduced myself, stated that I saw the advert and had a prospective service provider, but that I was calling to find out some information since I’d have to provide guaranty for the person. In a relaxed tone, the man at the other end asked, “Where do you live?” I didn’t consider that a necessary question, so I passed. “Are you looking for a male or a female?” I wanted to be sure the “boy” in the ad wasn’t gender-generic. “A male,” a curt response came. “I want a house boy,” sounding as though whatever tasks he desired couldn’t be done by a female. “Do you need a live-in house boy or a visiting one?” I interviewed. “Living?” I could almost feel his grimace, perhaps wondering if I was going to offer him the alternative. “I mean live-in, a person that will live in your house or one that will come and go at the end of the day!” “Oh, he will live in the house.” I decided to push my case further. “Please, what would you require him to do? As in, his job description?” I thought I heard some crackling sound I couldn’t make out, before he spoke. “Normal house boy responsibilities.” “He’s my younger brother and hasn’t been one before, neither have I had one too. So, I’m asking to know specifics.” He paused for a brief moment and spoke in a language I couldn’t make out. I could hear the faint response of a female voice in the background. “He’ll clean the house, wash clothes, wash the cars and prepare my kids for school.” “Oh, good!” and before I could add the next set of questions, he asked what job I was on. I told him I was a banker. He responded that his wife was one too while he was a “business man.” He became relaxed, engaging in pleasantries, but I wasn’t done with my questions. I probed further. “Sorry to ask! Do you have a washing machine? I mean so that he could use to wash clothes?” “Yes, we do!” “What about a generator? I want to know if his duties will require that he turn on and off the generating set!” He admitted that he had one and that he would be required to add that to his household duties. “What about opening the gate whenever you or your wife has to drive out or in?” “Yeeeeeeees,” he dragged. “He will have to do that too, sometimes.” I paused, letting my brain process the discussion so far. “How old is this your brother? Has he finished secondary school?” “Nineteen,” I volunteered. “He has completed secondary school and holds a polytechnic diploma.” “Oh! Very good. So when can he start?” “Two things are outstanding, Sir.” “Okay, go ahead.” “What will be his salary a month and how long will be his tenure of engagement? One year, six months or…” His voice seemed to have dropped. “Why don’t you come over with him and let’s discuss the payment?” I wasn’t going to buy that. So, I decided to negotiate further. “We can do that. But we need to have an idea so we don’t waste your time.” “Well, if you say so. I’ll offer twenty thousand. Plus his three square meals in the house.” I suppressed a smile before I brought myself to speak. “That isn’t good enough given the responsibilities you expect him to handle. But are there any other benefits?” “What other benefits are we looking at?” I told him the prospective service provider was earning twenty thousand as monthly allowance from me and doing much less duties without the “house boy” tag. As the discussion went on I observed he wasn’t giving in to any other benefits, but reluctantly agreed that he could take a day every week. I still pressed further, until he agreed to up the salary by five thousand. I told him that was fair, but informed him that the contract would be for six months, since he planned to return to school by then. I added that if he was ready to take an insurance cover for him. He became agitated. “Look, my kids don’t have an insurance cover and I don’t have one myself. Why should I take one for your brother?” His voice was rising. I was calm, unshaken by his tone. Then, after a brief moment, I heard a different voice. It was that of a lady, silky, but firm. “Hello. Hello,” the voice chorused. “Good morning madam,” I greeted, letting out an unseen smile. “I heard you talking about insurance cover and asking several questions from my husband. Why would we take an insurance cover for a house boy? Are we the first to have one?” Her tone was really harsh. I tried to explain to her that the responsibilities he was needed to do, such as mopping the floor, turning on the generating set, sort of combining responsibilities of a domestic assistant and protection officer, required some form of insurance. When I was done, I asked her “You’re a banker, Madam. Hasn’t your company taken an insurance cover on you?” “Yes, they have. And what has that got to do with hiring a house boy?” “A lot, madam!” I followed with another question “Have you had a house help before?” “Yes, I have; a girl. She left suddenly.” It was obvious we couldn’t reach any meaningful agreement and when I recalled that I was the one that made the call, I decided it was time to end it. “Madam, if you require quality service, especially from someone who must take care of you and your children, you should take care of them too. I’m sorry, we can’t offer our services.” The phone clicked to end the call.