The Blog Week: The Help

We’ve mentioned our Didi or a didi a more than a couple of times in recent blogs and updates.  The word ‘didi’ actually means the big sister in Nepali, but it is also the professional title of women who work as house help.  Most bedeshis (foreigners) here in Nepal hire a didi, it is just kind of assumed.  Our little nuclear families are not equip with the live-in aunts and grandmas, daughter-in-laws and sister wives to pitch in with all the chores.  And there are a lot of chores.   The boiling milk, filtering water, iodining fruits and vegetables is way beyond my usual American chore list of, popping in a load of laundry and jump in the car to pick up two weeks worth of groceries, sort of chores.  So a didi is not only expected but actually kind of a necessity.  In addition to our house help Didi, we also have 2 different gardeners, a didi who plants and cares for our vegetable garden and an older gardener with one leg who cares for our yard and landscaping.  Laxmi GardnerWe have also on occasion hired a separate Didi to help watch kids while I was traveling and we pay a driver about once a month to take us in and out of the cities.   Most of ‘the staff’ came with the house and knew the place and the work much better than we did.  It was a little, ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ ‘Downton Abbey’, like when we first arrived and I spent time just trying to stay out of the way of everyone since they so obviously knew what they were doing and I didn’t.

I was nervous about having house help at first.   I’m not sure if I can chalk it up to pride at not wanting to have some other woman on my turf or the fear of being out shown as a housekeeper and cook, probably a little of both.  I have noticed though that this pride issue with house help seems to be purely an American hang-up.  The British and Indian bedeshi are both used to having others in their homes to help out with the domestic chores.  It is part of their history.  One Irish friend’s family was actually career servants working in others homes, while she was growing up.  The Scandinavian bedeshis don’t seem all that uncomfortable with it either.  A Norwegian friend told me we were simply stimulating the local economy and providing good jobs for women, and she took every chance she could to hire people to shop, watch children and work around the house.   The ‘stimulate the economy’ argument made sense, and appealed to my community development desires, but mommy guilt is something fierce and the feeling as if I should be the one to care for my own house, was a tough one to get over.  So some of my initial hang-up was a personal pride issue, but also I have the American cultural hang-up of the history of domestic help being (gulp) slavery, one of the worst forms of human oppression ever known.  It may be the desire to avoid domestic help is trying disassociate and to give that whole nasty history as wide of a birth as possible.

Anyway, not to get all sociocultural on you, but I’ve come around to my initial aversion and am finding I probably couldn’t do without our Didi after all.  My concerns of a Downton Abbey didi relationship were completely unfounded, because the Didis here in Tansen have it together.  I mean seriously, they are organized.  It is like Norma Rae of professional house help women.  The Didi/Bhaini (little sister) Committee as they are called, provide each client with a guidelines for conditions of employment, including sick and vacation time and a salary schedule.  We also contribute to a combined medical insurance plan for our Didis depending on family size.  I was so impressed with this group that I joined them.  I am a bedeshi liason for the committee and orient new families to the way of the Didi.

We had a didi in Kathmandu, but she was pretty much like a cleaning service.  She came, she cleaned, and she left us with a hot meal.  We rarely saw her, but we sure did appreciate her work.  However here in Tansen the Didi relationship is a little different.  Instead of a cleaning service our Didi is more like a Mrs. Hughes house-keeper, and totally runs the show.  Shanti has been working in our house with bedeshi families for 17 years.  She has held rocked and cared for children from multiple nations, and she has learned to make Swedish Cake, American Mac’ n Cheese, and Norwegian waffles.  She has put up with many foreign languages and brand new fumbling Nepali learners.  Our kids love her.  Maybe that is due to the excellent snacks she makes, but she is also just fun to be around.  I love her, and can not claim to miss the multiple loads of laundry and constant dishwashing at all.  Plus I’m finding it hard to get down to use the little squatty brooms for sweeping the floors theses days, and happily hand that off to Shanti. Our 2-year-old loves ‘helping’ our gardener in the yard and the landscaper once killed a small snake on the stairs so he has proven invaluable as well.

It was a funny position to get used to, having others do for me what I thought I could do myself, but it has been good.  Good for my pride issues, good for ‘the staff’ and good for our house and yard which would have suffered poorly under my ministrations without them.