Originally published on Pambazuka News
Efua Prah reviews Francis Nyamnjoh's 'Intimate Strangers', a book in which 'we learn and unlearn a lot about human beings and the solidarities they forge and deny one another'.
Through Francis Nyamnjoh’s Immaculate of Mimboland, a foreigner in Botswana, we learn and unlearn a lot about human beings and the solidarities they forge and deny one another.
I think my sense of what was normal and accepted behaviour really got tested as I read the stories Immaculate transcribed for Dr Winter-Bottom Nanny. My surprised reaction really is exemplary of how easy it is to normalise certain ways of being (like what our expectations are and what we measure as acceptable) and categorise relationships according to these definitions.
It never occurred to me that the relationships between 'maids and madams' could be such a rich area for research. I really enjoyed how the lives of others allowed the reader to engage with an issue that I have up until this point taken for granted. I found myself making comparisons between the relationships explored in the book and the relationships I entertain in my daily life. Throughout my childhood we have always had extra help around the house. The people my parents employed certainly had an infinitely different relationship with us (the children). I imagine that my parents may have had to consider a whole set of different parameters of engagement compared to the ones I took on. For me, the people who helped around the house, now that I really do think about it, were 'intimate strangers' – intimate insofar as they knew a lot about my growth in the world and were indeed strangers because I knew next to nothing about their growth in the world. It was as if our relationship was held in time and bound by geographic obstacles. They often lived far from our home and would travel to and from work everyday at fixed times. Hence, I think an exploration of the relationship between children and 'maids' would also allow for an interesting narrative.
After reading about these relationships, I questioned my mother about the validity of the accounts as they were vastly different to my experience with domestic workers here in South Africa. I found it so intriguing that such differences could take place in so close a distance between countries – Botswana is a neighbouring country to South Africa. I have an aunt that lives in Botswana and I was curious to find out if such narratives were possible. When I questioned my mother she replied that she was unaware of the nature of the relationships between 'maids and madams' in Botswana and so I have to assume that the stories in the book are in fact relationships that get played out daily, although even now I find myself saying, 'Really? Can it be so that both "maids and madams" feel as it is written in this story?'
Another fascinating dynamic was that of 'foreigners' (Bakwerekwere) and Batswana. It was very interesting to be introduced to such forms of discrimination that were seemingly justified by the characters in the book. The ways in which people judged and made suppositions about others along cultural lines within the framework of 'maids and madams' was eye-opening. It was interesting to draw parallels between the lives of South Africans and 'foreigners' living and seeking employment here in South Africa – who gets hired, for what reasons and the consequent results of 'foreigners'' successful employment.
The subtlety in which the reader was exposed to obvious racial preferences articulated by 'maids' ensured that a balance of the main themes was maintained. Furthermore, weaving race dynamics into the narrative in the way 'Maids and Madams' does created a space for the reader to formulate their own opinion as to why such perceptions may be held. The text neither attempted to assuage the reader into any position except their own nor did it ascribe judgment on any one party for holding or fuelling this perception.
AGE AND CULTURAL VALUES
I thought that in looking at aspects of interaction as determined by one's age highlighted the cultural trappings people fall into in attempts to survive in a job, as was the case with Angels’ mother-in-law and her elderly 'maid'. Cultural norms play an enormous part in determining which roles each person takes on. As shown in the stories, the hiring and firing of 'maids' is solely the domain of the 'madam', so regardless of the exhausting job of finding the right 'maid', the husband does nothing to ease the burden, expecting the home to be run as efficiently with or without a 'maid'. The wife’s role is to make sure the kids are fed and ready for school in the mornings, picked up in the afternoons and then she must make sure that lunch and/or supper is prepared for when the husband comes home hungry. As if this was not a lot to do, at some point during the day it is the expected and accepted duty of the wife to conduct the search for the perfect 'maid' whilst still finding time to go to work to pay necessary bills. It is a wonder what the man does in terms of creating a home for his family. Nothing in the stories is offered so I am left assuming that men are counter-productive in the creation of a home in Botswana.
SOCIAL LIFE OF 'MAIDS'
The social life of 'maids' in the home setting of the 'madam' really was the element within the stories that left me wide-eyed and mouth agape. Having never had such experiences with any of the domestic workers my parents employed I found it quite astonishing that 'maids' happily brought their boyfriends to their place of employment. I understood when it was written that of course if you are living and working on the same premises then it ought not to be a problem to have your loved one spend evenings with you. What surprised me was the extent to which 'maids' expressed this need. The lives of 'maids and madams' in Botswana is a very colourful one indeed!
'MAIDS' INFRINGING ON PERSONAL SPACE
Reading about the sexual advances made between employees and domestic help did not strike me as something surprising. Although I neither have first- nor second-hand knowledge of such cases, it seemed to be something that could easily play out within the home setting, especially when the stranger plays such an intimate role in one's life. I think that assertions of sexuality and power occur in many places of employment and on many stages of interaction. When such occurrences take place in the home many variables are immediately thrown into the narrative (i.e., the children if there are any, class discrepancies, etc). Many other relationships get entangled when one crosses that line. It was interesting to read about how such incidents creep into homes. Moreover, I really am enjoying how these stories of sexuality and power have generated assumptions and opinions in me and mostly how it has created an internal debate as I navigate through ideas of morality and ethics.
Immaculate really was the needle weaving the string through the fabric of this story. Through her character, the reader met Angel, Mrs Winter-Bottom Nanny and all the other people who willingly shared their stories. In a sense she was a representation of the way in which 'maids and madams' are described as 'intimate strangers' – the reader enjoyed the luxury of sitting in on the lives of others without offering anything in return. Immaculate became an open-ended book to discover and map our assumptions and opinions about 'maids and madams' on her narrative. Her character unfolded at a steady tempo to the final build-up, where she reveals the delicate parts of her story to Dr Nanny. The only character that is left unturned is Dr Nanny, who functions as the omnipotent researcher. One catches only a glimmer of her character when Immaculate listens to an over-run of the interview conducted between Dr Nanny and someone else. The idea given is that Dr Nanny did not switch off the recording device before answering her phone to speak to a friend. She is heard commenting on the intrusiveness of domestic workers on her life – how at first it was a fascinating anomaly to her but now she was feeling as though it was an infringement of her personal space.
OTHER THEMES EXPLORED
The tying-in of the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs – computers and cell-phones) into the narrative added an extra layer that built upon Immaculate’s narrative. She was the primary user of a computer (emailing transcriptions) in the story as well as being the primary character in the unfolding of the possible role cell-phones take on in communication. She is haunted by the text messages left by Philip on her cell-phone and keeps them as a reminder of the hold he has of her. Within this framing, examples of herbs used in malice are highlighted. These examples are weaved simply into the story and one does not get the sense that it is a far-fetched reality. Medicine and its malpractice is a topic only explored in the last few chapters, which ensures that the main themes of the book become pronounced and the surrounding themes (like that of ICTs and malicious medicinal practice) act as support structures for other more prominent themes. However, it is a risk to introduce such a vast and thick topic such as medicinal herbal lore within the framework of ICTs right at the end of the book, as I feel it is a topic needing its own narrative.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book. It generated a healthy debate within my mind and stretched my thoughts about the fixed ways in which I formulated opinions based upon expectations and measures of accepted behaviour.
* Francis Nyamnjoh, 'Intimate Strangers', Langaa Research and Publishing, Bamenda, ISBN: 978-9956616060, 2010.
* Efua Prah is a PhD student at the University of Cape Town.