Maids in Ethiopia: A Sign of Elitism?

Above: What I did not know as a child but know now as an
adult is that maids and those who they take care of live in
two social strata. (Commentary from the host of BC Radio)

OPINION
By Teddy Fikre

Posted here: Saturday, August 14, 2010

Growing up in Ethiopia, we used to have maids that helped around the house. For the most part, the maids were considered part of the family. Although my mother attended to my needs and that of my siblings, the maids nonetheless were a ubiquitous presence inside our house. Whether they were helping to clean up, make injera and wot, or other tasks around the house, they were present in our lives on a daily basis. As a child, I never really took the time to be introspective or to question why these strangers were all the sudden part of our family. All I knew is that I would eventually befriend the maids and would become part of the memories of Ethiopia that I left behind.

In retrospect, when looking back at it, I wonder if having a maid put my family as part of the haves in Ethiopia. What I did not know as a child but know now as an adult is that maids and those who they take care of live in two social strata. Maids were a part of the working poor, mostly women who came to Addis from the country side to find an opportunity much the same way migrant workers from Mexico travel to the United States to escape the clutches of poverty in the homes they left behind. So I find myself grappling with one inescapable question, did the employment with my family present an opportunity for our maids or did we somehow take part in the exploitation of Ethiopians who were desperate for a prospect at a new life.

Grant it, exploitation is a jarring word. Not one family I know in Ethiopia forced any of their maids to stay against their will. The maids were given shelter and food, and paid for their services. Compared from the places most of the maids came from, most were living a relatively better life. Yet, the idea of an Ethiopian being a maid for another Ethiopian is something which is hard for me to accept. Maybe it is because the social inequities of class and wealth are that much more evident when you see one Ethiopian serving another. After all, I never really think too much about it when I see Mexican maids in America or janitors coming by my office on a daily basis to clean up after the office workers. Somehow, when I see Ethiopians serving other Ethiopians, it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. To be honest, I don’t fancy myself as one that wants to be served by others to begin with, but it hits home when that person is from my own country. I guess it is the same reason we are more shocked when we see a homeless Ethiopian yet we are not quite as phased when we see homeless people everyday in DC.

This same level of discomfort follows me to this day. When I see Ethiopians working at a hotel and offer to take carry my luggage or Ethiopian limo drivers chauffeuring other Ethiopians, it smacks of elitism to me to be served by my own community. Perhaps it is due to the fact that I came from being part of the relative haves in Ethiopia to being a part of the working class, from having maids in Ethiopia to watching my father work multiple jobs that I understand the sacrifices that people take to find a better path in life. So is it in fact elitist to have an Ethiopian maid in Ethiopia? I am not sure what the answer to that is, I guess that is a value judgment for each one of us to make. Hopefully, my conscience won’t get in my way the next time I am eating at an Ethiopian restaurant and realize that it is an Ethiopian woman who is making the wot in the kitchen.

Source: Browncondor.com (BC Radio)
Live TV : Ustream

By the same author:
The Ethiopian Flag: Stop putting political symbols on it

15 Responses to “Maids in Ethiopia: A Sign of Elitism?”


  1. 1 Solome Wondimagenew Aug 14th, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    I would like to applaud the author Teddy Fikre for firing a line of conversation on a topic that bothers many of us. I can’t speak for others, but at least, the issue personally pesters me. You are not alone my friend. I was 12 years old when I left Ethiopia and most of my childhood memories include the women who practically raised me, my mogzit. I always wonder whatever happed to her. She was paid a bit of money and sent on her way when my family quickly left in the 90′s. So it is indeed an important issue. Even if I may not necessarily agree with all of your points, I nonetheless thank you for bringing the subject to the public arena. With a bit more googling, however, you could have discovered the total shame of our Ethiopian sisters languishing as maids – under very harsh, degrading and outright shameful conditions in the middle-east. Young and beautiful women driven by economic reasons to lift their families out of poverty with the their own “bootstraps, not the proverbial kind but literally. Shame, shame, shame….I have a friend (childhood friend from kindergarten to grade school) who died as a result. No justice to this day, except few headlines here and there. Our destiny led us in separate directions forever when my mother won a green-card-lottery to come to America. Thanks to Providence, I will be entering Law school in the United States this fall with a specific mission of studying to protect migrant laborers worldwide. Thank you Teddy. It goes without saying that the matter generates passionate views from all corners. As Rachel Maddow would say: “GOOD!”

    I heard there is an effort in Ethiopia to unionize domestic workers (or there is a union already in place) established to help negotiates wages, monitor working conditions, etc???? Am I dreaming this up? Hope not. If true, GOOD!

  2. 2 mary Aug 14th, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    A question for you. Why does it matter if the maid is Ethiopian or not? If your family had a maid from Pakistan or Somalia would you feel differently? If yes, then think again as that’s the path to nationalism and even xenophobia.

    Having a maid indicates a level of wealth – it also provides valuable jobs and an opportunity for those who have not had access to education.

    I lived in Ethiopia – we had 3 people help us in the home. I have lived in other African countries and had home help there. I assure you those who have the job are very grateful for the opportunity.

    When my family left ethiopia one of our maids proceeded and got a secretarial job. She used the opportunity to get an education.

    Let’s not stigmatise this with a conversation about elitism.

  3. 3 Habesh Aug 16th, 2010 at 12:34 am

    Mary: What exactly is your point?

    First: “it also provides valuable jobs and an opportunity for those who have not had access to education.” don’t assume that all maids are uneducated. Their are a couple and many of the maids in Ethiopia now are educated, at least many of them are hight school graduates.

    Second: Ethiopia doesn’t import migrant workers so, this conversation can only be about Ethiopian maids in Ethiopia and not Pakistani maids in Ethiopia, as that scenario doesn’t even exist.And, would he feel different if the maid was non-Ethiopian? No, the issue is about having a maid regardless of their nationality. Are we perpetuating elitist ideologies or not?

    Third: No doubt that these people who are working as domestic workers are grateful for their jobs. Yes, I have lived in Africa and have had helpers too…but trust me the way some people treated these “helpers” made me cringe and hate the position I was in. No matter what there was that us and them barrier that was created. I am sure if you were in Anglophone Africa you would have heard the maids referring to their employer as “Mister” or Francophone Africa as “Patron” or “Patrao” or “Gashe” in Ethiopia. The point is they are grateful for what they have, as long as their master is happy.

    And if this is all about being grateful, do we also expect the thousands of Ethiopian maids in the Middle East to be grateful for their opportunity and ignore their day to day horrors they have to go through? I am just saying!

  4. 4 Dereje Gashu Aug 18th, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    First of all, Teddy you brought up a question that bothers most people especially those from Ethiopia. you all have valid points and make good arguments. However, I couldn’t help noticing wrong assumptions made. Yes true, most maids come from a very poor background. However, let us not forget that some of the maids have families and have maids themselves that are looking after their children. yes that might sound crazy but it’s true. I remember we had a maid fron Uganda when we were in Nairobi. She has three children and was a single mom. So she had a maid she could afford to pay who would look after her children when she’s working for us. the point I am trying to make here is that, it is a chain of life style. We were not considered a middle class or rich people. We were just immigrants who were trying to make a living in Kenya, but What we paid our maid was good enough to feed her children, pay her rent and pay her maid. So there is nothing to feel bad about here. And all of this is due to cheap labor in Africa. Like Solome mentioned, I hope there will be a unionization in Ethiopia for the domestic workers or for that matter in Africa. But for all that to happen, our economy need to grow. Let’s just hope the 11-15% ambitious Ethiopian economic growth plays a role in this matter for the next 5 years.

  5. 5 koster Aug 19th, 2010 at 1:41 am

    As long as the maids are treated well and get the salary arranged by both parties it is ok if one is serving the other it is not a problem. Because there is no a better alternative at least at the moment.

  6. 6 Kostara Ethio Aug 19th, 2010 at 10:49 am

    I was in full agreement with Dereje Gashu until I read his spoiler at the end, the off-topic statistics showing “11-15% ambitious Ethiopian economic growth.” I don’t want to get into details about this because this is neither the right subject nor the author’s intention, but lately I am feeling a bit bamboozled by fake numbers like 99.6%, which everyone – young, old, Ethiopians at home and Ethiopians abroad – will remember forever as an “Embarrassing” moment in our history. Please let’s not talk about carelessly exaggerated numbers that make one cringe. Speaking of statistics, I have a question for Teddy. Do you know how many domestic workers there are in Ethiopia? Anyone? Those are real numbers we need to keep track in order to improve people’s lives. In my personal and professional opinion as an Economist, the ambitious economic forecast mentioned above is based on pure guess work designed for PR offensive. Beware of propaganda.

    Having said that, however, I would like to add my voice in congratulating Teddy for his honest observation of the labor issue which should receive, in my personal opinion again, national attention in Ethiopia.

    Ameseginalehu!

  7. 7 G/Selasie Habte Aug 19th, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    Why are Ethiopian Americans mute on those enslaved maids, their sisters, in the Middle East?

  8. 8 Ethiopian-American Aug 20th, 2010 at 12:16 am

    Ato G/Selasie,

    I think “mute” is the wrong word because it goes against reality. Did you mean to say, why are only Ethiopian Americans speaking out about the maid issue in the middle-east and the rather chauvinistic maid-culture in Ethiopia? The last time I checked, Teddy Fikre is an Ethiopian American.

  9. 9 Menz Aug 20th, 2010 at 7:11 am

    The author of the article shared his feelings about the maids in Ethiopia. I see the relationship between the maids and their employers as nothing but an employer employee relationship. The maids are free to leave when they want, are they not? They are not forced to be employed, are they? Having said that, one can question the treatment (in general) of the maids. The long hours, the number of days they work, vacations, legal recourse in the case of disagreement with their employer. I am not saying that’s the case in every household, but may be that is the issue behind the guilt in the subconscious?

  10. 10 Ethio Lover Aug 20th, 2010 at 9:16 am

    Great conversation and great point of views. But they are just that; point of views, but by the freedom of expression that is bestowed upon us, we have the right to converse and therefore we can agree to disagree, it’s all OKAY!

    I lived in ethiopia as an expat and we had maids too – We treated them well, paid them well, and often took them on overseas with the family, for long summers in Europe. Of the 3 that we had, one quit when she got married, we never heard from her again. One left for America and is still in touch with us, some 20 years later, expressing her undying gratitute. The last one stayed on long enough to have 2 kids while she worked for our family and to eventually put those kids through good schools and eventually send them off to boarding school in England, through one of our contacts.

    Both kids are grown and successful today and we’re still in touch. I don’t think that they felt bad, or used or inferior. I know that most maid stories are not as glamorous, but most people I knew back then offered similar situations and benefits to their “extended families”… so, personally, I’m grateful for their support, I don’t feel like an “elitist” and I feel that the exchange was a win-win situation for all parties.

  11. 11 Rahel Alemu Aug 20th, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    Well, these “points view” are actually supported by reality and observable facts on the ground. It is expectable that the issue may get under the skin of those who feel they have been fair employers to their domestic servants. My family, for example, has all of them: Serategna, Mogzit, Zebegna (one for the door, the other for the garden). Yes, it was employment for these people. But the question remains, are they being treated with the same standard in every household? The answer is a resounding “no”. It does not make any difference weather it is in Ethiopia or the middle east. For example, we are not even talking about “rape,” which is a very common problem both in Ethiopia and the middle east. So it is an issue that needs to be further explored. “Point of views” are the starting point for everything that has ever happened on this planet related to human beings. It is a good thing!!

  12. 12 Bizu Aug 21st, 2010 at 7:24 am

    The author said he didn`t care about a Mexican cleaning his office, but would feel bad if an Ethiopian does. Are you saying the Mexican janitor is less of a human than an Ethiopian?

    I look at it as employment opportunity. No one is exploiting any one else. Are you being exploited working for the owner of the company you work for? I bet you don`t get paid, and live as luxuriously as the owner does.

  13. 13 Solomonn Aug 24th, 2010 at 7:22 am

    Being a maid in Ethiopia is like a form of slavery and here is why. Teddy has not yet understood the relationship between the maid and the people she works for. The maid is not an employee as we know it here in the USA. She works day and night seven days a week; she eats left overs , sleeps some where, she has no respect to speak of; her wage is very low ( it has improved lately). More importantly the relationship between the employer and the maid is that of a master and a servant. This has to ber condemned.

  14. 14 Menz Aug 28th, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    Slavery? I think that goes too far. Most of us work in an enviroment where we do what the employer says, and if we do not like it, we are free to go. As the economy grows, and people get other jobs in ethiopia, may be maids would be too expensive to hire; and would that not be considered a success?

  15. 15 Blaze Oct 6th, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    Thank you Teddy for the post.

    I know exactly what you mean when you say you don’t mind being served by a foreign “domestic worker/janitor”, but if it were an Ethiopian you’d feel embarrassed.

    I am currently back in the motherland, having lived close to 20 years in the Diaspora.
    During those years, I had an Ethiopian ‘mogzit’ at home who would cook, clean, nanny. She was part of the family, as they say.

    The thing is, when you live so many years outside the country, you tend to forget the hardship, and at times misery, a sizeable amount of Ethiopians go through everyday. To use a popular maxim, “Out of sight , out of mind”.

    Now I see the hardship, everyday, around every corner, and feel like a “brat” for all those years, all those petty complaints about life’s little issues.

    I am grateful, thank God everyday for my blessings. I treat my fellow waitresses, maids, guards with respect and empathy.

    No matter where you are reading this from, do not forget your brothers and sisters back home, especially the least fortunate ones.

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