One Hand Extended

Kabuta path

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

you?”

 

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

ready.

 

“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

here?”

 

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

boss.

 

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

cheap?

 

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

interactions.

 

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

the hospital.”

 

“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

body.

 

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

erroneous diagnosis.

 

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

moment.

 

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.”

 

end

 

 

About

 

Tej Rae is a feature writer for YogaLife magazine, based in Dubai. She spent 12 years writing and teaching in sub-Saharan Africa, where she helped to found Africa’s first children’s museum, ImagiNation Afrika. A former high school English teacher, her work has been published in The Washington Post and BBC Focus on Africa, among others. She has two children and travels with her husband who works for the United Nations.headshot 1