So in South Africa one of the more interesting conversations I had was with a white Zimbabwean who explained to me why he wouldn’t leave the country despite all the trouble with Mugabi. He told me that Zimbabwe had three things going for it – Sun, Space, and Servants!
I tried to keep my falling mouth closed. I looked around a little awkwardly. (Incidentally, I had pretty much this same reaction only the day before when I secretly took a taxi cab – just to drive around Joburg unshepherded. The taxi man – an old Afrikaan man, asked what I did. I told him I was a writer. He asked, what do you write about? I told him, Jamaica. ‘Oh for fuck’s sake’ he said, ‘you can write that in two sentences: You all smoke weed and then you get into trouble. Book finished!’ It was then that I tried to keep my falling mouth closed, and it was then that I looked around vacantly, because I always become awkward and incoherent when situations demand a more stinging response).
So here I was again, wanting to gasp, but the situation wasn’t quite the same. I said to myself, fair is fair: many a black middle-class Jamaican would think just about the same thing as my Zimbabwean friend – that they would be in no hurry to leave the country despite all its problems, because there on the island they had the glorious Caribbean weather (Sun), the vistas of the Blue Mountains (Space), and a cadre of domestic helpers washing their clothes and cooking their food (Servants).
It is only in England that I have learnt that it doesn’t sound altogether PC to admit to this fact about life in the third world – that we often times have maids and gardeners and the like. A gasp from me would almost certainly be a double-standard. Yet something still irked me.
The problem of course is that my Zimbabwean friend is white, and it is further compounded by the fact that in his alliterative triumvirate of sibilant sounds (Sun, Space & Servants) the category ‘servants’ can all too easily be replaced by the category ‘slaves’.
Again, fair is fair. ‘Slaves’ is exactly how many black Jamaicans treat their helpers. And I wish we could talk more openly about that, without creating strict or self-righteous binaries. I wish we could explore that very troubled line where having a maid really *can become* a problem, because their humanity and their intelligence is held in contempt and belittled and they have no option to but to stay belittled.
But even if we have contemplated the politics, and even if one has sat down and thought of the most ethical way to employ household staff – there are still some things that white people are not allowed to say. White people are not allowed to glory in a culture that promotes servitude. And No. It isn’t fair. And Yes. Maybe there are several double standards happening. But hey – that’s life. Donkey say de worl nuh level. You already have de servant. At least have little conscience, and don’t boast bout it.
Jackass seh di wurl nuh level fi chru!
A lot of white people do glory precisely in that. I recall a piece by Johann Hari, a couple of years back on British expats in Dubai ( I think it was) who very very precisely said they liked living there because of the combination of sun, space, and servants. He thought they were crass. We may be uncomfortable about it, but we can’t stop the crasser among them from boasting. Any more than we can stop some of the crasser among middle class West Indians from mentioning the benefits of being middle class in the Third World.
I say this, by the way, as someone who has never employed servants, and whose family did not employ household servants. That might surprise a lot of people since my home, for the seven years I lived in the Jamaican countryside, was a great house (and my father was the owner, and he was married to my mother); we were simply too poor to afford servants.