06 July 2014

It is hot and humid and the next minute, the wind picks up and dark clouds appear and we run to get the laundry inside. A strange day. I am out of sorts, it's like an itch that's driving me mad.
Most of the weekend I worked on one of those manuscripts that makes no sense to me, something about DNA research, way beyond my limited mental faculties. I can still proofread the stuff, but even after the fifth read through, I remain baffled and just hope that the authors have a life of fun and enjoyment outside the laboratory. Or that they indeed are reaching the hypothesised break through in cancer diagnosis. Or both. I used to worry about our postdocs, pale and overworked and all the empty pizza boxes and soft drink bottles accumulating in the hall corners.
On Friday, a young woman crashed into my car or rather into the car behind me which then crashed into my car. Nobody was hurt and I managed to skilfully hit the breaks and neatly avoided crashing into the car in front of me.
Anyway, I have been dreaming of not hitting those breaks and driving down cliffs and various harbour walls etc. in paradise (where the roads were treacherous to put it mildly) for the past two nights. To be expected, no?

In between these dreams, memories of Jenita surfaced from long ago.

This is the woman I let down. What makes it worse is that she probably didn't even notice. This is one of those stories about women and poverty and inequality. And not just gender inequality but racial and economic inequality and the rotten taste of failure and inadequacy.
In the first days after we moved into our little house in paradise and everybody around us was done with watching us from a safe distance people started to ask for work. Not directly, nobody was that blunt and it took us a while to get the hints. After a decade of happy-go-lucky communal living, food co-ops, shared gardens and whatever, we were now expected to employ servants. Which was out of the question, not just because there was no garden to look after, nothing to guard, no elaborate dinners to cook, nothing much to clean or wash and so on, but also because we were anything but the rich expats who lived in their guarded compounds across the mountains. Some of our local neighbours lived in similar little houses with occasional electricity and running water, some even had tv sets, a telephone, chickens, pigs, certainly dogs and cats. But we were different, we were the white Europeans, we had books and a typewriter.

In the end, we compromised and hired Jenita.

At some stage we did agree on a whole string of jobs she enthusiastically suggested, picking  up S from school, ironing, washing the dishes, cleaning the floor including coconut husk polishing, shopping for fresh fish and the best mangoes and so on.

In reality, it was all quite different and complicated. But we had long chats sitting on the steps of the house watching the kids play. Her three kids from three different fathers, all long since disappeared, the German tourist, the North Korean sailor, the Italian photographer. We talked about the lack of food, real food like the meals served in the five star tourist hotels on the beaches, about mothers who leave their children and grandmothers who take you in and make you work for your keep, about birth control, about men who are lazy and drink too much and about living with them just to have a roof over your head and fish to eat. Jenita explained to me how the size of fish is related to how high up on the hill a woman lives because naturally, the man has so many women to visit when he brings his catch home.
One minute, Jenita would talk to me about her life of poverty, abuse and exploitation and in the next minute, she would fall over laughing about a silly joke or try and braid my hair, jump up to teach me a dance, blow bubbles with the washing-up liquid, play tag with the kids, leaving me confused and lost with my overblown ideals.
I did try to find her more work, real work but she carefully and deliberately avoided all my attempts and by the time I realised that the ironing was in fact done by one of her ancient aunts because Jenita did not know how to iron and certainly would never touch our electric iron, we were in our second year. By that time, this had gone wrong in so many ways, it didn't matter any more. On our last day, we pushed one of the three tea chests we had arrived with down the hill to her granny's hut where Jenita was living at the time, stuffed to the brim with our bits of cutlery, china, plastic pots, sheets and towels, toys, a lamp shade, the children's books, the quilts I had made for our beds, the machete and the fan. She was in tears and would not stop hugging us. The best day of her life, her granny assured me. 


  1. How did you let her down, sweetie?

  2. A fascinating insight into your past life - but, from what you're said, I can't see how you let her down, Sabine. I think you are being too hard on yourself!

  3. Thank you for your kind comments but the list is endless (housing applications, health issues, self sufficiency, school...) and it was so much easier to pretend handing over our second hand stuff with a smile of relief was going to make a difference.