Jeanette turned towards me, hands on hips, kneading her pagne skirt between knotted fingers. She wore a bubblegum-pink shirt, which had “La rêve de ma vie” (“My life’s dream”) scrawled across it in silver.
“We’re out of bleach again,” she said gruffly in her heavily-accented French. “And we really need to get a better broom.”
I raised my eyes from my laptop, conscious of the simpering grin on my face.
“Uh, sorry, we really haven’t had time to go to the supermarket — just too many things on the go,” I babbled as she scrutinized me with those dark, darting eyes.
“Does anything else need to be cleaned?” she asked.
“You can probably leave things the way they are?” So many of my answers end with question marks.
When we arrived in Abidjan, we were shuffled into a temporary apartment, where Jeanette was the cleaning woman. When we moved, I asked her to work for us, because I liked her and trusted her implicitly even if — on some level — I felt I was tolerated rather than liked.
She comes here three times a week to clean and cook — it’s a luxury that seems to be the norm for most expatriates here. Still, it’s uncomfortable when someone else cleans up our mess.
Inside the house, Jeanette is invisible in her movements, preferring to be seen not heard. When our paths cross, I bray at her about the weather or the cost of eggplants and she begins to sweep the floor with ever-increasing intensity, eventually drifting out of my periphery. (Unfortunately, I’m a silence-filler of the highest order — even in another language.)
At the best of times, I find her enigmatic, Sphinx-like — all sharp corners and secretive smiles.
To her, I’m the bumbling foreigner who bleats mea culpas and barges into the kitchen unannounced. I’m the one who apologizes all the time, because I don’t know the parameters of her job — even though I’m the one who is supposed to dictate them.
And so we continue this awkward dance of boss and employee — a dance that I don’t know, a dance that I am still learning.
* * *
When I was six years old, my family bundled itself onto a plane to Nairobi, Kenya and we lived there for three years.
Our extended family included our cleaning woman and de facto babysitter, Everleen, (When my mother went back to visit her in 1999, Everleen said: “And how is Miss Cara? She was so naughty!”), our cook, Douglas, and gardener, Josh. The machinations of the household ran in the background the way a watch’s cogwheels do — soundlessly and without fanfare.
At six years old, I was responsible for no one. I did not hire staff or fire them. I did not negotiate salaries or have to navigate the unwieldy terrain of hurt feelings.
But the Africa I knew has been altered by time and distance. And my perfunctory interest in household things has only grown slightly with age and its subtle accumulation of responsibilities.
I never cease to be amazed at how it takes a small village — from Jeanette to the guard and the gardener — for this house to remain in working order. Each day I put on the itchy, ill-fitting suit of responsibility and pretend I know what I’m doing.
Perhaps the oddest thing about employing so many people is that these strangers become privy to the habits of our home, while we know almost nothing of their daily rituals or the intricacies of their private lives.
* * *
So much of what Jeanette says is lost in translation — whether it’s the Ivorian vernacular or the off-kilter rhythm of speech. Sometimes I ask her to repeat herself — although I draw the line at asking more than five times. And so our relationship has dwindled to a series of interrogatives and imperatives.
But I have seen a gradual “defrosting” in Jeanette. I find her fear of our puppies strangely endearing (maybe because I have the opportunity to swoop in as saviour). And now that she knows I’m pregnant, her concern when I lift anything heavier than a loaf of bread is almost maternal.
Our lives have become joined even as we peer at each other from opposite ends of the spectrum: Me with my surfeit of privilege, her with her lack of means. And my time — my freedom to write — is contingent on her being here to clean the house, to cook for us, to take care of us.
Maybe the best way to handle this hierarchy is to stop seeing it as a gross imbalance and more as a cultural exchange. Then the translation becomes less about words and more about the precarious construction of a language that we both understand. Maybe it’s possible to be found in translation rather than lost in it.