Our Collective Sin

In light of AWiB’s much-awaited season of recognizing and celebrating women of excellence, I decided to write about women who reside in almost every middle- and upper-class household in Addis Ababa and elsewhere — our housemaids. These women wake up before dawn to prepare breakfast and lunch boxes for our family members and spend their entire days chopping, kneading, and cleaning, often under the gaze of our scolding eyes with no praise and recognition of their hard work. We usually know them on a first-name basis or maybe where they are from, but that’s about it. Because after all the goal is for them to come to know our preferences, dislikes, and idiosyncrasies, and serve us accordingly. In fact, in most households, these women are often viewed as one-fourth humans and three-fourth robots who are specifically designed to serve our needs while we and our kids march toward our dreams and purposes: going to school, making money, making friends, meeting friends, nourishing our talents, in short, living our lives.

However, if God forbid, they display some interest in wanting to “live their lives” say, for instance, going to school at night, most employers sour their faces. “These women are never interested in learning, they just want to go to school to meet men,” is a typical remark I used to hear from people. Of course, this twisted reasoning alone, with which I suppose we soothe our guilt, if any, is an apt demonstration of the level of dignity we ascribe to people of lesser status and prestige. Because after all, what is wrong with wanting to find friends and potential life partners? But the uncomfortable truth is that no one wants to admit the fact that the reason why we invest our money and every ounce of our energy into our kids’ lives and their futures is because we firmly believe that our children’s lives are worthy and irreplaceable while our maids are…hmm dispensable? Sadly, these are also the people who claim to fervently and unequivocally believe in the view that all humans are worthy and equal in the eyes of God. Also sadly, I was one of those people.

From the time I was born, countless maids have come and gone in our house. As a result, growing up, my sister and I had never had to worry about packing our lunches or washing our school uniforms. Our mother, being the oldest girl in her family, bore the lion’s share of responsibility of taking care of her siblings during her childhood, as is common in most households. She never had the privilege to do what she loved the most: learning. So, when she had us at the age of 19 and 23, she ensured that our focus was solely on school.

I wish I could say that I have always been aware and grateful of my privileges. But that’s the thing about privileges, right? They often remain unacknowledged until their absence jolts us awake. As a simple example, I never appreciated the freedom of speaking in one’s native tongue until I moved to the US and faced the ongoing, laborious task of having to translate all my thoughts into English. Further, because our privileges often allow us to be surrounded by even more privileged individuals and since we humans by our nature tend to compare ourselves with those who appear to be better than us, it’s unsurprising that we are often preoccupied with what we lack. The millionaires compare themselves with the billionaires while the homeowners lament their inability to afford vacation homes.

But here is an undeniable truth — neither my sister nor I contributed a single thing to being born to a loving mother who believed in education and could afford to send us to school. We simply happened to win the lottery of life, period. It’s rather easy to attribute all our successes and accomplishments to our hard work when in fact we are beneficiaries of a system that continues to reward the fortunate.

Written by: Feven Seifu

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