A slave in a foreign country

2010-11-17 00:00

IARRIVED in South Africa in June 2008 full of excitement at being out of my own country. I got a job as a housemaid in Sweetwaters — a live-in position. There were nine in the Dube family.

The mother fetched me from the garage where other foreigners live, near the railway station. We went to their home. It was so dark that I couldn’t see where we were going. I didn’t know anybody but I was so eager to come and work in South Africa.

When I arrived at their home she told me to leave my bag outside the house. She made me a cup of tea and two plain slices of white bread. That same moment she told me that the cup, plate and spoon which I was using were the ones I should use whenever I was eating or drinking. I was not allowed to use the utensils for the family.

She showed me the room I would be sleeping in. I was given two small blankets and a single mattress which I was to put on the floor to be my bed. The roof of that small room was full of rust and a lot of holes and if it rained water would come into the room. There was no electricity in the room and I would use a candle at night. The door was tied shut with wire so that when you were asleep, it might fall on top of you the way it was.

Mrs Dube showed me around the house and gave me the roster I would be using when doing her housework. I was told to wake up before five and that I was to have finished some of the work before she went to work. Her routine was to put two teaspoons of sugar into my cup and leave me two slices of white bread. The tea bag I had to use for two days. There wasn’t any food for lunch. She would lock all the food cupboards and the fridge too so that I didn’t have any access to her food.

My duties were to make the beds for the whole family, do the washing and ironing, clean the whole house, wash the dishes and sweep the yard. She did the cooking when she came back from work. When it came to dinner time I was told to wait in my room so that they could finish eating. The leftovers would be put on my plate for me to eat. No fresh food for strangers.

Sometimes there weren’t any left­overs. I would simply take the plates from where the family were seated, wash them and go to sleep. The family finished all the food on their plates even when they knew that somebody depended on the leftovers.

Every day I was the last person to go to sleep. The following day I was the first person to wake up.

Their three children used to urinate in their beds every night and every day I would change all the linen and do washing. All the underwear for the whole family was put together with the washing. Sometimes even one having her period would throw her underwear in to be hand washed. When the washing was dry I had to iron the underwear. The children blew their noses on the clothes which they wore. Their washing was not to be mixed with mine because I was a foreigner.

When they had a bath each person used three towels, so in a day I would wash 27. Their washing was too much. And in the couple’s bedroom they dropped condoms on the floor after doing their business. I would pick them up when I was doing the cleaning. Their bedroom was left upside down, so that I never knew where to start.

In the kitchen if anything got broken Mrs Dube would deduct money from my salary no matter who did it. Every wrongdoing was blamed on me. When watching television I was told to sit on the floor even if no seat was occupied. When bathing I used cold water because they said the electricity bill would become too high if they added my hot water. If the soap was finished before month-end I had to bath without soap. When working inside the house I was not supposed to use the toilet.

At the Dube family I used to work without an off day or a holiday. If I asked she would say you came here to work. When you go off who do you think will do the work? Remember that at month end you want to earn a salary. Sometimes I thought of running away but the gate was too high for me to jump over it and it was always kept locked when they were not in.

When they had a party they tried to talk to me nicely because they needed my help. They pretended in all things so that people coming didn’t know what was going on. She would tell me, be free because there is a party, you are part of the family. When the party was over life went back to normal. Don’t expect to get any thank you or extra money. She acted as if everything was just normal. What they wanted was my power to work for them.

Being a housemaid I learnt a lot of lessons. Housemaids fall into that group that is undermined by everybody. Sometimes strange things happen but nobody cares and there is nobody to tell. You work as if you are a slave who doesn’t have a choice. If you tell your employer that you are not feeling well, she says I want my work to be done. Whatever you are suffering from doesn’t matter to her. It’s painful to work with tears running down your cheeks and nobody to care about you.

Working as a housemaid you reduce yourself to zero so that you can deal with any situation you come across. The money they pay you from the start is the money which you continue to earn no matter how long you have you stay with them. It doesn’t go up and sometimes it can even go down when they see that there is little work.

In that time I learnt that people must not go to places or countries where they have no relatives. People take advantage of the fact that there isn’t any place for you to go and you don’t know anyone. You need other people who will help you in your time of need.

What I didn’t understand about this family was that the home was run by the wife who was in charge of everything. The father was just a picture who could not utter a word. He could not stand up as a man.

I told God of the problems which I was facing when working for that family, day and night. I worked for this family for three months but it felt like a year. It was really bad. My question day and night was, how long am I going to live like this?

The family left for Cape Town and they told me to look for another job.



THANDI Jeke’s parents died in 1985 when she was two years old. She grew up with her grandparents in a rural part of Zimbabwe. She completed her O levels in 2003 but could not progress to tertiary education because of a lack of funds. She worked at a hypermarket for five years. She arrived in South Africa in 2008 and is still working as a domestic worker.



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