The Slavery in Our Midst: The Nairobi House Maid

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There is much I could say about modern-day slavery in Mauritania, Niger and Sudan. But let me instead turn to the dirty little secret that so many of us Kenyans know but maintain a studied silence about. Yes, I am talking about the lot of the ‘mboch’, the housie, the maid, in good old Nairobi. It is common knowledge that many housemaids in genteel middle class Nairobi are never paid a wage; it is their parents, or ‘auntie’ who receives the pittance that they are owed every month. Anyone who has lived or visited the city for any length of time also knows that it is not uncommon to have ten-year olds doing the washing, cleaning and cooking for an entire family while enduring a steady diet of slaps and kicks. And I do not exaggerate when I point to the high frequency of maid rape in many households. If you ask your typical Nairobi ‘babi’ or middle class boy what his first sexual encounter was, he will spin a tall tale about the ‘older girl who lived just up the road’. Wrong. The first encounter, and the second and the third, is more often than not with the maid. She is shared among the boys in the house, their friends in the neighbourhood sometimes and very often the man of the house who after dropping off the kids and wife to school in the mornings, will sneak back for a quick one. This sexual access is usually procured forcefully with the implicit threat that for the maid to resist will result in instant dismissal. Here’s a little clue for HIV/AIDS health workers who decry the transmission of the disease from philandering husband to wife: it is the maid who is at the centre of a domestic sexual web that runs through the sons and their father, not to mention any other lovers she may take. This is of course not to blame her, it is to recognise that the helplessness that attends many maids – relentlessly mistreated, isolated from friends and family, and economically disempowered – exposes them to the malign actions of a class of people whose upward aspiration is often marked with a immense contempt for their ‘inferiors’. What dirty little secrets I am airing, and it is the most delicious post I have written in a while. When I have levelled contempt at the babi – a category that I unfortunately fall into though in traitorous fashion – I have only spoken about the public arena. But it is in the home that the moral contracts that underlie Kenyan life can be seen most clearly. Observe and recognise the pervasive violence, the disregard for the rights of the individual and the abiding conviction that might makes right. It is the oppressions in our homes that have made it impossible for us to consistently and successfully fight the oppressions of the dictators who have sat at State House or the injustices of the state. We moan and groan about the burdens of colonialism when right in our homes, or those of our friends, we have a cosy little ‘memsahib and bwana mkubwa’ system on the go.

To extend this washing of Kenya’s dirty laundry in public where it belongs, here is a chat room exchange on this issue. I will share just a few of the disgusting entries:

“nani hapa ashaimanga mboch wao cause it was so sweet mpaka even though i lost my uvirgo to her.” (who here has eaten (had sex with) a maid cause it was so sweet even though I lost my virginity to her)

“Am sure the rest of the people who did what you did aren’t as proud…how did u even start…yaani how did u even get hard in the first place….mboch….have integrity bana.Ama u can’t vibe a gal? Sweetie hebu mweleze huyu ndugu asiwe kama dude…”

“Lets cut to the chase people…how many here have done their mboches? (pop, is that ur hand i see raising?)”

“hehehehe…i think it is sweety! i think it is!”

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About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

19 Responses to The Slavery in Our Midst: The Nairobi House Maid

  1. Ashamed says:

    My wife who happens to be American after a few days in Kenya learnt to identify the maid in a house. She said “It was the young lady in the house who was everywhere in the house but completely invisible, coming into view only when orders were being barked at her”.

    Can you imagine the shock of many babis when she strolled into the kitchen to shake the maids hand and introduce her self or after dinner took her own plate into the kitchen.

  2. wanduma says:

    And let the squirming begin…. This is where the rot breaks the surface for us. The level of disrespect (without even going further) that ‘mboches’ endure is shameful. We want a consitution? We want good leadership and good stewardship of our country? All these things are connected to how we treat our fellow Kenyans and our level of respect for all kinds of work and all people.
    Line 1: “All men and women are created equal….except for mboches

    • Julie says:

      Its good this has come up. just wanted to introduce you to Brian’s institute of domestic workers based in Nakuru area, Rift Valley. We are just setting up to start our training for domestic workers. The training will commence in January 2013. The course will take 4 months. Our candidates will go though intense training, background checks will be done plus medical checks will be a must on our contracts.
      Our mission is to provide the highest standard of academic education for those whose aim is to become professional uniformed domestic workers qualified to assume the responsibility to work in the estates, mansions and corporations of royalty, celebrities, top executive and professional families.
      http://domesticworkersinstitute.webs.com
      this institute will be inline with the vision 2030. Where house helps, maids, will be a career on its own. Lets support each other

  3. Anonymous says:

    MMK,
    I am so happy that you posted this on your blog, I wish everyone in Africa could read it because it is an appaling situation. You know mboche’s are not supposed to even take sunday or saturday off? they are so nameless and invisible that you cannot help but wonder what kind of lives they live. People can be so cruel – it is awful, just awful! In kenya you find so many proposing to be Christians, going to church every sunday but treating their housies, shamba boys, etc like shit.

  4. MMK says:

    Ashamed, Wanduma and Anonymous – Thanks for commenting in this house. The treatment of the domestic is not only a great scandal but indicates the extent to which violence and oppression marks the relations between people back home. If this is not addressed on the level of the individual, and if all our political rhetoric is only about the shortcomings of the government, then I fear that we shall come no closer to a more prosperous and just Kenya. I think we get the leaders we deserve, and that too often those like Moi have merely reflected at the macro level what we do in our homes and vice versa.

  5. Congogirl says:

    I have posted in the past about slavery in Niger, etc. but I think this is an important point to make: that it is hidden within households, and encompasses so many other issues. Well done. I am going to link to this entry from my site, http://congogirl.livejournal.com.

  6. Tor says:

    Thank you for your eye-opening posts on slavery. This is one of the great things about the internet: you, in Kenya, can educate me, in rural Maine, USA, about your situation. I hope that something happens (over time, most likely) that will make these horrible circumstances less prevalent.
    Peace,
    Tor

  7. andy says:

    I’ve been learning much from this blog. Thank you. I just put up a link that I hope will send new people your way at http://www.japanwindow.com/index.php?showimage=83

  8. I have seen references about your blog around the Blogosphere and BBC’s Weblog Watch but today I took the opportunity to read some of your posts. Now I can understand why Bullets & Honey has received so much praise. You are doing excellent writing here and offering up both enlightening and honest views on important issues.

    As an African-American one can imagine that I have some very strong views and pent-up emotions re: the subject of slavery. I am particularly upset about the many forms of modern-day slavery being practiced around the world (my eyeopener was the excellent feature “21st Century Slaves” published by National Geographic Magazine in 2003). Your post here about the abuse of domestic workers in Kenya is just the tip of many icebergs as this problem is vast and worldwide and is particularly severe for young children and women.

    Deep inside I want to see all people “cut free” from all forms of slavery and abuse due to what I call a Caste or Plantation Mentality or just plain old greed and evilness practiced in so many societies and businesses today. I also realize that cutting people free without effective programs and the will of the ruling classes to accept “slaves” as equals and to integrate them into the society is a recipe for failure. It has taken us well over a hundred years to grasp and understand this in the U.S.A. after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln. The rest of the Americas that received the vast majority of black African slaves during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade hasn’t even begun to seriously deal with equality and civil rights for their indigenous peoples and the descendants of African slaves. Shall we examine the problem today in Brazil or Haiti for example?

    How would Kenyans begin to address and correct these problems as you describe here? How many domestic workers (especially women and children) are suffering from these forms of abuse in Kenya and in other East African nations? How far back in (Kenyan) history do these cultural practices go or is this a behavior acquired in modern times from Europeans and Asians?

  9. MMK says:

    black river eagle, andy, congogirl and tor – Thanks for such kind comments about a post on such a negative topic. I believe that power when imposed unjustly, as it has in Kenya for the past century, destroys not only the bodies and property of its victims but their moral lives as well. In Kenya therefore, so much of the oppressions on the state level are replicated and magnified by those in the ‘private’ sphere. It is a chicken and egg situation.

  10. Prousette says:

    Touched a raw spot here MMK and sure there are many heads that are bowed.
    I should say there are exceptions to the rule on how househelps are treated OK maybe one in 3million but a step nevertheless. I grew up in the care of these lovely ladies yes lovely because they treated us well and were treated well (THANKS MOM).
    My eyes were opened to their cruel treatment when I started to be aware of the outer world, and their apparent lowly station. Where would we be without them?
    I treat my helpers well, and do not intend to keep a resident one when the children are school going age.
    This topic on how babis raise their children merits a few acres of words but shall not go there now.
    Children miss very important lessons when brought up not knowing how to do things for themselves; and treating some tasks as lowly; to be done by lowly people.

    And keep up the good writing.

  11. toni says:

    This is a very hard article to read, because it speaks the truth about modern Kenya.I feel ashamed that even I sometimes have not been humane to our househelp at home.

    This isn’t te first time I’ve thought of this mistreatment of househelps, but thank you for reminding me.The media, blogs included is a powerful tool for change.

    By the way I’m a student at the Mohamed Amin Foundation studying TV Production.We have produced a human rights talk show called HATUA, supported in part by a grant from the Foundation Open Society Institute.It starts on Sunday on KBC at 10.30 pm, starting May 21st.

    The injustices against houshelps in Kenya is definitely going to be a topic for next season, and I’m researching on it right now.

    Continue telling the truth and all the best.

    Toni

  12. Anonymous says:

    As much as I agree with your position that these maids lives need to improve, labelling it slavery is incorrect. These women are not slaves though thier situation is dplorable.

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  14. mary says:

    i was thrilled to read your blog especially on maids in Kenya. my friends and i have been thinking about this and we are currently writting a book that we hope will be helpful in good administration of domestic workers especially ‘maids’. we have also organised a party of appreciation for them(in our small residential estate in karen) in mid July. these ladies needs to be honoured, they are the unsung heros. i am a KENYAN and i know we all work very hard to earn a living, lets respect the good work of ‘aunties’.

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  16. DNK says:

    Many of us have been brought up by our mamas with the help of a maid, but no appreciation commensurate to their hardwork has been extended to motivate them. I think its time maids formed a registered body that protects their rights and ensures they also benefit from their services as other people. Keep up with your good writing.

  17. Amina says:

    it depends really. we grew up with maids and where treated like one of us. when i had a home of my own, i pay ksh 10,000 since my house is big ,give her food, asked her to eat whatever she wants, but when i am too nice, they take it for granted, and take advantage. I have fired about 8 maids in the last 2 years ; due to theft. she even told the maid next door that i dont treat her properly which was not true! the lady told me later;when she realised that i wasnt the monster she was told about.

    what is the solution? to them i am an abuser and i am not. when i treat them ; they now prefer white employers! saying they get treated better there…. what i really think is that perhaps they want a place to pinch some things…. snce they never go shopping and prefer to shop in peoples houses.

    it has been 1 year since i had amaid in my house, i am recovering from maid theft, i lost many things especially clothes, my husbands new socks and handerkchiefs, i lost a watch,camera,jackets and expensive designer shirts(italian that cost me 56 euros)

    I would like to urge all my fellow upper class or middle class to do their own laudary, not sure why someone referred to me as a babi, i find it insulting. what is babi? do you know how i become a babi. i do not appologise for my upper class life, i worked hard for it, and my family worked hard to take me to good schools. I am not sure why it is almost a crime to be middle or upper class in kenya? why???? i think its jelous, you see poor people want to be middle class.

    for my brother who is a shamed of been a barbi. get a life check, i can tell you if you decide to give all your wealth away to the poor and decide to be poor. no one will give you accent.

    i am proud of myself and my class.

    amina
    spring valley
    nairobi

    • Julie says:

      just wanted to introduce you to Brian’s institute of domestic workers based in Nakuru area, Rift Valley. We are just setting up to start our training for domestic workers. The training will commence in January 2013. The course will take 4 months. Our candidates will go though intense training, background checks will be done plus medical checks will be a must on our contracts.
      Our mission is to provide the highest standard of academic education for those whose aim is to become professional uniformed domestic workers qualified to assume the responsibility to work in the estates, mansions and corporations of royalty, celebrities, top executive and professional families.
      http://domesticworkersinstitute.webs.com/family-application

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