Image courtesy of Dunia Magazine
Image courtesy of Dunia Magazine

Wangu anoshanda a’skana ~ Mine is hard working girls

Wangu anoda zvekungodya ~ Mine loves eating (too much)

Wangu ndiri kumudzinga next week, mama vachingo svika nemumwe kumusha ~ I’m dismissing mine next week as soon as my mother comes with another from the rural areas

Such is the maid related rhetoric in Zimbabwe. When women speak about ‘their’ maids there is a sense of strong ownership which transcends the permissible employer-employee category into a sort of slave-slaver owner category.

The maid is considered to be a woman’s domain. To this it is common to hear men comment that if you want to see how evil women are look at the way they treat their maids. This is often followed with a sneer ‘if they can’t be good to their own kind how kind will they be to you (the man)’.  All this comes from the assumption that men are removed from the maid service equation. In the next few paragraphs I will delve into to question who is the maid really there for?

The construction of the family unit has changed dramatically in a few decades in Zimbabwe. While the generation before us had large families, lived with members of the extended family and the women were for the most part stay-at-home mothers. Today’s household, constrained financially, has fewer children and lives with fewer extended family members. While the concept of power has had to change in female headed households those still having a male head remain relatively unchanged. The opening up of labour markets for women and increased financial contribution has by and large not challenged the power dynamics inside the household. This has instead created a double barrelled burden on the woman who has duties in the public space as well as the home space. Let’s consider the following scenarios of an urban Zimbabwean family:

The man and his wife arrive in the evening after a day’s work. The man will crash on the couch, kick off his shoes and tune into SuperSport channel. The woman will immediately pick up after ‘her man’ and proceed to check on the kids. She will then to check with the maid and make sure that dinner is promptly made and then serve her family (man first, children next, herself and maid last). After which she will make sure all the dishes are cleaned, homework is done, and husband’s clothes for the next day have been ironed. After all this she still has one more duty to her man-king before he falls asleep; for this she will take a quick bath and serve him his lust supper of the day. The following morning she is up before everyone else to make sure the children are bathed and ready for school, breakfast for everyone is on the table. By the time she herself bathes and dresses for her equally demanding job everyone is in the car and honking and shouting ‘mum you’re delaying, you will make us late again!’ 

After all that the woman can be justified to have a maid to ‘help’ her right?  Let us re-consider the previous scenario from a different perspective:

The man and woman arrive from work and immediately release their child-minder so her day ends as normal like most workers. The man will tend to the children (checking how their day was, homework etc). The woman makes supper and by 8pm everyone is seated and having dinner. After wards the children pack up the plates, while the man and his wife proceed to clean up.  After all that the man and woman go on to serve ‘each other’ the lust supper of the day. The morning routine also changes: the man and woman wake up at the same time with one handling the children and the other breakfast. Everyone makes it to the car at almost the same time (give or take a few minutes as women tend to have more layers to put on).







Given these two scenarios it can be said that although the maid is perceived to be there to ‘help’ the woman the fact is she is there to maintain the supremacy of the man as the man-king of the household. The maid is there to maintain this dynamic of a king and his subjects.  However, like all kings the man-king does not deal directly with the maid subject and so rises the perception that the maid is there for the woman. As Ehrenreich (2002) puts it, it is often forgotten in the politics of maids that ‘there are already two able-bodied adults in the home’ who if they chose to share the work load in the home equitably there would be no need for a maid. She [Ehrenreich] takes it further and notes that “the microdefeat of feminism in the household opened a new door for women, only this time it was the servant’s entrance”

The madam-maid relationship therefore is an elusive space of power. It gives the madam the notion of control and management and yet all the effort is not for her enjoyment or sanity but the relationship exists only to maintain strongholds of power in the household. These strongholds have ramifications in the public sphere and keep the ‘local as feminine and global/public as masculine’ dichotomy alive. Carla Freeman (2002) calls for the rejection of this presupposed dichotomy so that the boundary between them can change.

Raised to one day take the throne of either his mud hut, township shack or suburban home the man-king is incapable of house work. His hands are simply too awkward to navigate the dishes, his senses non-aligned to solve a meal recipe or sort the laundry and his time too precious to handle school delivery duties.This may sound like a brutish take on it: sure, the modern man-king will spend some time on his own with his kids but that’s ice-cream with dad so that mum and the maid can have enough time to clean the house before gogo(granny/mother-inlaw) arrives.

Maid for who? Maid for the man-king of the household!