This morning a friend, lets call her Deidre, called me with a conundrum. Her maid, who had worked for her for only 4 months, had asked for a loan. This isn’t uncommon; in both South Arica and Kenya staff frequently use their employers as an unofficial bank to help them get through times of need, and the symbiotic relationships usually work out fine. The issue is this, 1: the maid was being paid double the average salary. 2. The reason for this was that a contract was drawn up specifically stating that no loans would be given. 3. The loan was 2000 dollars and the maid really has no way to pay it back. To put it into perspective, 2000 dollars is a little less than the average yearly salary for some. So what do you do when asked for half a years salary from someone you haven’t known that long, and who is unlikely to be able to pay it back? I don’t have the answer and neither does Deidre right now.
I asked a friend what she would do and her answer was succinct! No, Deidre should not lend the money. Her reasoning being that the maid is paid very well, she was told no loans at the start of the contract and 2000 dollars is too much even for Mzungus to just hand out. But Deirdre’s issue, and Id be exactly the same, is the guilt! How can we refuse a loan when we sit in our large houses, and drive our swanky cars and drink bottles of wine that cost a day’s wages? How can Deidre even enjoy a glass of wine in the company of her maid knowing that because of her refusal to lend money the poor woman can’t send her kids to school?
My whole time in Africa I have struggled with the concept of ‘staff’. When we lived in Cape Town, even when the kids were babies, I frequently had no help. I can’t stand the idea of someone doing my housework or looking after my kids whilst I lay about like Lady Muck.
When we came to Kenya I was told that house help was a must, as to not employ someone was to deprive someone of a job. We employ a lovely lady and as a result I feel guilty every day of my life; I feel guilty seeing someone clean up after my kids, I feel guilty when I come in with great bags of shopping, I felt guilty going back to England to see my family. I feel guilty because I see how much money we spend in comparison to how much the local people are paid. I compensate with a good salary, and food and short hours and being a lovely, reasonable boss, but where is the line drawn between being a good employer and being taken advantage of? I can’t imagine any county in the world where an employee could ask their boss for a 2000 dollar loan which was doubtful they could pay back, it just wouldn’t happen… yet here, in Africa the guilt over the divide between rich and poor is real and it’s this guilt that’s making Deidre sweat.
What should she do? What’s the right and moral answer? Thoughts?? Let me know and I’ll pass it on.