Why house girls are a threat to the economy

The streets of Nairobi
The two major threats to the Kenyan economy are weather and politics. Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth since independence, takes a nosedive just before the polls and after a drought.

Since the end of the cold war in the early 1990s, external factors have gained more prominence. The rise of China, American election and Brexit have implications on our economy. There are less obvious threats to our economy, much closer home. May be the Swahili saying, “Kikulacho ki nguoni mwako” makes economic sense.

National statistics like GDP growth rates do not capture all the economic activities. One of them is house work, done by either housewives but more generally by house helps, given derogatory names ayahs. In other countries, they are called domestic workers, highly respected and well paid. The labour laws recently tried to fix the minimum wages for such workers. An interesting move because, domestic workers are so available that their wages remain low- courtesy of supply versus demand relationship.

The elite can afford such helps. For the vast majority, bringing up kids is hard work, with mothers taking the lion’s share of the job. Few African men help in that work, but it is changing. Occasionally older siblings help in bringing up kids. Those who can afford to hire house helps are happy, lots of drudgery is removed from their back. Clothes are washed, food cooked, house cleaned and other tasks done as the need arises.

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Economists will quickly suggest that hiring such workers releases the employer to do higher value jobs. An engineer working for two hours designing the next generation of cars should not spend two hours mopping the house or changing diapers. That is the narrow view on house girls. The truth is that house girls are a threat to the economy, worse than drought or threat of political violence.

Think loudly. We seem to never get enough of USA, after Obama, we are now hooked to Trump. We never get tired of watching their movies. We copied their constitution and give our babies their names. Yet we have never imported America’s protestant work ethics, the belief that work is Godly.

Americans work and Kenyans who live there know it. The American economy is built on protestant work ethics (PWE). America is a superpower not because of nuclear bombs, but for the sweat of its citizens and must add immigrants. Does protestant work ethics appear anywhere in our syllabus?

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Back to house girls, helps. By having one in the house, kids grow up thinking that work is evil; someone has to work for them. They learn to be pampered.

Their work is to enjoy life, watch TV, eat and make fun. The disdain for work goes beyond home to school. Why else is tuition and cheating so popular in school. The same thinking goes to work place. Kids wonder as they grow up why they have to work, when someone can be paid to work for them. Kids start reasoning early. Even in relationships, they want to be pampered. How can an economy grow when no one want to work?

Private investors in education realized there is money in pampering kids, carrying on from where the house girl stopped. They open high cost private schools, which mimic life at home. No wonder they never burn dorms. Remember the affluent, often the influential, can afford house helps. Once the kids mature and do not perform as expected in school (because they hate work, particularly maths), they can be “fixed” into jobs both in private and public sector.

Protected by influence, they continue slowing down the economy by not working. The kids who learnt to work because they had no house girl are sidelined. It becomes worse when those who never learnt to work are given higher responsibilities. Do I say more?

It becomes more interesting. Some kids learn that as adults, they do not need to work. They can live off the parents. How many parents give kids monthly allowances without working? They probably realise it’s too late to teach him or her how to work. The economic cost of idle adults is not had to measure.

The house help you hired innocently now threatens all your hard earned wealth and your progeny. You suddenly realise that none can be trusted to take care of your wealth. No wonder lots of protracted legal battles over wealth emerge after affluent people die. If the kids had learnt to work, they would probably not fight over wealth, they would have their own wealth or appreciate how it’s created.

Am I too hard on house girls? The work they do should be done by the kids themselves as soon as they are old enough to. By letting your kids learn to work, you will be investing in their future and in your peace of mind in old age.

One preacher recently put the issues in perspective. He argued persuasively that chicken are doing better than us in parenting. After sometime, they chase the chicks away forcing them to fend for themselves, after teaching them how to. We are failing to teach our kids how to fend for themselves. Going to school is not enough.

You may sweat, and get exhausted because you have no house girl. But that might be the best investment in your kids and the economy. Some parents (wazungus and Asians mostly) even stop working to bring up kids. Would you?

—The writer is senior lecturer, University of Nairobi. [email protected]

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