Salambo discovering Ethiopia
For the first time in my life, I live in a country where inflation is a daily reality. Until now, my knowledge of inflation was confined to theoretical books or historical accounts of strong inflationary times in Europe. Never before did I have to experiment it with my own purse. Prices for some goods in Ethiopia have suddenly gone up by about 30 to 50 percent at the start of the New Year in September. This kind of sudden rise doesn’t apply to local food prices (fruit, vegetable and meat) which tend to go up more gradually and remain extremely cheap compared to Europe, but it is noticeable on other goods and services. For Ethiopians at the lower end of the social scale, it is a harsh reality. Their already low salaries would never go up so drastically in one year. For them, food is becoming increasingly more expensive, leaving less disposable income for other basic necessities. Their chance to improve their standard of living is becoming thinner in the current condition.
We can’t be oblivious to it because we have people working for us, whom we are morally responsible for. This is the part I am personnally struggling with, as it is new territory. Whenever I required the services of a baby-sitter or domestic help in the past, the work relationship was very clear: I was paying an independent worker the market rate for providing the requested services. In Ethiopia, the work relationship is completely different. People call it feudal, but it reminds me more of the paternalistic work environment of the post industrial revolution in the 19th century. Staff are expecting their employers to look after them and their family. They would never openly ask for a pay rise, but they ask for an advance on salary, and when such advances become too frequent or are requested too early in the month, we know they are struggling with money. So it’s up to us to re-adjust in a fair way according to the local practice here. It goes even further, they ask for medicine when they need it because they can’t afford to buy it; they ask for used clothes, bags or domestic items. So for exemple, when our babysitter had a cold, she didn’t say anything but she was coughing until I gave her some medicine. She would not tell us she was pregnant until she was six months into the pregnancy by fear of losing her job (a common practice here). I had to address the matter and re-assure her that she would stay on and would go on maternity leave. Our guard recently asked me for used school bags for his kids; they didn’t have any and he couldn’t afford to buy them. A few months before, I gave him a pair of flip-flops when I noticed that he could hardly walk because one of his was broken. In my view, this way of working creates a kind of dependency from the worker towards his employer. In return, workers are prepared to work overtime or extra days when requested by his employer without claiming extra pay, which makes them more reliant on their employer generosity or lack of it. The cards are not openly set from the start, and people are lucky or not. They never ask for a holiday, it is an unknown concept to them. At the most, they will ask for a few days off to visit their relatives in rural areas, which implies spending two days travelling on a public bus. The development of holidays as a social and economical concept came with the rise of the middle classes in the 20th century. In that respect, we are far away from Europe, where paid holidays have been a due since they were introduced in the 1930s.
Fortunately, we also see some improvements in the social condition here. Our maid’s second daughter has just started university last week, which means that she will likely get a much better job than her mother. On her request I sold her a second-hand computer, at a highly subsidised price, which her mother wanted to pay for. She asked me to take the money off her salary every month. That in itself was a dilemma for me: I know she needs the money and at the price I sold it (60 euros), I could have just given it to her, but if I had done that, the rest of the staff would have asked for a computer as well, which I couldn’t give. I did say that if her daughter graduates, she will get the money back…
I remember thinking that Virginia Woolf was a spoiled aristocrat when through Mrs Dalloway, she wrote at length about managing her domestic staff. Now that I find myself in that situation and I have to live with this kind of reality, I understand better how she felt. Even when all the chores are taken away, it is not easy to manage people who are in essence paid to serve us. We need to learn to preserve our personal and mental space, where the physical space is occupied. I have difficulties with the concept itself , let alone with the practical reality it implies, and in the meantime I lack the space to feel at home.