In most households in Tanzania, when you ask them a question ‘who is a house maid’, you would have a series of incorrect answers.
‘They are house cleaners’, they are ‘family and home watchmen and caretakers’ but it is an uncommon sight for a housemaid to be considered family, which is the correct term of them all.
About a couple of weeks ago, a video of two young men gifting their former house help named Mikolina Nyigo who was literally their ‘second mother’ and thanking her for taking care of them during their childhood caused a frenzy on social media as it went viral.
This video was posted by the master of ceremonies during the wedding celebrations of one of the two brothers.
As the event was being prepared, the two brothers had no idea that Mikolina was coming to the wedding.
In fact, she had been informed of the wedding but after missing out on the send-off event, the brothers did not for one second think that she was going to attend the wedding either.
One evening before the wedding, Kelvin Mlay and his brother received a phone call from their mother who informed them of Mikolina’s arrival from Iringa to her place. They were excitedly nervous, because they both had not laid eyes on her for a period of 10 years.
They both went to see her at their parents’ home. Their mother had already purchased wedding attire for Mikolina to don.
Little did she know that she was going to be surprised during the wedding.
Emotions run wild
As the wedding commenced, Kelvin asked the MC to give him a chance to speak to the audience at the wedding reception because he had a special gift for someone special.
He then asked Mikolina and his younger brother named Aidan to step forward.
Mikolina was dressed in a beautiful blue dress complemented by a bracelet and a white neck chain. Kelvin’s younger brother was dressed in a mustard green suit and a white shirt.
He then introduced his brother who was the first one to stand in front of the crowd alongside the groomsman and the bride and her bridesmaid.
He said their parents who were seated in the front row at the wedding venue had only two children, the two of them, but in the processes of taking care of them, there is someone who was about 80 percent involved who was directly responsible for their wellbeing and that person happened to be Mikolina.
Kelvin explained further that Mikolina took care of them at a time when both of their parents were employed and busy.
This made it difficult for their parents to be present and be able to fully care for them.
As he was talking, Mikolina walked forward amidst cheers from the guests present, and was received with a hug from the younger brother who gave her a big smile.
A chair decorated in white was put in front of the crowd and Mikolina got seated.
When Kelvin was two years, he was introduced to Mikolina who was to look after him because his parents had then got employment that demanded their presence full time.
“There were times my mother had to work morning and night shifts. Mikolina played the role of a mother in a way that has contributed to us being the men we are today. I recall my brother being skinny when he was growing up because he had eating problems but sister Mikolina worked hard to curb his eating disorder which eventually faded,” he said.
Kelvin said that when he and Aidan grew up, their parents sent Mikolina to school so that she would find a job after being a house help for a long time, but when she started working, things did not work out on a family level so she decided to leave Dar es Salaam and relocated to Iringa, to start her life afresh.
He explained further to the crowd that despite not being able to pay her for all the good things Mikolina did for their family, he knew that she deserved a ‘thank you’ in recognition for all the things that she did, because every little or big thing that she did while living with them has over the years nurtured them into the men that they are now.
Kelvin asked his family and friends who attended the wedding to support him in gifting Dada Mikolina and said his gratitude to her.
“Dada Mikolina, Aidan and I love you very much, and we are beyond thankful for all the things you did for us and it is those things that have made us the men that we are today. As much as we pray for God to bless you for all those things, we also have a small gift to give to you,” said Kelvin.
The groom and his bride along with the groomsman and the bridesmaids were then given colourful vitenge which they used to cover Mikolina.
The MC then welcomed the crowd to join the newlyweds to celebrate Mikolina who sat there looking happy.
People were not only hugging Mikolina and the two brothers, they were handing her money and encouraging and congratulatory messages.
Breaking the internet
This video has circulated on social media platforms such as Whatsapp, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, and has earned about 69,551 views and more than 1,000 comments on the account of MC Erick Mchome alone, who was the one host of the wedding.
This act of kindness and compassion has also garnered much international traction as well.
Through this video, people were reminded that being a house help does not mean that one should be looked down upon or treated with disregard, because when they are employed, they automatically become part of the family they live with.
However, for Angela Benedicto who is the founder and managing director of ‘Wote Sawa’, an organization located in Mwanza that deals with bettering the working environments for house helps and spreading awareness about the roles they play in different households, her own experience was different.
She says it is not a crime choosing to work as a house maid in our societies; the problem is on the societies whose families still perceive the work of a house maid as less important.
“Domestic workers are considered one of the lowest groups in Tanzanian societies, they are a marginalized group which is treated negatively due to their profession despite the positive impact they tend to bring in families,” explains Ms Benedicto.
Angela established ‘Wote Sawa’ after having experienced the conditions of working as a housemaid herself for a period of about four years.
When she experienced the harsh treatment and assault that the profession came with, she knew that it was important to have an organization that backed housemaids in terms of their safety and better treatments at their places of work.
“In many households, maids are the first people to wake up and last people to sleep. They may be lead chefs but they are usually the last people to eat. This is a person you entrust with keeping your house clean and running, and your family well fed. They do not deserve that, nobody does,” said Angela.
When Angela was a housemaid, she lived with multiple families that made her life unravel to being the director and one of the leading players in advocating for the rights of housemaids.
Angela lived in families that looked down on her and made sure that she knew her position and theirs as the superiors of the house.
This was from the children to the adults; a real eye opening experience that pushed for her to form ‘Wote Sawa’.
According to her, even with a ‘better’ employer, domestic workers will still be considered second class people because the devaluation of a person worsens when the society views them negatively even when their closest person values their hard work.
“I was once sexually harassed by an employer. I stood my ground as refused for him to go any further. I refused to develop any relationship with him other than him being my employer,” says Ms Benedicto.
Her employer questioned Angela’s refusal because he had thought she would be an easy catch because of her profession.
It was in that moment that Angela began the ideation to start an organization that would prevent domestic workers from going through worse acts than she went through; an organization that would be an open book to housemaids and ensure that they are prioritized, supported, and that they know that they are important and can always voice their wants as well as what they do not want.
She successfully developed ‘Wote Sawa’ in 2012, and it was at the beginning when the organization had unending struggles.
Angela advises families and house helps to understand that this profession is as important as any other and that the people behind it should be treated as such.
However, Angela’s experience was different compared to Devota Mnyawami, who was treated almost the same way Mikolina was treated by Kelvin and his family.
Devota once stayed with her employer at Kimara’s suburbs in Dar es Salaam for a period of about 12 years.
“I was employed by a single mother who was constantly busy with work and she was often travelling. Her son was like my relative and I had started staying with him when he was in standard three, at around nine years old until the time he finished form six,” she narrates.
To her employer, Devota was like her son’s sibling because of the way she treated Devota.
As her son was busy with school, Devota’s employer gave her options to explore education and know what she would want to do in the future.
By the time Devota was leaving her employers household, she was getting married and she was celebrated by the whole neighbourhood who understood that she played a motherly role in raising her employer’s son.
“House maids deserve love, recognition and to become part of the families they are employed by. Showing them this gives them purpose a drive to even do better in their work,” says Devota.
It is a rare sight for families to fully embrace house maids in their households as family members; something that should be done without raising eye brows.
Most house maids are either from poor families that could not afford to cater for them anymore or from rural areas, seeking to better their families.
These girls who are mostly aged from the early 10’s to early 20’s are taken to serve in households away from their familiar surroundings, especially in urban areas.
They are not prepared for the life they would have to live in those households as employees.
The possibilities of housemaids leading a peaceful life depends on the families they live with because when their employers understand that the term ‘house help’ is just as respectable as any other profession, and that the person behind that title deserves respect, they would show and treat them as such.
These kinds of employers understand that behind the post is a strong woman or girl who is working hard to better her life and that of her family.
The roots to demolish the harsh treatments of house helps depends on the fact that she understands her rights and her boundaries in terms of treatment
But there is a question here ‘ how would she know what being treated right looks like?’.
From the time a housemaid is taken to cater for a particular household, her family should sit her down and explain to her step by step what the reality of this profession is.
This will help strengthen her so she does not have to bear with the ugliness that comes with being a house maid in the society.
She has to learn that if she is treated any less than respectful, she must stand up for herself.
It is time our communities pay better attention and kindness to the young men and women that help care for our children and keep our homes running smoothly each day they are with us.