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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

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Swahili School Drop Out


Yesterday I dropped out of Swahili classes – for the second time. It was an inauspicious end to my first year in Tanzania. There will be no graduation day for me.

What’s my excuse? I’ve got lots of them. I’m too busy. I cannot commit to one night a week. I’m too old to learn a new language. All my colleagues speak perfect English and so I never get to practice. The list goes on and on and on.

But it’s all bullshit. At my age I should just decide to do something and stay the course, right? Where’s my stick-to-it-ive-ness? Don’t I want to be an amateur anthropologist and get “closer” to the Tanzanian people through the language they speak?

How will I be able to justify having spent two or three years in Tanzania to my ex-Peace Corps friends if I don’t have some serious Swahili language under my belt?

Truthfully, I’ve always thought it a noble aspiration to speak more than one’s native tongue. Although I’ve dabbled at different times – and to different levels of success – with Hebrew, Arabic and Spanish, the only languages I can truly claim to speak are English and French.

(After 10 Arabic classes I had the audacity to add Arabic to my CV when I was 22. My friend, Pam, has still never let me live that one down.)

I actually don’t even remember learning French. I was young, I was surrounded by French people, I wanted to talk with them teen-to-teen, and I just learned it by osmosis. I’m not trying to negate the efforts of Mr. McIntyre or Mr. Wartenby, my high school French teachers. But really… I don’t remember studying, I don’t remember making an effort. I just went to France in my summers and it happened.

So you’d think that me being here in Tanzania it would be the same – that the Swahili would just seep in.

Well… it hasn’t. At least not in any significant way. And that’s a shame, because everything I know about Swahili makes it seem like an interesting language to learn.

Swahili is a combination of Arabic and Bantu – with a few words of other languages thrown in. My most recent Swahili teacher, a fabulous gay Australian who has lived in Tanzania for 20 years really made Swahili come alive for me. There are some cool things. Like how after 200 years of sailing up and down the Swahili coast, there are only about 10 words of Portuguese that made it into the Swahili language – including the words for playing cards, wine, and masturbating (I guess we know what those Portuguese sailors were doing). And Swahili has way fewer words than most languages. For example, think about how many ways you can say “laugh” in English (giggle, kafaw, etc.). In Swahili there is only one word.

My favorite thing is what they do with new words – particularly English words - coming into the language. They just add an “i”. So if you are at a restaurant and you want the bill you just ask for the billi. If you want to go to the fancy Western hair dresser you can ask for the dressi. So I always say, when you don’t know a word, say it in English with an “i” and you have at least a 10% chance of having gotten it right!

I am not alone in this sad state of Swahililessness. The peninsula where I live – this expat wonderland – is filled with Swahili school drop outs. It is mildly amusing how we assuage our guilt at not being able to have a real conversation with locals by saying certain common things in Swahili… like we think we can fool the natives into thinking we speak better than we can while keeping our fingers crossed that after we order the magi kubwa barridi, asante sana (large cold bottle of water, thank you very much) they won’t come back and ask us if we want to drink it out of tall glasses or short glasses.

Now I’m not trying to tell you that I don’t speak any Swahili after 40 or so hours in the classroom. If you come visit me, I can fool you pretty well… getting through the basic greetings and pleasantries like a pro. But if I tell you that the local store owner has a funny accent and that’s why I didn’t understand what he said after I asked, kumi ndezi tafidali (ten bananas, please), I’m lying. Go ahead, call me on it.

Tanzanians are very protective of Swahili. Where in Kenya most people these days speak Swenglish instead of Swahili, Tanzanians guard their language as a matter of national pride.

Tanzania’s first President, Julius Nyerere, united this country around the Swahili language – encouraging Tanzanians to be Tanzanians and Swahili speakers first and whatever tribe they come from (and the language of that tribe) second. In fact, Tanzanians affectionately call him Mwalimu, meaning Teacher, because of the emphasis he put on education. When Tanzania got its independence in 1961 it was only a small elite group of people who had a secondary education, fewer spoke English, and you could actually count the number of university educated Tanzanians on your fingers!

When you think of where they started and where they are today, Tanzanians have come a long way, baby.

Me? Not nearly as far.

Pole sana.