Living without servants

(…yes I know that is Hattie McDaniel & Vivien Leigh  in Gone With The Wind on the left)

One of the things that I miss most and least about living in Africa is servants. I certainly miss being liberated from the daily grind, but at the same time I have learned to love the lack of a stranger in the home.I say stranger with caution, because, of course, domestic servants in the African context, and probably in any context, have never been strangers.

I say stranger with caution, because, of course, domestic servants in the African context, and probably in any context, are hardly strangers. They occupy an important part of our lives, and vice versa. What is more I think this was particularly so in an earlier generation of colonial life when employing domestic service was an almost Victorian institution. Although they were separated by both class and race – in southern Africa these have tended in the past to be the same – servants would naturally become so intimate with the family that they became almost family themselves. One of the passages that I found most interesting to write in my recent history of Rhodesia was in the chapter that dealt with race in general, and race relationships in particular. It was about service and labour, and you can link to it here.

We all had ’em

Like everybody else who grew up in any one of the British African colonies – either of the two Rhodesias, Malawi and Kenya spring to mind, but in the age of the age of FaceBook I cross paths with other empire brats from all over Africa – we all took for granted a black soul living among us…often more than one, but very seldom none at all. In fact, during the 1950s/60s/70s in Rhodesia it was regarded as  an admission of the most dire economic circumstances for a white family to have no servants at all, and there were very few that I remember that did not.

By the time I left Zimbabwe briefly during the 1980s it had already begun to seem to me that domestic service was a dying institution, but ten years later, when I returned, I was quite amazed to discover that the opposite was true. In the decade or so that I had been away a black middle class had emerged for whom domestic service had become no less a key pillar of the local (we used to say Rhodesian) way of life. I personally determined to resist it, and resolutely declared myself perfectly capable of looking after myself, but in due course I capitulated, mainly because every domestic servant in the locality, noticing a vacancy in my household, sent a brother, sister or cousin along to apply for the position.

In fact it began to dawn on me, as it had not in the past, that domestic service was regarded as a rather plumb job. Recently, watching the British TV series Downton Abbey, it occurred to me that in Africa, like anywhere else, a domestic servant expects and enjoys a level of respect that reflects the quality of the home he/she is employed within. A domestic servant is higher up the pecking order than a gardener for example. The job also comes with certain perks – better housing and regulated working conditions are the obvious examples, but decent accommodation and regular food must count for a lot too. There is another key benefit too, one that is incalculable and difficult to define, which is the benefit that accrues from that peculiarly paternal relationship that African whites in particular have tended since the dawn of the institution to adopt towards their black servants. It is a wholly reciprocating relationship, what is more, and  precisely where the servant/master lines get confusingly smudged.

I use the term ‘white’ in this regard with some caution. I do not have enough experience of black middle class life in Zimbabwe to really comment with much authority on that strata, but I can, with some authority, comment on how the institution evolved in my own socioeconomic quarter.

Early Assimilation

The servant/master relationship in the Rhodesias was really savaged by Doris Lessing in her book The Grass is Singing. The idea that the institution was riven with Jim Crow type institutionalized brutality has never been supported by any real evidence. While researching my book Rhodesia, Last Outpost of the British Empire I read an enormous amount of historic material offering anecdotal background to the domestic relationship between black and white, and although class driven, as every aspect of life was in the early 20th century was, it emerged in my view as a mutually supportive and quite passive relationship. I do think it is fair to say that amongst the lower and working class whites who flooded into the country between the wars, and immediately after WWI, there might have been evidence in their treatment of blacks of that exaggerated class consciousness that Britain is so famous for, particularly among the lower and artisan classes. It was these mainly who might have found some satisfaction in for the first time in their collective history having someone lower down the ladder than they to look down upon. For the most part, however, a sense of familial paternalism tended to be the overriding characteristic of the domestic relationship, and in many ways it still is.

The roots of that paternalism are both rational and understandable. In the aftermath of the Mashona and Matabele Rebellions of 1896 life in Rhodesia quickly began to develop the characteristics of any other British orientated society in the late Victorian period. Towns and settlements began to grow alongside a coordinated system of administration that included government, a judiciary and law enforcement. In amongst all this black society had to cope with both the rapid evolution of a western type society into which it was assimilated while at the same time trying to pick up the pieces of the more familiar system that had been manifestly crushed by the unstoppable march forward of global progress. Education for blacks was only just becoming available under the aegis of many missionary organizations entering the country, but it would be twenty years or more before the first generation of literate and educated blacks would emerge with anything like the kinds of tools necessary to embrace and understand modern life.

For the most part Europeans were not immune to this fact. It may surprise many to know that the race dynamic in Rhodesia prior to UDI was not in any way as difficult and hostile as it would be in the late 1960s and 1970s. During the period between the wars a lot of effort was expended to promote assimilation, and a somewhat utopian ideal existed for the development of black society under the Pax Britannica. However, the fact remained that blacks at that time were bewildered by the modern world, highly vulnerable to it and certainly incapable within it of any kind of unassisted development.

The first settler generation – the majority of them anyway –  who began to employ blacks in various capacities, saw them as being very much in the kindergarten of life, and came to believe that it was their moral duty as the ‘civilizing race’ to uplift them with both a firm and fair hand. As blacks began to discover education, however, and began to grow more at ease with modernity, they ceased to be quite so helpless. Slowly whites began less to see the necessity of paternalism towards blacks than the desirability of it. This was because the first generation of African blacks to achieve full education in British Africa began immediately to agitate for wider political freedoms, which took a great many whites by surprise, and began to introduce a little of the hostility into the relationship that would grow so rampant later. Colonial authorities and settler communities across the board in British Africa had absolutely no plans for encouraging black political parity, and moreover could starkly envision the end of British rule in Africa if they ever did. Paternalism in general then began to subtly evolve from the earlier texture of helping a child to emerge into maturity to the much rougher approach of constantly reminding that child that his/her immaturity was manifest and likely to be permanent.

This, however, tended to be a more general, social/political phenomenon affecting society as a whole. On a more personal level it was still in the home where the only real point of contact between the races took place. At the time there were very few, and there continues to be very few, whites who can speak any indigenous languages, and certainly the locally adapted pidgin called Chilapalapa, or Kitchen Kaffir, offered very little opportunity for either party to bridge the gap. Blacks, on the other hand, tended almost universally to be conversant in English. They were required to do so, and were taught English at school, which consequently gave them a great deal more opportunity to observe, assess and form opinions than we did. It was only very late in the life of Rhodesia that I remember any serious discussion being given to teaching native languages to white kids as part of their formal curriculum, and yet this would have made so much sense. It would at the very least have diminished the overarching us-and-them aspect of life in the country during the critical pre-UDI period, to the extent that even if we could never have realistically hoped to hold onto power, we would at least have had a more authentic understanding of the people who were about to govern us.

But I digress. That deeply embedded paternalism in the domestic relationship carried over after independence with the result that the characteristics of the black/white relationship in the home did not much change. There might possibly have been a little bit caution on the part of the employers, and a certain amplified confidence on the part of the employee, but on the whole matters did not alter appreciably. It remained a basic prerequisite of expatriate life in Zimbabwe to have at least one servant while working in a suburban household in middle class Zimbabwe remained a desirable job to have. And, moreover, the implied responsibility of paternalism continued, as it still does, to be very much part of that relationship, a responsibility that always has extended far beyond the individual in employment to include as many of the extended family as could be squeezed into the equation.

Rachel, my wife, who is from the United States and was not born into the institution, adapted to it well on a purely practical level, not very difficult admittedly, but on a more analytical level she was never wholly reconciled to it. Initially she was preyed upon, and stumbled once or twice, when she was met by her first domestic employee with the sense of expectation, and some entitlement that might have been better managed by someone with more experience.  In particulate when AIDs deaths began to really impact daily life in Zimbabwe, and almost on a weekly basis there were deaths within the immediate or extended family, the financial weight of funerals and allied expenses meant in many ways, in particular with a large staff, that one found oneself acting less as an employer than as a social elder and bank or credit union.

One thing that Rachel did identify that I as a lifelong African white did not was how that paternalism fed so easily into pre-existing fabric of black social organization, in particular when one views oneself as a patriarch – male or female – at the head of a large extended family. Without access to consumer credit it stands to reason that inter-family loaning and owing would be common, and looking to one’s employer for quite a lot of the day to day support necessary to survive would seem to be natural and need not have about it the exploitative and demanding character that it might otherwise seem to have.

That is not to say that there are not, and have not been, plenty of shenanigans in exploiting the bleeding hearts. Newcomers to Africa, be they diplomatic or commercial expats, are almost always taken to the cleaners in the early stages of their adjustment. The younger the candidate the steeper the learning curve. This is indeed so much a fact of life that the Peace Corps and other volunteer agencies warn young volunteers to not fall in love with serial philanthropic abusers and to be extremely judicious in adopting responsibility for local problems. This is a cultural clash, of course, based on two key misconceptions. The first is that all Africans are dirt poor and the second that all westerners are fabulously rich. Neither is universally true, but much profit is made from generations of newcomers to Africa as they find this fact out for themselves.

So really the best and most mutually satisfying relationships in the home tend to be amongst the old-timers: those that are not engaged in a social experiment and for whom the relationship is structured upon no less solid foundations than an average mother-in-law or first cousin relationship in the white, European system of familial organization.

Let me quote my own family as an example of this. I cannot remember precisely when Tobias came into our lives. It was after I have left home, so his relationship was really less with the family than with my mother and father. There were problems of course, ruptures that were extremely personal in nature, but none of these noticeably undermined what over the course of more than twenty years became a very deeply interdependent relationship that only solidified further as each party grew older. Tobias aged, and aged in tandem with Dad, and the two aged together. Their relationship was based on banter, humor, empathy and support. And yet it was also fundamentally separate in a way that was clearly understood, and for which neither man was responsible, but to which each owed fealty and obeyed.

With Mum it was different. I cannot say for sure, but I think it had to do with gender and a patriarchal aversion to domination by a woman that can never be entirely massaged out of any culture. Who knows? It was no less of a good working relationship despite this fact. Tobias witnessed every phase of their lives, and vice versa, and was privy by association to every problem and crisis that punctuated the passage of two very complimentary lives in their lives. It need only be said that in the dead of night when Dad died and Mum was alone it was Tobias who was first on the scene. What the event meant to him personally I have never inquired, but I cannot doubt that it meant a lot. Throughout the necessary upheaval and family grief he remained steadfast, and was washed up later on the shores of my sisters ample home. Belinda still lives in Harare at the date of writing, and Tobias lives out his twilight years as the Major Domo of her small but respectable and highly efficient staff. How many years of association is this? A great many indeed.

Tobias will die thus, and with him will pass probably a more potent symbol of what really went on in the bad old days than any history book you can ever read will tell you. Under an umbrella of a very strange race dynamic, three people lived out their middle and late years very much part of one another lives. I don’t care if I never have another servant, but I am glad to have overlapped on that particular colonial institution, because, in the final analysis, it was one of the few that was good for all.