By Ogova Ondego
Published April 9, 2017
Which mother working outside her home does not need a domestic servant variously known in Kenya as ‘House-Help’, ‘House-Girl’, ‘House-Maid’, ‘Maid’, ‘Yaya’ or ‘Ayah’ to assist her in looking after children and performing chores?
Despite the important role played by the House-Girl, which woman in East Africa respects and pays her House-Maid well, and on time, without regarding the assistant as a necessary evil?
That an Ayah cleans and tidies up a home, cooks, minds the children, takes care of any extra-assignment that has to be done without it being spelt out in the job description makes her an extremely important person. Yet no one would willingly choose to work as a Maid were it not for unfavourable circumstances.
It is said that you don’t have to believe anything in fiction as it revolves around made-up characters and events. But that appears to be a wrong assumption as any authentic fiction is crafted out of real life situations.
That said, I daresay that you learn more about the plight of domestic servants House-Helps or Maids at the hands of their employers and how they are regarded by fellow domestic servants, families and loved ones in The Ayah, a 186-page novel than you will ever get in a three-hour-per-week undergraduate Sociology class.
The writer of the novel, David G Maillu, presents an engaging and candid narrative about a teenage girl from eastern K enya who is forced by poverty to drop out of school and seek employment in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, to support herself and her family.
Maillu does not just document the unpleasant experience the girl goes through at the hands of her employers and her dashed hopes of becoming ‘someone’ but also delves into the mind of those who abuse her with back-breaking work and verbal and physical abuse, to give you an in-depth study of the physical, economic and psychological tribulations found in the life of a house-girl.
The story is engaging, yes. But the designer of the book has failed the author in that he has made the reading quite difficult for most readers: the letters are very small and cramped together against very white pages, robbing the eye of the much needed break or rest from acres of text. Did East African Educational Publishers, for the sake of saving paper, order Josaphat O Mithiga to design the book with paper-saving in mind? This book, if well laid out, could run up to 300+ pages and be much more user-friendly than the version re-printed in 1994 that is the subject of this review.
And, oh, before I forget. Maillu’s The Ayah would complement Rosemary Ndegwa’s Maids: Blight or Blessing? that was published in 1987 by Uzima Press. The latter is non-fiction and looks at the ‘Maid’ issue from a ‘Christian’ perspective but without forgetting the social and economic aspects.
Ndegwa examines the making of Maids, the relationship between Maids and employers, the terms and conditions of work for Maids, and even male domestic servants who could be referred to as ‘House Boys’.
Employers, Ndegwa writes, are not always fair to : They pay extremely low wages, deny them the ‘good’ food and beds, overwork or give them jobs too difficult for their age group.
Some Maids, on the other hand, not only maliciously damage property and cause permanent injuries to children, but also seduce and have affairs with the man of the house.
Ndegwa’s conclusion is that whether blessing or blight, modern African society cannot do without Maids.
Whereas you are likely to go through the whole gamut of human emotion–anger, sympathy, triumph– while reading Maillu’s The Ayah, you are guaranteed bountiful information and knowledge by Ndegwa’s Maids: Blessing or Blight? What the latter describes is brought to life by the former through the life of 16-year-old Beatrice Kavele.