Kittie Howard

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Shiloh and Meet Peter

Shiloh is a new beginning. It's great feeling better. (And I guess I shouldn't have whined yesterday, but, oh, what a challenging day...thanks for your get-well wishes. Trust me, they helped!) A visit to the internist said I had a massive ear infection, separate from the scratched cornea. The antibiotics kicked in during the night. Today seems, well, normal, without all that dizziness. But, I had to chuckle at myself...before going to bed I "straightened" the holiday candles in the family room...this morning they looked like little leaning Towers of Pisa!

Tomorrow or Friday will be Peter's Christmas story, a 1988 vintage story. I'm just going to jump into the story. So, a bit of set-up today. How my husband and I got to live in Nairobi, Kenya, for three years I'll leave for another day. (Actually, after you read about Peter, you'll see that there are "Nairobi stories" in the wings.)

Peter was our housekeeper. I know that sounds Grand; however, the reality was much needed local employment. We didn't really need or want a housekeeper. But, when word spread that new Americans had moved onto Chalbi Lane, we were inundated with resumes. (Anyone new would have generated the same employment push.)

In 1989, Kenya was (and remains somewhat) a country of contrasts. A very small middle class existed. Think Rich or Poor...with gradients on either side. (There is now a much larger middle class, with many living in Western-style townhouses, and who may not have housekeepers. However, a housekeeper position in Nairobi is still considered upscale employment among those other than the Kikuyu, the ethnic group/tribe that pretty much runs the city and looks down upon those not Kikuyu, making it difficult for people like Peter, a Luo, to obtain a government position.

Anyway, in a country with few factories, intense rivalries among the 54 ethnic groups, and a predominately tourist-based economy, the housekeeper position was (and is) considered coveted employment, with serious resume and interview competition.

Since the dollar was high and we'd be living off the local economy, finances expanded to afford Peter's salary, a very high salary, higher than what a government employee made. We also paid into the national health care program and so on. And, once a month a representative from the National Labor Board visited the premises to ensure that everyone involved honored the contracts entered into. This contract included living quarters for Peter on the premises, which, for our particular house (Think: colonial), were attractive (Think: studio apartment) and included running water and electricity at no cost to Peter.

Peter was 50 years old, spoke four languages (but, as we later learned, most Kenyans speak four languages: Kiswahili, English, and two or more tribal languages) and had an impressive resume from working in the international community. Peter promised to "protect the house", an uspoken service a housekeeper provided.

Africans lived in the majority of houses on Chalbi Lane, with a sprinkling of Indians and foreign nationals like us. Not to hire a housekeeper would mean our house would be the only house on Chalbi Lane, actually a very long street, without a housekeeper. This would be totally unacceptable to Kenyans, where individuality takes a back seat to the collective effort. With so many looking for work, it was our responsibility to hire a housekeeper. End of discussion.

Behind our house was the opening of what city planners had hoped would be a park. But, squatters had long occupied the open land, constructing one-room dwellings out of mis-matched, scavenged materials that somehow remained standing. Packed dirt roads, narrow and filled with deep holes, meandered through this community of 10,000 or so inhabitants that backed onto Chalbi Lane (and looked much like you see on TV). Small stores, dukas, with comparable, over-priced 7-11 items dotted neighborhoods.

This community lacked comprehensive electricity and running water. Those dukas and houses that backed to our fence had found a way to tap into our electricity and share that luxury (charging a price for sharing). Our electricity bills were beyond belief; our employer said, "Let it go," and paid the bills without complaint.

And, so, I'd sometimes accompany Peter into the village behind us, along the widened path turned into a mini road that ran parallel to one side of our house. I'd decided that to get along, I'd have to go along and that, whenever possible, we'd buy vegetables, soft drinks, and so on from the merchants in the village. They appreciated the business and, after several months, prices didn't require the lengthy bargaining common to Kenya (and other African countries). However, relations didn't really cement until some children, totos, kicked a soccer ball that deflated when it bounced onto the barbed wire/spiked glass atop our fence. I bought them a new ball. The village chief took this opportunity to get the kids to play in another area...small delivery trucks turned into the village, to the left of where the kids played and would dart out...and, so, everyone was pleased.

Especially Peter. He liked to brag that he worked in a house "with a good name". Unfortunately, this bragging usually occurred in the village bar. Peter had a serious binge-drinking problem that he had hidden during the hiring process. With my husband traveling elsewhere in Africa most of the time and with me being the only other occupant in the house, Peter had quickly figured out that there really wasn't much for him to do. But when there was work to do, Peter was often drunk (a happy drunk, but still drunk) or nursing a hangover. Even the Labor Board rep had said I should fire Peter.

But every time I came close to doing so, Mama Mary, his senior wife, would show up at the house, holding a fat, gurgling baby. Mama Mary couldn't have children. She had "disappeared" for nine months, only to re-appear with this baby. Peter told me she had paid $200.00 for the baby, which, they then said was Peter's child, and, so, legally it was. This news, of course, shocked me...because the baby wasn't adopted; the child, a girl, had been bought outright. Peter said buying a boy would be too much. (Another gasp!) But the deed was done, a common deed in parts of Africa I soon learned, and Mama Mary would plead with me not to fire Peter because he really did send money to his family.

I knew this to be true and, so, Peter remained (my husband agreed, for work was difficiult to find, with so many dependent upon a paycheck) and life went on...until Peter couldn't resist that never knew when this would happen...two days later...two weeks later...three months later...and the cycle would begin again.

Peter also possessed one of those upbeat, happy personalities that could sell snow to an Eskimo. He was smart, very smart, and could solve problems/resolve situations (that seem to abound in Africa) with efficiency and diplomacy. And not just for my husband and me. He had a reputation among the Kenyans as a fair, honest person, so much so that they often forgave him individual loans for changa, the local, potent brew, that Peter had run up. Everyone recognized Peter's problem which was, in essence, Africa's problem. But we'll talk about that another day.

In the meantime, Peter's personality was such that when I asked him what he wanted for Christmas, his answer really, really surprised me.