Friday, October 28, 2011

A (sort of) Short Story about A "Bonne"....

Prologue-->I said --> "Pasqueline, le confiance  est coupé". Manning said --> "Je ne vous fait pas confiance" -- Yet what we were really thinking ---> "Your job just ended and you are fired".  We are currently without a housekeeper (but have negotiated a new option with our landlord). Having a housekeeper here is an interesting proposition. 

Let me first explain how we even got started with a housekeeper.  Upon moving into the apartment back around Sept 1st and prior to our landlords departure on a trip to Abidjan for 3 weeks - he offered up his "bonnes" (housekeepers) so we could settle in with the understanding we would find one when he returned.  Mr Diallo has 2 "bonnes" - one is his head cook and cleaner ("Annyes") he's had for 20 years and the other ("Fatou") is a kind of assistant to the senior and new to Mr Diallo for I think 3 months.  The first week was great as we had some meals made for us and got sweeping and cleaning and washing accomplished. Both bonnes were divvying up some of the work and managed to do what was needed in the apartment and then discretely leave. With Mr. Diallo gone - they were able to support us incrementally while still doing their work for him.

So what does a "bonne" do here - all kinds of housekeeping chores - she can sweep and wash the floors of every room, and for some this is a daily activity, at least the sweeping. The houses and apartments we have seen thus far all have tile floors, with maybe a small area rug here or there. The reason for the tile - it simplifies the sweeping of all that dust, sand and dirt that gets tracked or blown in from everywhere. She will make the beds,  wash the dishes because there are no dishwashers- we don't have one,  wash each individual item of clothing by hand (although we do have a washing machine - I'm not convinced it does a good job - and you can only wash in cold). She will hang up the clothes to dry outside.  There are no dryers - remember, it's hot here and electricity is an issue.  After the clothes are dry on the line they iron every item of clothing because of this specific fly - called Tumbu.  Apparently, the Tumbu fly lays its eggs on damp clothes and then when humans come into contact with the eggs through putting on their clothes, the eggs hatch into maggots who burrow their way under your skin and create boils.  YUCK!  Certainly something we want to avoid.  Continuing on with her duties - it can also include going shopping at the market  and cooking meals.  One benefit of sending the bonne to the market is that she will get Senegalese prices for the fish, chicken, meat, fruits and vegetables - since at the market there are no set prices, everything is negotiable!

After that first week Annyes brought in her niece ("Pasqueline") unexpectedly.  Seems like everyone wants or needs a job here and has a niece, sister, brother, cousin, son, father, mother, aunt or uncle available to work! Unemployment is close to 50%.  Since we would ultimately like someone for some tasks - it seemed like a good thing to do. We could employ someone that needs or wants a job.  At this point nothing about salary had been discussed which was a bit awkward but we figured we'll discuss this with Mr Diallo when he returns. In the meantime we obtained input from some people we recently met and they gave us the range of 50,000 CFA - 65,000 CFA for part time and other ranges from 75,000 - 150,000 CFA for full time. Even those numbers are skewed by ex-pat families working for embassies, foreign service, big corporations or NGOs all here on assignment for a set period of time. The high end could possibly include child care as well. What does that translate to - roughly $100 to $300 USD  a month (yes, it does seem like super inexpensive labor for what you get to those of us who can afford it) to handle many of the chores that are thrust upon you because of how the culture and way of life is here. When was the last time you ironed every item of clothing, sheets and towels?

So Pascqueline starts working and we also figured with her Aunt nearby anything she is not sure of she can ask her. Truth is, we did not know what 'work' background Pascqueline had prior to showing up.  At this point we are "trusting" our landlord's "trusted" housecleaner/cook.  

Chapter 1.  Turns out Pascqueline's schedule was 8-4 Monday through Friday and Saturdays from 8-12. A typical full time schedule for a bonne. After watching her work over 2 weeks we realized - this is MADDENING. This apartment  IS WAY TO SMALL to have a 5th person here EVERYDAY, all day! Not to mention our loss of sleeping in on a Saturday morning.  What we realized was that daily mopping was not necessary nor the constant moving of our stuff off the desk or bookshelf of books and games (not that there is even that many - just a few things from home to make it feel normal here). It was overkill. Busy work in my opinion but maybe not from hers?  To her credit, there was no question she did work hard with the cooking, cleaning, shopping and laundry!!

Chapter 2. All of a sudden it seemed like we had a new member of the family that I wasn't so keen on. Add to that, we did not realize that you are supposed to provide lunch for your "bonne" or pay them a bit more in their salary and they bring their own. Clearly we did not have that discussion either so on occasion Pascqueline would help herself to leftovers I had intended for the boys - or she would watch me make my sandwich in the kitchen and stare at me for a moment until I offered her up a piece of bread. Needless to say it was awkward - a cultural aspect we were not in the know about.  After those 2 weeks we started talking to others about our situation and they said we need to remind ourselves we are in the driver seat (she works for us is what we were told - but you have to remember so much was thrown at us that first month we were overloaded by so many things). With that input we then attempted to tell her we were changing  the schedule - "le programme". The 3rd week we tried to politely explain that the apartment was too small and the family needed a bit more privacy. For me personally,  her constantly being there felt like an intrusion on the privacy I no longer had and an additional distraction when it was time to get started on the homework.  Her new schedule 8-2, starting Oct 1st. The first trial week of her shortened schedule was a disaster.  She did not seem to get that 2:00 meant 2:00  (or even 14H using the 24 hour clock). After 2 days- it would be 3:00 and I had to remind her 2:00 was her ending time. By the end of the week  I was pulling out my hair out continually reminding her to inch her way to 2:00.

Chapter 3.  FINALLY, the 4th week she started leaving at 2:00 (so we thought) but she would return at 2:30 or 3:00 to retrieve her water bottle she left in the freezer. During this 'break' in time we're not exactly sure if she had left the premises, was hanging out in the washing area shared by the 2 houses or even with her Aunt.  Either way it was **not working**.  

Chapter 4. At this point, Mr Diallo has returned so we talked to him about her pay and what it should be and what had transpired with Anyess bringing her in and our needs after some time of evaluation that full time was not necessary.  He understood and explained that we pay him, and he pays the head bonne who will pay our bonne. It became a little tangled web that got woven which was awkward but we had to rely on Mr Diallo's cultural understanding at this point. With the schedule being a problem for me, and even our ability to communicate with her, something else seemed to bubble up I thought it odd. When we gave money for Pascqueline to go to the market and return -  she would only ever leave the paper money for changeon the counter. She would provide a written receipt with the items and their cost -her numbers and the money she left would add up but she would cross out a number here and there and rewrite it so it seemed to always round itself so there was never any coins left (yet when her Aunt went shopping for us the first week - there was always change!). Needless to say I was beginning to question her integrity or even her math skills.

Chapter 5.  By now - let's just say I was feeling a lot of anxiety about being in my own apartment and things being off on so many levels.  Even if she was working hard and that was apparent. Something wasn't right. 

Chapter 6 - The Finale.  Manning discovers his earbuds always wrapped around this mp3 player were gone later one evening (in her 6th and final week) when he went to reach for them. The more he thought about it the more he was convinced she had them. How she got them, why she needed them, why she did not ask to use them were questions we wanted to know.  The next morning  we asked her how Manning's  earbuds just happened to be nestled in a little pile atop of her mobile phone when she returned the next morning?  While we allowed her to explain herself - I was in such disbelief this had happened - we knew her days were numbered.  Of course we are upset and are trying to understand her explanation (in French).  In listening to her story, she was suggesting the twins were somehow involved (which we did confirm they were not) in finding them in their room as though they gave her permission to use them. It didn't really make sense and truthfully it did not matter what story she fabricated - she unwrapped them from the mp3 player and left with them!!  This made Manning realize another 'incident' where she tried to use something of ours but he did not think much of it. At the end of the day we realized she had access to see and touch everything that was visibly out or accessible.  Given the language and cultural issues (and even possible employment law we don't understand) we had to wait a day to discuss with Mr. Diallo what occurred, who immediately informed Anyess, took care of the final payment and explained to Pascqueline her job was over. We are thankful that Mr Diallo was amenable to delicately resolving this with us.

I think that while Anyess may be on the up and up - her niece was not.  And we certainly will never know what story was relayed to Anyess.  The sad part about all this is we really wanted to give someone who needed and wanted a job a chance here. The challenge I think with the circumstances - we are "Toubabs" implying that we have money (this may seem like it's a harsh comment to make) - yet there is truth to that as I've mentioned this before - this country is so poor, people are poor, and you see it everywhere you go -  it's obvious with even the few accoutrements we have in our apartment - our computers, ipods, Nook book reader,  a blackberry cellphone,  a calculator and digital camera - it was enough to reinforce to this young Senegalese woman the "have" vs "have nots" while she did her job everyday.  Should we have kept our stuff hidden?  Some things already were - it's certainly one question we have asked ourselves but no one should feel trapped in their own home and have to live hiding their belongings.

Relative to others we've talked with - our problem was small, but it starts with the same little things I've mentioned - a coin, here or there, the use of ones personal items, then the disappearance.   It's all to common here it seems. And in a country where we are outsiders to the culture it is especially challenging.  I'm also coming from a place with a "trusted" housekeeper back in Berkeley named Mouang of more than a decade. She is missed.

Epilogue:  Once this situation arose I had put the word out to a network of people we had now met -- to try and get a recommendation of other housekeepers we could meet and start to consider.  Meet for coffee, discuss the job, schedule and pay. Have them come for 2 days - a mini trial -to see how it would go. That was the plan and we had informed Mr Diallo we were going to start this process. We had already met one person we were ready to bring over.  At that point Mr. Diallo "proposed' to Manning we work with his two bonnes now that he realizes what support we need. We figured too we just want to not rock any boats so we can continue to live here through next August. Manning did bring to Mr Diallo's attention that Annyes's demeanor has changed a bit with us even in our attempt for a polite "bonjour" - he assured Manning  "her job will be to do her job" - so at least that is what he expects no matter what she thinks or feels about what occurred.  Since she's the one that will go to the market for us I've given up on the idea of a trip with her just to see her in action for the time being.  Fortunately, most of our needs will be handled by the second bonne, Fatou, who would work between our apartment and Mr Diallo's. This eliminates anyone staring at me when I make my lunch.  So today Manning showed  Mr Diallo a schedule he seemed to be agreeable to with regards to days to wash, clean, sweep, iron or go to the market and even cook just 2 days (maybe 3).  If we can get this to work I can likely feel whole again with some faith restored in the Teranga ("Hospitality") of this country.

I'm only hoping it starts fresh on Monday! 

1 comment:

  1. Good luck.
    We had a similar problem when we were living in Mexico with the boys for a year.