“The Help” … Lesotho-Style

[The following post was published Feb. 24, 2012, on The Mantle. Octavia Spencer of The Help went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.]

MASERU, Lesotho – Living overseas, I sometimes fall out of touch with the latest “buzz” within American culture. Like which Hollywood sleepers are garnering acclaim from the critics.

The indispensable Mé Anna, after I made her giggle. (Photo: mjj)

So it was that I was flying Frankfurt-to-New York in late December, on my way to spend the holidays with my family, when I found myself with hours to kill and a seemingly lame slate of movies.

I’d only settled in Africa one month earlier, and my mind was swirling with the new sensations of life in the remote backwater of Lesotho. Beyond the culture shock of living in Africa itself, in one of its poorest countries, surrounded by razor-wire-lined walls, was the startling realization we now had “a staff” inherited from my wife’s predecessor at her international-development organization.

The staff was drawn from the local Basotho tribe: a full-time housekeeper, a part-time cook, a part-time gardener-slash-Mr.-Fix-It and round-the-clock crew of security guards. As a humble freelance journalist and journalism teacher, I guiltily embraced this neo-colonialist existence. That is, until I learned how grateful our employees were just to have a job – and a decent-paying one at that.

On the flight, I wanted to unwind, watching mindless action or comedy. A flick called “The Help,” about some women in 1960s, Civil Rights-era Mississippi didn’t fit the bill. Yet for some reason, I tried it.

The parallels of blacks-serving-whites were immediate and unmistakable. With the film set to add several Oscars on Sunday to its haul of awards and accolades, U.S. audiences may view it as merely a work of historical fiction.

For us, though, this racial dynamic is the reality in 2012 for hundreds of expatriate families in Lesotho. Not to mention the countless white families in surrounding South Africa, where the specter of Apartheid surely hovers over that power relationship, just two decades later.

As I watched the film, it struck me: That’s our life. Not just neo-colonialist, but neo-plantationist! In the movie, the “coloreds” cook, clean, wash and tend to every other need or whim of white families. Moreover, the black maids raise the white children – until the kids or the maids grew too old. The latter seem easily discarded, especially if suspected of malfeasance. Some of the women are treated with respect and appreciation; others, much like the slaves of a not-too-distant past.

In Lesotho, a country of no more than two million, the Basotho serve the sizable international community as housekeepers, babysitters, cooks, gardeners, handymen and security guards. I think I’ve yet to meet a foreign family in Maseru, the capital, that doesn’t have “Help” of some sort. (Of course, the Basotho elite hire black staffs of their own, but that’s another story.)

Mé Violet, maker of indispensible rice. (Photo: mjj)

Some elements of the film cut close. Like when the maid played by Viola Davis patiently potty-trains her employer’s three-year-old daughter, who later confides, “You’re my real Momma, Aibelene.” We have a three-year-old girl of our own, and though we handled the potty-training ourselves, our full-time housekeeper-slash-nanny does indeed tend to our daughter several hours every afternoon.

Then there’s the movie’s story-line of whether the maids should be allowed to use the inside bathrooms. In our home? When we arrived last fall, they were using only the toilet in the “servant’s quarters” outside, detached from our home … and, well, that habit hasn’t changed.

Virtually all the expat families here live like this – that seems to be the way such homes are built. Still, the racial overtones are unavoidable. After “The Help,” I wonder: Does our staff resent us?

To be sure, the American South versus post-Apartheid Southern Africa is far from an apples-to-apples comparison. Each has a distinct context, as one of my newspaper editors astutely pointed out the other day. Naturally, I’d pitched this idea for publication, linking the hit movie with my fish-out-of-water experience in Lesotho. The editor, a seasoned Africa hand, rejected it.

“Having lived in South Africa myself,” he wrote in an email, “I am fascinated by the whole complex nature of the relationship between ‘bosses’ and housekeepers. But I just wonder whether an American reader would register the nuances of how pre-civil rights America and post-apartheid southern Africa are similar and different. Nuance is everything on this story, and with our relatively short space for this kind of piece, I would have concern that the nuance would be lost.”

That’s the right call. And now that he’s provided the nuance, at least I can blog about it here.

Two months after watching “The Help,” it continues to spook me.

In the film, a young Southern belle nicknamed “Skeeter,” who was herself raised by a black nanny, returns from university for her first job as a newspaper reporter – I’m a sucker for any movie in which the protagonist is a journalist. Now an adult, Skeeter sees something isn’t quite right about how white employers treat the black women who are so essential to their lives. She earns the confidence of one maid, then many others, who share their insider story of what it’s really like to work for white folk.

Here in Lesotho, I’m intrigued by this cohort as well. We are their economic lifeblood, yet they have become lifeblood for expatriates, too – and for whites across the region.

On a recent trip we took to picturesque Semonkong, I spied a heart-warming scene of racial harmony. A beefy, young white Afrikaner – built like one of South Africa’s revered rugby stars – bought lollipops for a gaggle of Basotho kids, chatting gaily with them in what seemed to be fluent Sesotho.

Turns out, this fellow Hannes grew up just north of Lesotho, on a farm in the Free State, and was raised by a Basotho nanny. He described how she used to carry him on her back in the traditional style, secured with a wrapped shawl. (What a National Geographic-worthy photo that would be, I thought: a black Basotho woman lugging a blond-haired, blue-eyed child.) Not only did the nanny speak Sesotho to him, but he played every day with the children of his father’s Basotho farm-workers.

“Sesotho is like my mother-tongue,” Hannes told me. “I grew up with these people.”

After my holiday break in the States, and with “The Help” still fresh on my mind, I returned to our home in Maseru determined to make an effort to know our staff, to humanize them. Especially the two women who have grown familiar with our family’s dirty laundry – both literal and figurative.

We know them as Mé Anna and Mé Violet – the a necessary term of respect in Sesotho that means “Mother.” Just as Ntate means “Father,” and they always address me as Ntate Michael. Mé Anna works Monday through Friday, doing everything from laundry to watching our daughter. Mé Violet comes three days, primarily to cook – our kids are convinced she makes the tastiest rice in the world.

In a country filled with tragic stories, neither Mé Anna nor Mé Violet has been immune.

Mé Anna, for example, is proud of her 25-year-old, university-educated son, who has a good job at a major mobile telephone company in Maseru, is married, and may soon provide her a first grandchild. But Mé Anna, 62, also explained to me how she lost two other children long ago: a three-month-old boy, and a girl whom she brought to full term, but miscarried after nine months.

Malnutrition plagues some 40 percent of Lesotho’s children. Stunting is widespread.

“Mine were too small,” says Mé Anna of the two she lost, but nothing more.

Mé Anna also lost a younger sister to HIV – but only realized it after her death. Lesotho is wracked by the world’s third-highest HIV rate, which observers say is fuelled by stigma and secrecy.

“She was hiding it, and I was so upset when I learned it,” she says. “I don’t know why she hid it.”

Mé Violet’s story is perhaps even more tragic. She had five children – only two survive. She buried sons at ages 29, 25 and 24. She herself was the eldest of four children, and has seen all three younger brothers perish. Their wives as well. Most died from AIDS, some from diabetes. She’s also diabetic. And at age 55, she’s now also caring for four orphans, taken in from her deceased brothers.

“Can you imagine how terrible this is, this HIV?” she asked me. No, I can’t.

For this article, with the Academy Awards approaching, and with my “Help” angle in mind, I wanted to ask Mé Anna and Mé Violet their thoughts about working for whites – about working for us. But what a dumb line of questioning. What sort of answer could I hope for? Something truly candid?

What the heck – I’ll ask them. On a recent afternoon, I found them in our sun-drenched kitchen, explained “The Help,” and my curiosity about their perspective. They both laughed at me.

Candid or not, they say they wouldn’t want the international community to leave Lesotho.

Mé Anna contends that she’s no longer spry enough to waitress in a restaurant, nor young enough to work in the Chinese-owned textile factories. If it weren’t for her job with us, she might be selling fruits and vegetables on the streets, or cleaning offices, or perhaps serving tea somewhere.

“Life would be too hard, too much of a struggle,” she says.

But she doesn’t want any old job. For 37 years, she’s been employed by Westerners only – which she prefers to working for her own Basotho people, who are known individually as Mosotho.

“I was praying that I would never have to work for a Mosotho, because they treat us like slaves,” she says. “They just want you to work, work, work – and then they may not even pay you.”

Mé Violet nods in agreement.

“The white people are good to us, helping us all the time, teaching our children, sending us clothes,” she says. “That’s why we always ask: ‘Why don’t the Basotho treat their own people better?’”

Day by day, these women become a part of our family. This won’t be the last time I write about them, as they have a remarkable perspective worth sharing – just as Skeeter realized in “The Help.”

Whether I myself am ready to write an exposé on the Basotho nannies, housekeepers and security guards who wait on our friends and colleagues, well, that’s a question for another day.

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