One Hand Extended
(Published in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine in August 2002)
I didn’t come to Africa to sort out my views on
domestic help, but as it turns out, I have spent much
of my two years here doing just that. Neither did I
expect to employ domestic help, but when I arrived in
Zambia to begin my new teaching job, I was given a
house that came with a maid and a garden that came
with a gardener. Right away I found myself inside an
uncomfortable choice: if I turned them away, I would
put two people out of a job. If I took them on, I
would step into a relationship whose parameters were
completely unknown to me. I chose the option that I
hoped would do the least harm.
Welcome, the gardener, was one of the first people I
met as I settled into my new surroundings. When we
introduced ourselves, he stumbled over my name as I
did over his.
“Your name is Welcome?”
“Your name is Tej?”
I had to ask. “What do you say when someone thanks
Welcome laughed the patient laugh of one who has spent
his life getting stuck in the pun of his own name.
“Say that one more time,” he said, trying to get my
name. To compensate for the unending, guttural sound
the ‘j’ makes at the end of my name, he added an ‘y’
onto the end, so that, within the first five minutes
of meeting him, he was calling me by the same name my
grandmother does. I liked him immediately.
One Saturday afternoon, a few weeks after my arrival,
Welcome brought an Allen wrench to my house, his heavy
cologne barely covering the sap of beer leaking from
his pores. Although it was Saturday, Welcome was in
his work clothes, green industrial gardening pants and
bright yellow t-shirt, which cast a florescent glow on
his caramel skin.
The sun was high and hot. He was sweating from the
walk from his house to school, which takes about an
hour. He had come to help me fix my bed.
Welcome was born in the Copperbelt, named for the
mining industry that has dominated Zambia’s economy
since the beginning of the century. When the copper
mines were privatized in the early nineties, and the
workforce was reduced, he, like thousands of others,
came to Lusaka seeking work. He was one of the lucky
ones – he found a job.
At the American School, in addition to his full time
gardening duties, Welcome works overtime at the
private houses on the compound, earning extra money
for the hours he puts in after 3:30 pm. For his work,
he earns $1.00 per hour, the going rate in Lusaka.
Though this seems alarmingly low to me, it is a high
wage to him.
In my room, Welcome helps me tighten the bolts on my
shaky bed. “If I sleep under the window, will it rain
on me?” I ask, looking for reassurance, of all kinds,
as I settle into this new country.
Although I will not admit it, I am perpetually anxious
during my first six months, afraid of spitting cobras,
malaria, armed bandits – though not necessarily in
that order. The safety devices that came with my house
increased my panic instead of diminishing it, begging
questions I didn’t want to know the answers to: did I
really need the ‘rape gate’ that seals off my bedroom
from the rest of the house? If I had cause to summon
the U.S. Marines on the two-way radio that stands near
my bed, would they get here in time?
Welcome has plenty of assurance to give. “No, no,
Tej-y, you are safe from the rain,” he says, pointing
to the metal overhang on the bedroom balcony. He is
clearly enjoying his role as ambassador, even though
it means working on a Saturday. He is easy to talk to,
easy to smile and laugh with, as he takes on the voice
of authority on my new surroundings.
After maneuvering a heavy set of shelves down the
twisting staircase, we take a break. Welcome leans
against the kitchen counter, sipping his water.
“You are very strong, Tej-y,” he smiles, “who did you
have to help you in the States?”
“Help me?” Help me! Is he kidding? In the past, when I
wanted to rearrange furniture, I had to beg for
assistance from ex-boyfriends or strong housemates.
Now I had Welcome, a paid friend, a stand-in at the
“Who did your laundry? And the ironing?”
We stopped outside the laundry room. Is it possible
that he hadn’t yet seen a white woman clean her own
house? Is it possible that I was the first? Could he
tell that he was my first?
“But, Tej-y, who did your gardening before you came
There were times, in those first few months, when
Welcome was the person I felt most comfortable with. I
started to picture the Sally Hemmings/Thomas Jefferson
tryst more vividly. I was flooded with unwanted images
from the American South – the maid who is the
mistress’ main confidante, the smiling, Uncle Tomish
house servant, who maddeningly, genuinely, likes his
But it’s not like that, I tell myself. He makes money
and supports his family. He has a decent job in a city
that only formally employs 300,000 of its two million
residents. Besides, it feels like friendship.
Besides, he is a good gardener, and I don’t know the
first thing about gardening.
“Why don’t we plant some grass?” he offered one day,
as we stared at the bald dirt yard. In the afternoons,
when he stayed for cups of tea, he asked me questions
about New York and Washington, where I used to live.
Do the hospitals have enough medicine for all their
patients, he wanted to know. Was the press allowed to
print stories that criticized the government? Do
American police accept bribes? Does every child go to
school? Does everyone want to be a movie star? Does
each person have their own car?
My answers dwelt on the parallels between Zambia and
the U.S., more than on the differences. I told him
about exhorbitant health care costs, the underfunding
of inner-city and rural schools, about guns and car
jacking in the U.S. Though I constantly assured him
the US wasn’t as glamorous and wealthy as it appeared
in movies, he regarded my descriptions skeptically, as
if I was protecting him from the truth.
“Yes, grass would be wonderful,” I agreed. But when he
arrived the following weekend with an armful of grass
clippings, and proceeded to plant each individual
blade by hand, it wasn’t wonderful. I felt as if I’d
asked him to sweep the floor with a toothbrush.
Anxiously I averted my eyes – had the expanse of the
school grounds been planted the same way? It reminded
me of what a farmer said as I looked at his irrigation
ditches: why buy a machine to dig when labor is so
On Sunday mornings, I would make scrambled eggs and
sit outside in my braless, just-awoken state, and he
would join me for breakfast. Once, our conversation
strayed onto romance – how you know when you are in
love, what separates the various degrees of love, how
it shifts over time. Before he got married, he was
dating a woman ten years older than him. Though he was
in love with her, he couldn’t marry her, couldn’t face
the inevitable criticism from his family about taking
an older wife. His current wife is of an appropriate
age, but it’s a different kind of love, he said, than
what he shared with the older woman.
Because he was married, I didn’t think to question the
closeness that was developing between us. Not long
after the love conversation, he said, “Tej-y, I think
about you all the time. Sometimes all I think about is
you.” After that, I stopped bringing up love, and I
started wearing a bra on Sunday mornings.
Welcome and I are the same age, but I make 30 times
his salary. At night I sleep in a two-story house with
electricity and hot and cold running water. Welcome
sleeps on a mat laid on a cement floor, with no
lights, no refrigerator, no stove, no flushing
toilets. When it rains, water comes through the
corrugated tin roof, and Welcome sets out buckets to
collect it for his morning toilet.
“You have a gardener!” my friends from the U.S. gasp.
Because he was already there, because everyone does, I
start to explain, though I don’t like the high
defensive pitch of my voice already, and I haven’t
even brought up the maid yet. The truth is, I’d feel
much better doing all the chores by myself. The truth
is, Welcome is supporting his wife, two children, and
four younger siblings with the money he makes. The
maid supports her son, her four sisters, and her
parents on her salary. It’s hard enough to explain to
my U.S. friends why I have domestic help; how would I
explain to Welcome that I would ‘feel better’ if he
lost his job?
To curb my guilt, I pay him well. I feed him often.
Cookies and tea, toast and juice. I act as if my own
comfort foods will make everything all right for him,
too. I try to treat him as well as I had been treated
by the wealthy New York families I babysat for during
college, like a member of the family, who happens to
be your employee, too. It’s OK, I tell myself, I’ve
done it too. But the consolation rings hollow. I was
in college at the time, it was only temporary; I knew
that one day, I would buy a car.
For Christmas, I split the cost of a bicycle with
Welcome, so he could ride from home to work. Welcome
picked out a silver bike with thick tires and a United
Arab Emirates wire flag waving off the back. It was a
flashy approximation of a mountain bike, silver glitz
and no durability, direct from Abu Dhabi. Welcome and
I agreed that he would contribute a portion of the
cost of the bike. I started a ledger with columns for
‘owed’ and ‘paid’. Welcome rode home to show off his
new bike to family and neighbors.
The next morning he knocked on my door. “I need a
lock, Tej-y. Everyone can see my bike now, and I have
to keep it locked, even inside my house.” Within a
week, the front tire had gone flat. Tires for 3-speed
bikes in Lusaka, the kind of bikes that most people
ride, cost about $2.50. Mountain bike tires cost about
$10.00. Welcome and I went back downtown, and I added
$10.00 to the owed column.
The precedent was set, the column lines drawn, waiting
to be balanced. If Welcome needed money, I was the
first one he asked. His weekly salary from me, my
neighbor, and the school were no longer covering his
expenses – “a haircut, Tej-y,” he would say, naming
the reason for the request. “Diapers, Tej-y; medicine;
bus fare to my cousin’s funeral”.
Six months had passed since my arrival, and I had yet
to say no.
The ‘money owed’ column grew, while the ‘paid’ column
remained blank. I was terrible at the word ‘no’. What
was ten dollars to me, compared to what it was to him?
I figured it was the equivalent of parking tickets in
the US, a slow, steady, unavoidable drainage of cash.
It’s not just Welcome, of course; he is not unique in
his requests. What was happening between us was
symptomatic of a much larger problem that one could
argue began with colonialism and has not been solved
yet. Some say it’s the ‘donor’ culture, that Zambians
are used to hand-outs from NGOs, AID, and their own
government, but I think that’s only one piece of the
explanation. Whom do you hold accountable for such
behavior in a country where 80% of the population
lives below the poverty line? Whatever the cause,
Welcome and I were thick in the mire of it, playing
out our roles as if they were scripted.
The easy friendliness of our relationship started to
shift as his requests proliferated. Instead of saying
no, I tried to imply it, by making it more and more
difficult for him to ask. When he came to the door, I
would look stern, or look away, telling him I’d give
him some money later, when I could get to the bank.
How complicated our friendship had become, I noticed,
with the strain of economics blurring all our
By February, the bicycle was in bad shape. The frame
had bent, both tires had holes. Welcome was back to
walking the four kilometers between his home and the
school. My quick-fix generosity had not led to any
real improvement in the quality of Welcome’s life.
I assumed that the awkwardness of asking would be a
deterrent for him, as it was clearly straining our
friendship. Sunday morning breakfasts had ceased. The
topics of our conversation were limited now to garden
and debt. I hoped he would realize that things between
us would return to their affable state if only he
would stop asking for extra money.
When Welcome’s debt reached $150, only growing, never
decreasing, I understood that I was the one who needed
to make a change, not him. Gathering up a few months
of frustration, I told him that I would lend him no
more money until he had worked off $50.00. He nodded
with solemnity, but did not discontinue his weekly
requests, pushing against my unfamiliar limits. I
stood my ground, until one day in March.
“Tej-y, my mother can’t walk, she needs transport to
“Welcome,” I said wearily, “you make a salary. You
should be saving money for emergencies.” I know that
he knows the sympathy a sick mother will incur.
The next day, he returned. “Can I use the phone?” he
asked, “It’s a local call.”
“Can’t you use the one at school?” I was impatient.
“No, I can’t ask for that.” Yesterday, he had asked
the school administrator if she could give him some
money to help his sick mother, but she told him she
had no money for him.
“Then I told her Tej-y, that it is the employer’s job
to take care, and she said, how would you like to not
have a job?”
When I went with Welcome to visit his mom in the
hospital, she was alone in an airy empty room,
surrounded by rows of unoccupied beds. She was the
only one there, shivering in her thick blue cardigan,
as if everyone else had moved on, leaving her behind.
The wailing of death mourners came in from the
corridors. In the open courtyard below, a family had
just lost someone. Their screams overtook the still
air, muffling the whispery husk of her voice.
The sunlight seemed to pass through her, instead of
going around her diminishing form. Her fingertips were
feathery and dry in my hand. “What did the doctors
say?” I asked her, as she stared behind me, her
sweater falling from her shoulder, her stillness
acting as her grip, the mooring within her weakening
Welcome picked up her chart to hand it to me. “When
you have meningitis, you can still go to the
bathroom,” he said, shaking his head at the doctor’s
The Zambian doctors were on strike, because they had
not been paid in months. The Cuban doctors, who had
come to Zambia as part of a Cuban aid project, were
the only doctors left on staff. They were unfamiliar
with the peculiarities of Zambian illnesses, and
stretched beyond their capacity to serve so many
patients. Welcome’s mom’s diagnosis didn’t account for
her blocked colon and urinary tract, and she wasn’t
improving, only worsening, alone in this room with its
too white linoleum floor and smooth pink beds.
I had an urge to pull the blankets off the other beds
and pile them on her, to disrupt the empty order of
the breeze-filled room, disturb the blankets, lay bare
the beds, to shake up the silent infuriating waiting
that surrounded us all. I recognized my quick-fix
instincts for what they were. Blankets wouldn’t save
her, just as a new bike and cookies and tea hadn’t
done a thing, really, for Welcome. The last thing she
needed was a false rescue. She needed more than
diaphanous hope, more than I could give her.
If her stillness was holding the emptiness of the room
at bay, then perhaps the best I could do was hold her
hand and be still beside her. Perhaps it would keep
the sea of beds from swallowing her, if only for this
Two days later, Welcome’s friend Point came into
class, his eyes red, his jaw locked, voice low.
Welcome’s mom had passed the night before. The funeral
would be the following Sunday.
“Welcome would like you to come,” he said, “and he
needs some money.”