Friday, January 18, 2008

Srey Mach

For ages I have said I will write about Srey Mach (pronounced Sray Might), our beautiful and brilliant house-help. Well today is the day. As I write this she is lying in the hammock with Bella singing I Wish You a Merry Christmas. I keep telling her that it is January and we have to put the carols away for next year, but it isn’t going in.

In the Telegraph article,
Baby is on Board , I wrote about how I succumbed to the ex-pat tradition of employing household staff. It only took me two weeks of chasing after ants, running away from cockroaches, daily sweaty slogs to the market, sweeping, mopping, sweeping, half day excursions to pay bills, sweeping, and all in a climate akin to a Swedish steam room, to grasp that there really was no other option if I was ever going to achieve anything in my life.

Even though Srey Mach comes every morning, I still find housework an on-going battle in this country. Just as we sit down to do a puzzle, or I get settled for a feed, I realise I haven’t cleaned up the juice on the floor which is attracting three different kinds of ants or I need to kill the mosquito biting my leg, or that I am breaking into a sweat by sitting still because I forgot to put the fan on. And then of course I need to find paper weights pretty quick as Jemima’s freshly painted paper flies about the room.

Just as we are all ready to leave the house (and you know how long that takes) I notice I have forgotten to clean the highchair. I notice this because, as I am closing the front door I see a long line of ants (sorry to keep on mentioning the little buggers) trooping in and out, whispering ‘mango and banana, at twelve o’clock’ to each other as they pass. I clean it up, try to live with the fact that I, wearing Bella, am now saturated with sweat and could really do with another shower, and call Jemima.

“Right, I really am ready this time. Let’s go!” I hear myself saying about ten times a day. Inevitably, Jemima is not. Tired of waiting, she is changing her clothes, lost in a game or has changed her mind about going out altogether. So! Anyone who has the same high-minded principles, about not employing household staff to do your dirty work, as I had, before living this life for myself, might want to avoid airing them here. I warn you, after a day of all of the above, and the heat to boot, I can become very foul-mouthed.

Seriously, I did a lot of soul-searching before I decided to employ Srey Mach. I knew I would be (mostly) lovely to work for and give a decent salary, perks, rests etc, but I wondered whether these well-paid jobs as domestic staff for expats are stopping people from getting a good education and a better job with less pay? Very possibly, although nearly all my friends pay for their staff’s education. The reason Srey Mach only works mornings, despite being on a full-time salary, is because I discovered that, at 23, she still has four years of high school to finish. We offered to pay for this and then realised that of course she would have to attend! Which meant afternoons off work. Actually I much prefer this because, despite everything I say above, I want a normal life and I want to be at home alone with the kids in the afternoons. There must be a lot of expat kids who have never cooked a meal or had to put away their own toys. I enjoy making dinner with Jemima and am currently trying to gently teach her that she needs to help me clean up afterwards:-)

But is it immoral to have someone else do my cleaning? Especially here where it immediately takes on a colonial feel - white woman drinks tea while brown girl cleans the loo. I don’t know. I used to clean other peoples’ loos when I was a student and I didn’t mind. So I just make sure Srey Mach knows that I did the same as she is doing now once and that she and I are entirely equal. Oh, and cleaning the poo off Bella’s nappies is my job.

No, I think the biggest issue is that Srey Mach comes to my house every day and sees how we live and how much money we spend on things. In England at least my cleaner (if I could afford one) would be spending the same on food, household things etc as I would. Here expats live on a different level to local people when it comes to eating western food, buying furniture, coffees etc. I am constantly aware that Srey Mach’s salary, while appropriate to the Cambodian economy, and much higher than a locally paid salary, is still mere pocket money to most westerners. The very fact that I say I can afford help here and not at home is the thing I find most shameful and confusing. Should I be paying her a western salary? If the answer is yes then we would not be able to employ her at all, as we ourselves earn way below the minimum wage in Britain right now. Or would paying her that much be distorting the local economy even more?

My answer to all this is simply to accept that I could not live here (away from all family support and close friends) if I had to spend my days tied to the house, with no time for my children let alone writing or voluntary work. So either we go home or we try to be good employers, offer proper contracts, health insurance etc etc. It took me a while but I have finally admitted to myself that in Cambodia, I could not do without Srey Mach!

She wears Bella to market everyday giving me valuable writing time. She keeps the house manageable and the fridge always full of fruit salad. She pays our bills (wearing Bella) and kills cockroaches for me while I perch pathetically on the kitchen table. I trust her with my children, and, while I would never consider having a full-time nanny raising my girls (I struggle enough with Jemima being at school and under someone else’s influence for a few hours each day – two days back after the holidays and she is calling everyone poo again. Grrr), I consider Srey Mach's help and time with my children as a pretty good replacement for the kind of family support I might get if I were living back home and able to ask sisters and grandparents for some help.

But there is a much bigger reason why we could not do without Srey Mach. We are undoubtedly her last priority, and it drives me crazy on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. But when she tells me why she is late (she stopped to help a man who had malaria and had collapsed in the street dropping his money everywhere), why she forgot my change/keys/to pay the electricity bill (she slept at a friend’s last night because her crazy cousin who lives next door - the drug-selling, violent one who is out on bail - was threatening her with a machete), or why she lost the $100 for said bill (she was followed home and mugged), I can only agree. We should be her last priority, quite frankly! And before you ask, it is all true. If we did doubt her - which we just never have, something about the way she tells it all and just knowing who she is – we are very welcome to go to the hospital where she took the sick man, ask the motodup driver, visit her house, meet her cousin… I’ve met his sister now I come to think of it. She stole my engagement ring when I let her come and learn from watching Srey Mach work. I always wonder how much she got for it because the diamonds are fake! (I did not want conflict diamonds.)

Srey Mach has a big heart, is always trying to help people, and has a life that is unimaginably stressful. I suppose her situation is a microcosm of this traumatised country we live in. There is nothing unusual about Srey Mach in Cambodia, which just makes it even sadder.

Her father died when she was a child, and one brother died a few years later. As a result of this she has been working since she was a teenager, first in a sweatshop, before finding her first expat job for a lovely friend of mine, who basically trained her, taught her English and is probably, no definitely, largely responsible for turning her into the somewhat feisty young woman that she has become today.

Srey Mach lives with her mother, two brothers (Visnar, our night guard, and another who is more or less wheelchair bound after a motorbike accident) and one sister. Until recently her other brother and his wife and four children also lived with them and made her life hell. One of the children stole from her, her brother threatened her and spent all her hard earned money on gambling, and the wife was just unpleasant and did nothing to help around the house. They eventually left, only after Srey Mach’s mother gave them $1000, their share of the value of the house. Srey Mach came to the house at midnight one day in tears asking us for the money because her brother had threatened to kill her if she did not pay him. “He told me he did not care how I got it, I could sell my body for all he cared.”

Her family sagas continue. Each week she reveals bits of information which horrify me and make me wonder how she manages to keep it together at all. She seems to be one of the few members of her family who is honest, hard-working and trying to make something of her life. I’ve a good feeling we will always support Srey Mach in someway or other. She is pretty much family after all. Now I had better go and show her this and make sure she does not mind me publishing it!

Have a great weekend all.

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