According to a Belgian friend who has lived here for the past eight years, the only way to go in Rwanda is to get staff to manage your staff. That is to say, your guards, your housekeeper, your cook, your gardener, your driver, and so on get really unwieldy and can’t all be trusted, and the solution is to hire someone trustworthy who speaks a bit of English or French to oversee the laboring masses. Think “Downton Abbey Does the Tropics.” It’s the quintessential colonial approach to “surviving” life in Africa, but then, our friend also thinks you need one car for driving around town, and another for trips further afield. Your mileage may vary.
As I mentioned earlier, houses in the affluent/muzungu neighborhoods all come with massive gates and expectations of a 24/7 live-in guard. This guard is also your general errand-boy: he’ll go pay the power bill, buy vegetables at the local market, trim the hedges, and wash the car (obsessively; daily, inside-and-out). If you’re a bit more paranoid, you’ll have two guards — a night guard, who supposedly is awake and alert at night and patrols the premises, and a day guard, who lets visitors in and out and mans the defenses while you’re out and about. Your day guard lives in a small shack at the back of the house with his own little kitchen/bathroom setup. If you’re generous, he gets one day off a month to go visit his family. You can expect to pay somewhere around $100 and up for a guard, a bit more if he speaks some decent English or French.
The rest of the laundry list of hired help is optional, and we’ve opted not to hire a cook, a cleaner, a nose picker or court jester. I find the whole thing vaguely offensive. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate that if I leave my mountain bike in the driveway for more than 10 minutes after a ride it will magically be cleaned, or that there isn’t something appealing about someone else answering when the doorbell rings. But still, other than doing our part to employ a fraction of the millions of people here, the whole idea of “staff” seems terribly decadent to me.
At the equivalent of $1300 a year, our guard, John, is making more than twice the average annual income for Rwanda, so in a weird way he’s well off. He’s eager to learn English, and Lisa has started teaching him. And yet, even though he could obviously up and quit tomorrow if he so desired, there’s still a nasty tinge of indentured slave labor to his situation. And last but not least, there’s the uneasy balance of trust vs. temptation: how strong is your loyalty to your rich, white employers and all their expensive toys that you’re supposed to be guarding while they spend more just on dining out in a week than you make in a month? Some people are hardcore and maintain a strict division between the “outdoor staff” who are not allowed inside the house (typically, your guard and gardener types) and your indoor staff (cooks, cleaners) who are allowed inside, but are then supposedly monitored in their coming and goings by your outside staff. Divide and conquer. Orwell would be so proud.
It’s not that I don’t trust John, but there’s always the question of quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Which brings us back to our Belgian friend and his trusted overseer…
Meanwhile, a certain 13-year-old spends an incredible amount of time “driving” around our driveway, getting acquainted with the odd ways of a clutch and manual gear shift. Not sure what this does for the resale value of our decrepit old RAV4, but it’s hard to argue with someone who looks as happy behind the wheel as he does.