There’s no way of getting around the emotional fact of missing people. When I’m in Rwanda, I miss my family and friends back in the US, and when I’m here, I miss my Rwandan family and friends. I’m so grateful for technology that facilitates communication between my two worlds.
There are other aspects of life that I miss from one place when I’m in the other. Now that I am back in Texas, I am reminded that I love to drive. I enjoy my shower and hot and cold running water. I am especially happy to sleep in my bed again. I like being more in control of what I eat.
But there is another complicated part of Rwandan life that I miss very much: house facilitation. This is the politically correct term for household help, commonly known as “house boys” or “house girls.” I’m torn on the issues surrounding house facilitation, and this post in an exploration of multiple perspectives.
First, some background: In Rwanda, house facilitators are very common. Working adults most often employ a house facilitator. If there are children in the household, sometimes there is more than one facilitator. Even single working adults have a facilitator. In general, the facilitator shops, cooks, cleans, and watches over the house. They have a room for themselves, though often this is rudimentary. They are fed and earn a low wage.
Facilitators can have a variety of backgrounds. I have had experience with some who are completely illiterate, an unfortunate long-term result of the Habyarimana regime which did not educate many Rwandans. Some of these facilitators spend their earnings on drugs or alcohol. However, I’ve also known facilitators who use the position to transition into a more productive life: some have gone on to trade school or into the formal education system and are now in careers that enable them to earn better wages.
I’ve never observed a facilitator being treated in ways that would violate their human rights, though I assume that this is a possibility. These types of human rights violations are illegal in Rwanda. I have seen some “bosses,” as they are known, who have been uncaring, which of course falls into grey moral and legal areas. Employers are supposed to care for facilitators’ health, but there are differing standards for care. For example, the facilitator of the other house in our compound had taken ill in July, and needed medical attention. I don’t know the full story, of course, but I do know that Julius’s household took responsibility for getting this young man, probably in his late 20s, to the hospital, where he stayed two nights. We had our facilitator stay overnight with him and bring him meals. We also bought him sheets and a blanket for his hospital bed and paid for his medical expenses. When he felt stronger, he took his severance pay and travelled home to another province.
So especially because facilitators are part of a vulnerable underclass, I am especially grateful for them. I couldn’t live on my own in Rwanda because I don’t know how to navigate a charcoal stove and have trouble wringing out my own jeans, much less bed sheets.
But here’s also what I know: Although I could learn these aspects of living in Rwanda, my time and energy are better spent on other activities, ones that are less common. My skill set, what I can bring to Rwanda, includes editing, strategic planning, resource management, research, and writing.
The painful paradox is that I can share these skills more when I rely on the system of household facilitation.
And here in the US, a large part of me wishes that I could afford household facilitation so that I could expend my energies on the same less common skills that I share in Rwanda. In other words, I wish I could afford to pay someone else to cook and clean my house so that I could write, study, teach, and research more.
Frankly, a large part of me is horrified at myself: Really? If your life isn’t simple enough to maintain on your own, then, girl, you need to make some big changes. You don’t even have a big house. How can you be so lazy? Put that computer down and go wash some dishes already.
But there is another voice, too, one that sounds less critical. It’s my writer self, the part of me that emerged last December out of fear that I wouldn’t complete my dissertation and therefore the PhD. This part of myself, my heart of hearts, emerged and demanded space in my life. So I pretty much stopped cooking: my boys and I eat decently healthy prepared meals and a lot of sandwiches. And my house? A friend used to describe my mother as a casual housekeeper, and I am following in mom’s footsteps.
But not only does writing and the other higher skill set give me greater pleasure, but this voice reminds me that it might be a more responsible use of my education. So I write now, and glance over to the suitcases that need to be put back into storage, the clothes that need to be washed, and the sinkful of dirty dishes that won’t wash themselves.
Is this elitism? Entitlement? Ya, maybe. Is it resource management? Ya, that too. In an economic perspective, you shouldn’t pay a Vice President of Communication to proofread reports; you pay copyeditors to do that. And of course, these less-skilled employees should be treated fairly, morally, and helped to develop their own higher level skills.
On a personal level, these issues get entangled with gender construction and what it means to be a woman and what “women’s work” is. They also grind against what kind of mother I choose to be.
And as a Rwandan friend noted, this issue is rooted US immigration policy as well: He said that there are so many foreigners who would jump at the chance to use household facilitation as a stepping stone to a better future. By extension, when the US restricts immigration so tightly, one of the results is that we put a stranglehold on the highly educated and skilled middle class who, like me, can’t afford the luxury of household help.
It’s not easy to resolve any of these issues. The best that I can do now is to do what I can with what time and energy I have. There’s just never enough, and something always gives.