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Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Nanny Diaries

The other day my friend Molly and I were gossiping about our nannies’ eccentricities.

“But did you hear the story of Betty’s nanny?” I asked her.

“No, what now?” responded Molly.

“Well,” I said, “Her nanny was dying in her backyard.”

“Typical,” said Molly.

Typical? Well… sort of… yes.

Take my friend Betty’s nanny. Betty (a Dutch friend whose kids go to school with Jaden and Rowan) noticed that her nanny was coughing a lot just before she left on safari. By the time she got back her nanny was gasping for air and in an altered mental state. Betty, concerned that the nanny might have tuberculosis, took her to the top end health center in town. The diagnosis wasn’t tuberculosis, but it turned out that the nanny had advanced AIDS – only 50 T-cells left. The day I met up with Betty at the pool, she was exhausted and frustrated, trying to figure out the right thing to do. After the diagnosis, the nanny’s entire family (seven people) moved into the one-room staff quarters in Betty’s backyard to care for her. Betty was understandably concerned about what her kids would think/understand and getting impatient with the family’s repeated requests for money and other favors.

“She’s so sick,” Betty told me. “I wish she would just go ahead and die already so we could get this over with.”

“Have you thought about getting her on treatment?” I asked. “It is pretty widely available these days for people as sick as your nanny.”

“She can’t even get out of bed,” said Betty. “It’s too late. I just need to find a new nanny”

My friends… try not to judge Betty. She was really frustrated and out of answers at that point. And in fact, the next day the medicine the nanny had been given to fight her lung infection was working and the nanny was able to communicate again. Betty called me to ask where the nanny could get antiretroviral drugs. I made a few calls, and within two days the nanny had been put into an AIDS treatment program. (One of the only things I can thank President Bush for - Thank you President Bush.)

Perhaps most importantly for Betty, the nanny and all her family members had been convinced to move out of the back yard.

It may sound heartless to you, but having a stranger in your yard is not easy. They are always there. They bring their own friends into your compound. They are adults but the dynamic is more like parent and adolescent. Families have tremendous influence over they way they live their lives. It is unfair, no doubt.

And don’t even get me started about the economic disparities. The best paid nannies are making about $150/month – but most are making closer to $100/month or less.

And most are separated from their own children and husbands – choosing to live in staff quarters on the compounds of their employers where there is 24-hour a day electricity and access to food and safe water.

The nannies of Dar are an interesting and mysterious lot. Good nannies are a hot commodity and traded freely among families coming and going in two-four year contract cycles. And relations among and between nannies are confusing to understand for us outsiders.

There are older nannies (particularly ones that work for Indian families) who wear a sort of colonial era uniform of a long skirt with an apron and an Aunt Jemima schmata on their heads. There are the younger conservative nannies – whom seem to be very proud to be working for ex-pat families and come to work dressed to the nines every day – sometimes in high heals and beautiful local dresses.

And then there is Secunda – our nanny – who dresses like a 13 year-old girl in midriff bearing lace shirts and capris.

Other nannies out there judge Secunda for her clothes – I know they do. But frankly, Secunda is among the few who can really get down and dirty with the kids they watch. And I’m all for free expression. But clearly there are other nannies that will have nothing to do with her as a result. I imagine that they think Secunda must be a loose woman – but the irony is I’ve never even seen Secunda have a conversation with a man – and she claims she swore off men 15 years ago when she watched her sister die of AIDS.

Sometimes I watch these women who we pay to raise our children and I wonder about their lives. Secunda, for example, has raised more than 30 stranger’s children in the last 15 years – caring for their every need, loving them, teaching them, feeding them, and wiping away their tears – only to have the kids ripped from them at the end of two years. And then the next day they have to do it all again for a new family. I imagine it must actually take a tremendous emotional toll on them. Perhaps that’s why so many of them seem so strange.

I watch the tremendous way Secunda cares for Jaden and Rowan and I’m even a little jealous about how good she is at it. But then I try to remind myself that she’s a professional and I’m still a novice at the parenting thing. She probably wouldn’t be any good at designing an HIV prevention campaign.

So there!

While the ex-pat mothers of Dar es Salaam have it way easier than most moms in other places – with a cornucopia of inexpensive child care help, housekeepers and whatnot, we also have our extraordinary challenges that would make most American parents gasp for air.

Molly and I both used to be on the DC-Urban Moms list-serve, a venue where every day 40 e-mails from complaining (mostly moms) would wax poetic on travails of parenting, particularly childcare. Typical posts ask for advice about how to get the nanny to feed their child one fewer bananas during the day, or how to get the nanny to arrive five minutes earlier so they can get out the door to work on time.

Molly said to me the other day, “I think we should rejoin DC-Urban-Moms and post about the nanny problems us and are friends are having here and see how people respond.”

That made me laugh. Hard.

Today I’m going to reregister with DC-Urban-Moms and put up this post:

I’m posting to get some advice for my friends. They have a housekeeper/nanny who they have really loved and embraced, but in the last 6 months that housekeeper has had all her belongings stolen from her house by her grandfather, her brother has committed suicide (and she needed to take off two weeks to attend to the funeral rites), and then her 14-year-old niece who lived with her was killed by her uncle after he threw a machete at her legs (when she was running away from him because he was trying to steal the land she inherited from her grandmother) and the wound was poorly cared for by health services (twice) and she contracted tetanus and died. At this point the housekeeper owes them a more than a year’s worth of salary that she has borrowed to help her deal with all these tragedies and she is asking for more money still.

My friends are at their wits’ end. What should they do?

I can’t wait to see the answers.

Secunda as photographed by Jaden


Blogger Kit said...

Yes. It is a completely different relationship with employees here in Africa. We have domestic help in the house and as you say it is like having an extra adolescant in the family - someone you take a certain amount of responsibility for and help through their own and their family's medical and general emergencies.

Our domestic worker also has HIV, caught from her erring husband, who is also alcoholic and abused her until she left him. She is amazingly straight and resilient, caring for her daughters and a handicapped baby born prematurely.

We have supported her through this with endless time off to spend time in hospital with the baby, lifts to and from the hospital for the last year and kept her job for her, as she and her family are completely dependant on us for survival. It's just the way it is here too - you benefit from affordable help but take responsibility for the person providing it.

12:54 PM  
Anonymous Becky said...

I dare you to post that on dcurban moms! <-:
yes, the challenges are certainly different.

4:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While back in America my 25 hot nanny was arrested Thursday night for DUI and put in jail until Monday morning. She has no money for a lawyer so she will get a public defender and her life will be ruined.

Also your excuse for not learning Swahili was my excuse for not learning French...shame on you to be like me.

-- sharon

8:03 AM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Wow, I was reading this and thinking about the Urban Baby types all along and their petty complaints ("My nanny talked on her cell phone during the baby's nap when she could have been doing dishes!") before I got to your last paragraphs about DCUM. I couldn't agree more.

post it! Then PLEASE post the responses!

12:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Please place the post on DCUM. Some of those moms need a huge reality check regarding their major problems. And definitely post the responses.

Living la vida loca in Columbus, Ohio.
Cousin Debbie

7:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmmmm,....does your friend Molly have two little boys, and graphic artist husband named Philip? She sounds much like my sister-in-law Molly, who submerged somewhere in eastern-Africa (Kingdom of Peace? where is that?) about a year ago. Back in DC she had a great Jamacian nanny (who would, after feeding the babies, give me a bowl of Cheerios, too), named Janet.

go Mariners,


8:11 AM  

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