Cross-Cultural Perspectives

The African Maid & A Story About The Working Poor

African maid

I was recently reminded that as we go through life, we very easily become disconnected from the less fortunate. I have lived in the United States for 8 years now, always  been in the middle class.

During my recent travels back to home continent Africa – I visited Nigeria and was forced to once again come face to face with people who struggle just to survive. I specifically remember an interesting conversation I had with a team member in Lagos as we were driving to a business meeting. Sylvester is Nigerian, hardworking and dynamic. He is smart, and like most Africans, he is determined to ‘make it’. It was a comment he made that caught my attention and had me thinking for the rest of that day. He said that in the western world, most people work hard in order to enjoy the luxuries of life like bigger homes, nicer cars, more money in the bank, vacations, etc; but in most third world countries, people work very hard just to survive. People here toil endlessly, yet are barely able to afford the basic necessities of life like food, clean water and electricity. In most poor communities, basic food items such as salt and cooking oil are hard enough to come by, while rice, milk, chicken, fish are reserved for Sundays, Christmas, and other “big days”.

This got me thinking. I was once more reminded that these are conditions most of us grew up in, hardships we faced but which molded us into who we are today.

As we drove through the streets of Lagos that December evening, I looked into the faces of the people we drove pass – the petty traders pitching their products to car occupants stuck in traffic; products such as magazines, newspapers, sodas, plantain chips, handkerchiefs, gum, boiled groundnuts, bootlegged DVDs and CDs, etc. It dawned on me that this is all they do for a living; this is what puts food on the table. Instead of brushing them away in irritation as they tried to catch our attention, I suddenly felt a great deal of respect for these fighters, resilient folks who refuse to sit back and fold their arms in the face of a tough economic climate.

The African Maid

African maidOn that trip, I also had an encounter with The African Maid – the one who helps look after the household. She takes care of the children, and gets them ready for school early in the morning, she prepares and serves breakfast, makes sure lunch and dinner are ready on time, she cleans the house, does the laundry, goes to the market, sometimes picks the children up from school. She is there for her Madame, as her job is to perform any chores or errands that are desired.

She is generally respectful and seldom utters any words unless when spoken to. For compensation, she might get a room at the boys’ quarters (back house) and a 20,000 Niara salary at the end of the month ($140/month). In some instances, instead of earning a salary, she is compensated by being enrolled into a trade school where she learns some kind of skill – sewing or hairdressing.

The African Maid is only one example of countless who are overworked and underpaid. The chauffeur, gate-man, groundskeeper, etc are other examples. This is the story of millions of Africans, working tirelessly for little or nothing.

Some will argue that The African Maid is better off working for a family where she is fed, clothed and housed. Otherwise, she would be languishing in the village, dreams of a better life almost non-existent.

The Working Poor

Then I remembered a speaker at my church in Atlanta who one Sunday talked about The Working Poor of the American Society. The ones who may be sitting next to you on the bus, in the train, in church … but have no place to call home; those who work low paying jobs – like the young single mother flipping burgers at a fast food joint; the clerk at the local cafeteria with a family he can barely feed who survive on food stamps; the waiter whose family turns to the Salvation Army for winter jackets and clothes when the seasons turn cold.

These ‘working poor’ look like everybody else, but bear upon their shoulders heavy burdens of hopelessness, their poverty often over-looked and ignored in these ‘rich’ societies. No one really talks about them, although everyone knows of them. They are those men, women, families who live below the poverty line, annual earnings averaging 13,000 USD/year (about $1,100/month) or less. We all have met them. We just can’t comprehend their struggles most of the time.

So I ask myself … and now you: is the African Maid a working poor (like those of the West)… or modern day slave?

Lema is on Twitter: @LemaNsah; Blog:

(First published in DUNIA print Magazine, Issue 1 – Aug 2010)

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  • On a trip back to Cameroon in 2007 I caught up with an old acquaintance. On visiting him and his family I realised that they had a “house girl” (a maid). Though I had encountered many during my growing up years, It had never crossed my mind that I would employ one so I quizzed the family about what the maid did and how much she was paid. It turns out that they pay “very well” compared to other families. She got housing, food and water and then $20 a month. Basically, the accommodation is deducted from pay and she ends up with $20. I spoke to the maid about how she managed. She sends $12 back to the village to her parents and she has about $8 left to buy new underwear or basic stuff to survive. And it turns out she was well paid compared to others. In summary – she works and cannot save a dime so at the start of each month she is back to zero – no new skills, no investment in the future, just surviving.

    I started quizzing every family that I came across with maids. The story was the same. In some cases it was horrible. Friends talked about kicking out Maids because they got pregnant or because they got a boyfriend or because they didn’t wash clothes properly – even though according the maid, they didn’t have enough detergent and the employers would not buy more. These maids are hundreds of miles from their village. They barely leave the house, they have no life. At 26 when they start thinking about having a family – like all of us would – they meet another house boy from another family and try to stitch a life together they get thrown out for it and have nowhere to go. Fortunately, I didn’t meet any that had been physically abused but maids told me horrible stories of these things happening.

    The tragedy of all of this is that these families are my peer – mostly western educated. Who will change it if we don’t in this generation? I heard all kinds of excuses – we both work, there is no kindergarten, their life is better here than in the village. There is no law protecting these vulnerable people. Some are even related to their masters. Yes, Masters, because it slavery.