What you need to know:
Every day, I wake up at 4.30am and start tidying up the house. A few minutes to 5am, I rush to the kitchen and ensure that breakfast is ready for my employer, who is normally awake by this time.
I clean her shoes, iron her day’s clothes and lay her breakfast on the table.
“I work in Kahawa West, Nairobi, as a house-help and I love my job. I have been employed there for the past four years. I started working two months after dropping out of secondary school in Form Two. This is certainly not the sort of job I dreamed of doing.
Today, I would have wished to be in a career close to the job my employer does. She is a top marketing executive in Nairobi. She has gone to university and is currently doing her master’s. She is not married but is happy and successful. She has two beautiful kids, a boy and a girl.
The firstborn, Elizabeth is eight and the lastborn, Samson, is nine months old. I fondly call them Eliza and Sam.
“However, I do not pity myself. In fact, I think I’m better off than the many people out there idling without jobs. This is why I don’t take my duties lightly.
Every day, I wake up at 4.30am and start tidying up the house. A few minutes to 5am, I rush to the kitchen and ensure that breakfast is ready for my employer, who is normally awake by this time. I clean her shoes, iron her day’s clothes and lay her breakfast on the table.
“Once she leaves for work a few minutes to 6am, I iron her daughter’s school uniform, and immediately wake her up. I prepare and feed her breakfast. During some days, preparing Eliza for school takes long especially when Sam has woken up early.
This requires me to juggle between feeding him and preparing Eliza. At around 7am, I escort Eliza to her school which is about 500 metres from the estate gate.
I always strap Sam on my back He is very young and requires my undivided attention. At 8am, I take my breakfast.
During the day, thereafter, my daily chores include cooking, feeding, and looking after Sam, doing laundry, cleaning the house, picking up Eliza from school, assisting her with homework, and ensuring my employer is ready for her next day at work. Usually, I sleep at 10.30pm.
Although I love my employer and refer to her as ‘mom’, I’d wish that she would raise my pay from the Sh4,500 monthly salary that I’m currently earning. But I cannot tell her. I fear that I may lose my job, especially after I heard her remark that she can’t raise a maid’s pay as the government suggested in July.
“Also, I like Kahawa West. It is much better than the Maina Slums in Nyahururu where my mother and five siblings live. Things are not always good, though. Sometimes, my employer and I get on each other’s nerves. Sometimes, I do things in ways that she disapproves. On such occasions, she rebukes and lectures me like I am as little as her kids. I don’t like it.
Neither am I pleased when she accuses me of selling her food or inviting other house helps and estate watchmen to her home for a chat or lunch dates.”
This is Wandia’s story. She is a house help in Nairobi, with dreams of being seen as worthy regardless of her job. She is one of the many house helps who hold their job in high regard, which is generally in sharp contrast to the negative publicity that their profession has become synonymous with.
MaryAnn Wanjugu, a house help in Naivasha, feels the same as Wandia. She is a mother of three who works part-time as a house help. She has been taking care of her employer’s two boys who suffer from autism for the past six months and has been earning a monthly salary of Sh5,000. Wanjugu reports for work at 6am and leaves at 8pm when the boys’ father returns from work.
“He is a single dad. His wife passed away in January this year,” she says. Although the distance from her place of work and her home would require bus fare of Sh20, Mrs. Wanjugu, 39, prefers to walk.
“If I take a matatu, my income will be too low for me to fend for my kids throughout the month,” she says. She adds that while every house help in the country would be happier with higher pay, her current salary remains a pipe dream for many other house girls. “This is because we are seen as lazy people who cannot find anything better in life to do, but this is not true,” she says.
Wanjugu is quick to note that the quest of a house help goes beyond money. “Certainly, my employer needs me to look after his children, to love and care for them just as I do with my own kids.
Yet, he will be excruciatingly slow to show a measure of gratitude for my efforts. We would feel worthier seeing our efforts appreciated than getting Sh10,000 salaries.”
Her sentiments are echoed by a 2006 report on househelps in Kenya by the Centre for Domestic Training and Development, titled ‘Culture Clash: Domestic Workers and Their Employers.’ The report noted that the average Kenyan saw a house help as a failure in life who has already resigned herself to her inescapable fate.
“Her naivety, lack of exposure and marketable skills, and her human shortcomings caused by her lack of education and opportunities are seen as a confirmation of her own worthlessness,” the report said.
These are perceptions Eva Kasaya, a former house help turned author and tailor, is all too familiar with. Eva had the misfortune of working for two bad employers.
While working for the first time aged 15, her employer offered her a salary of Sh300 per month. “She never paid me on time and we engaged in endless fights over my salary. But I had no option but to keep working. My mother was a stay-at-home wife and my father was a farmhand in Vihiga. They couldn’t afford my upkeep leave alone get funds to take me to school,” she says.
A few months later, Eva got her second job as a house girl in Umoja estate, Nairobi. “My new employer thought I was a thief. She’d lock up food in the cupboards, and lock me up in a room whenever she left,” she says, adding that she went for six months without receiving her salary of Sh1,200 per month.
“When I demanded to be paid, she began battering me. At one point, she took a clothes’ hanger and tried to strangle me with it. I was rescued by neighbours.”
Some house helps have had the good fortune of working with employers they term as kind and considerate. Eva and Esther Kilome have been among these.
While Eva’s last employer was her angel of good fortune who turned her life around, Kilome is currently reaping the fruits of a good house help-employer relationship. The 22-year-old says that without her employer, she wouldn’t be sitting her national secondary examinations this year.
“I began working as a house help after dropping out of secondary school in Form Two in 2011 due to lack of funds. My first employer was nasty, but my current employer has been a gift from God.” She says that her employer, a mother of two twin girls studying at the University of Nairobi, pays her Sh8,000 per month, and caters for her tuition fees.
“I break from work after lunch and go for my adult classes. She has been paying for my tuition fees since she got me a tutor, and this year, she registered me as a private candidate for the upcoming KCSE exams,” she says. “No one would wish to remain a house help forever, and we would do well if only employers would extend a little helping hand to better our future rather than seeing us as dispensable labour.”
Eva concurs, saying that given an opportunity, house helps can better their lives while serving their employers diligently.
“My last employer made me feel appreciated. For the six years that I served her, I always ate my meals together with her family at the dinner table. She wouldn’t leave me behind toiling around the house whenever she took her family out.
If guests visited us, she always ensured that she introduced me to them decently.
"These are the little things that make house helps feel human, wanted and valued,” she says. Additionally, her employer urged her to find a course she could do to gain self-employment skills and supported her with fees when she enrolled for a tailoring course at the Don Bosco Centre in Karen, Nairobi.
In the same vein, Beth Nyambura, a house help in Nyahururu, says that employers would do well to not only see their house girls as tools of labour, but to also cater for their welfare.
“I have a close friend who has a really humane employer. She has opened a bank account for the house girl, registered her for retirement benefits, pays for her NHIF and allows her time to go sell her own mitumba (second hand) clothes at the market on Sundays. She is empowering her unlike my employer,” she says.
“I keep wishing that my employer will see light of day and try to safeguard my future the same way or increase my pay from Sh3,000 per month so that I can do something for myself. Yet, I cannot complain lest I come across as too demanding.”