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Freedom Uncensored: An Experience with Domestic Workers in Malawi

Updated: Jan 20, 2020

Ms. Sarah Nayeja

Both colonialism and the semblance of development that followed it taught us, Malawians, the tradition of hiring house help, or who others more subtly call au pairs. Bluntly and less politically correct, house servants. Starting out as a typical form of modern slavery, as it remains in many parts of the world, household employees have earned more workers’ rights, taking away a monthly salary and earning some time to rest over the years. Their engagement has increasingly been governed by the applicable labour laws of the land.

Domestic workers have contributed to the health, education and general welfare of households, as they have filled the gap that employers would have to fill as they split their time with other productive tasks. Children, like many of us in the recent past and present, have grown up with domestic workers who have become friends and probably more of family to us in many ways. The one thing I realize, as an adult, is how it has been inevitable for employing families to be a core part of the workers’ lives.

And so was our life with one of our former maids I call a naPhiri 2.

A naPhiri 2 was a Form 2 dropout, yet a very bright young woman. She always carried out instructions to the letter. When we employed her, she had no work experience from anywhere, but proved trainable nonetheless. Even before clocking three months, she had mastered everything she was taught. At many levels, she exceeded our expectations. She did not only cook to our liking, but even cooked futali and mtapasya like a pro. And when we realized she had the ability to sing along most songs we played from our CD player before we did, ourselves, we contemplated facilitating her going back to school.

I have called her a naPhiri 2 because we had a naPhiri 1 before her. Yes, the one who, at some point, cut pineapples into cubes and put them into ice trays instead of refrigerator bags. More on this one another time. Anyway, by some fluke, we happened to get along very well with naPhiris, although our current a nyaNg'oma is not bad at all. But we fair poorly with naNkhomas. The two naNkhomas we briefly hired would steal anything they laid their eyes and hands on and were not short of displaying weird behaviors. I remember how one naNkhoma, when at one point was cautioned to scale down on the cooking oil, angrily retorted, in a Lhomwe accent, "Aunt ati tisamaenjeze mafuta mundiwo. Afuna ife tisanenepe ngati iwo." ("Aunt does not want us to add enough cooking oil to the relish. She wants to prevent us from gaining weight like her.")

Although anahPiri 2 could not match a naPhiri 1 regarding cleanliness and neatness, she was not too bad herself. Every part of the house was spotless clean all the time. She was also honest and trustworthy. Just as we did during the time we had a naPhiri 1, we neither locked our bedrooms nor hid anything when leaving the house. Nothing went missing. And to add to all her positive attributes, she was also very prayerful.

She often took time to read the Bible and pray during her break times. And she often fasted. My niece, Winnie, would often tell of a naPhiri's prayer exploits at her church. The surprise to many of us was the unusual marriage she, a devout Christian, had with a Moslem who hailed from a Moslem family, and whose one brother was even a Sheikh. Although Malawi is relatively small, Christians and Moslems co-exist harmoniously. They associate well in all fronts including work, social and political realms. Instances of segregation are noted, however, when it comes to nuptial ties. Mixed marriages of the sort are usually frowned upon by both Moslems and Christians regardless of the fact that the harmony between the two religious sects remains generally intact across the country. I guess, it is hard to imagine how people with different beliefs can stay together without unduly influencing the other. As long as it does not have to affect marriage, all is uneventful. Some unwritten rules, one might say.

By virtue of marriage, a naPhiri 2 had initially converted to Islam and embraced all the religion would mean for her. A few years on, she reverted to Christianity, with no offence taken by the husband. He was happy to see her go to church and other prayer meetings and was at peace hosting Christian prayers in their home. By all manner of measure, he was a loving and understanding husband. But a naPhiri 2’s reversion to Christianity was one of joining a rather new movement, the sort associated with many contemporary Pentecostal churches, where some people measure faith by how flamboyant one’s prayers should be to reach the Almighty. It is as if shouting helps with the distance we conceive God to be located at, far away from us. It is the perfect actualization of how the speed of sound bridges the gap of all the light years between earth and heaven. I believe God enjoys a fun time, seeing how we invoke our imaginaries of Him, sometimes in a truly, and literally, deafening way.

At times, I must admit, I find such styles disrespectful. I believe in peace and quiet as I communicate with my creator. But that is me, for it is between them and their cognizance of their creator. Yet, common noisy prayers were exactly what a naPhiri 2 employed as her most pious weapon of supplication. The husband, although he wished the rituals were calmer and quieter, learned to live with them, with one simple caveat that she ought to take it easy whenever his kinsmen visited. Principally, when the Sheikh visited. Of course, it was already generous that he had accepted the wife's reversion to Christianity. And now for his relatives to witness his wife’s hysterical piety, pacing up and down the living room, banging furniture while at it, as she connected with heaven in a medium that should not play hide and seek as often as does Airtel's network of late, was simply intolerable.

But a naPhiri was usually adamant that her religion was within her rights and freedoms. And that package came with praying in whatever manner she preferred. Undoubtedly, it must have been this awareness of her rights that must have played a big role influencing the switching back to Christianity. Or perhaps just the absence of some frenzy in her journey through Islam. We will never know. She failed to reconcile the enjoyment of her "rights and freedoms" with, interestingly, the collegial norms that were required to operate her own mixed household. She was the typification of the Malawian who lived (and still largely does) at the dawn of democracy, the one who suddenly assumed so many rights and freedoms without responsibility. It was the Malawian who learnt to urinate anywhere, who embraced the freedom to litter streets, run the red light, build along river banks, or loot state resources and scorch the evidence of such loot to ash.

It is no wonder that the misconception of such rights and freedoms of Malawians have led to the current regression of society, economy, environment and regard for others. And it is no wonder a naPhiri’s husband succumbed to the pressure and counsel of his kinsmen and annulled the marriage. Soon a naPhiri 2 upped her game, hopping from one latter day prophet to another. Her mission? Cursing the devil that ended her marriage. The shock, to me, was the arrogance and negligence in the exercise of her religion at the expense of the comfort, rights and freedoms of others. Somehow, she abrogated her responsibility in as far as the other people she lived with were concerned.

Somehow, our freedoms are uncensored.

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