In Nairobi's middle-class neighbourhoods, there are certain zones where women wait for cleaning jobs from 'lazy' bachelors and working women. These job seekers are usually young, and a good number of them are mothers. A lot of them live in slums that flourish in high-end surroundings. Have you ever stopped to wonder what the lives of these women are like? What they have learned about the men and women they have worked for? What they are occasionally given to wash? What the men and women they work for put them through? We decided to find out what their world is all about and here is the report.
Ladies who want their panties to be washed
It is quite vexing, even dehumanising that some men and women give out their most intimate pieces of clothing to be washed by the women.
"What is most annoying is the habit where men and women give out their underwear or boxers and assume it is normal that we should wash them as well," Ruth Khaemba says. And what does she do with them? Initially, I would soak them in soap and just rinse them, but now I separate them and leave them there. I don't care whether they will call me for the next cleaning job or not," the 29-year-old mother of one says. She has been cleaning houses for more than five years in Donholm. And she believes she has seen it all.
"At one point a woman kicked me out of her house claiming that I was eyeing her husband."
But Ruth says she was not even thinking about it. "It so happened that when we were negotiating pay, the husband agreed to pay more than she had recommended and she suspected something."
"She complained that he was giving me too much. The husband said that I had done an excellent job. But the wife thought that I had not," she remembers.
Ruth and her friends have seen so much - there is never a dull moment in their lives, as they wait for the next job.
Walked in on two men making love
One of the women we spoke to claims to have once walked in two men making love and she was shocked. The men were equally dumbfounded. But they quickly composed themselves, and she decided to blackmail them. She was given a lot of cash to never mention the incident to anyone. She has kept part of the bargain, given she will not mention which neighbourhood it happened in. But some cleaning ladies offer extra services to men, especially bachelors in the city.
Enock Osumba* who works in the media and PR industry does not shy away from the fact that he has slept with his cleaning ladies, both young and old in his bachelor pad. And goes on to accuse many bachelors of doing the same.
"I think it is the norm, not the exception, especially for us guys on Thika Road in Zimmerman, Kahawa, Kasarani, Roysambu and Githurai," he reels off matter-of-factly.
However, bachelors and married women in the estates do not necessarily agree with his assertion.
"It is fairly common, but not as widespread as Enock would want you to believe," his friend counters during the interview.
Cleaning lady and amorous lover
Take Violet* a mother of two, for instance. Every morning, she wakes up and heads to a particular spot along Elgeyo Marakwet Road in Kilimani, where she and other women look for clients. One day, a man driving a top of the range car stopped and signalled her.
"At first he looked like someone who was asking for directions because here it is very rare for a man to ask for a cleaning lady. I went to him and he asked me how much I charge for washing," she begins.
"It depends on the number of clothes to be washed," she told him. The man said that he only had a few clothes but was willing to pay Sh1,000. This as a good offer since she was used to getting Sh200 to Sh300.
She jumped onto the back seat and they drove to Jamhuri. The man who she says was about 40 gave her some clothes, mostly jeans and tee shirts. She was done washing in less than two hours. Later, instead of Sh1000 as agreed earlier, the man gave her Sh2000.
As the man thanked her for her good work, he pulled her close and touched her inappropriately. She did not know what to do, given she had already taken the Sh2,000.
She explains, "What came to mind was the Sh 2000 he'd given me. I had not worked for it."
The man kissed her and said his name was Jose. She recalls him saying, 'Pole, but you are beautiful'. He asked her if she would come again. She agreed. Violet walked to Ngong Road and took a matatu to Kawangware where she lives. Violet explains that she wasn't sure if that man was married, but the house looked disorganised, an indication there wasn't a woman around. While the experience is tantamount to sexual harassment, the incident did not startle her. Fellow women who offer washing services have been enticed into sex and made good money in the process.
"When we sit waiting for clients, these are the stories we discuss and laugh about. We say that as long as the men agree to safe sex, and there is good money involved, we will play the game well," she discloses.
Indeed after a week, Violet called Jose to ask if there was some work to do. He told her to go to his house after three days. And when she went, there were only two pairs of trousers and three shirts. Most of the clothes had been washed. The man was upbeat and engaged her in lively chit-chat. After she washed the clothes, he asked her to prepare lunch -rice and beef stew. After lunch, he seduced her.
"For a moment, I didn't know what to do. But having heard about it from my friends, I knew it was a matter time," she says, adding "I would have avoided it that first time but I thought about the money and the situation."
By agreeing to sleep with him, she left Sh3,000 richer. And that has been her story for the greater part of the year. She claims to have been pushed into moonlighting as a sex worker because her husband has neglected her and taken to drinking in Kawangware. Violet claims she's the one paying fees for her two children, one in Class Two and the other in nursery.
Be my wife briefly
Mildred cleans her boss's house in Lavington twice a week. The man has another live-in house help. One day she arrived to find that the woman of the house had travelled to Eldoret with the children and their regular house help. She found the compound unusually quiet and when she knocked, it was the man of the house who came to open the main door. She inquired where the others were and was told they had travelled the previous day. The man went back to his bedroom while she washed the utensils they had used the previous night. Since there wasn't a lot of work, Mildred decided to go back to their 'waiting area' and try her luck elsewhere. But before she left, she knocked on the man's door and asked for her day's pay. The man opened the door in a nightgown and asked how much. She told him it was Sh200. Mildred says the man seemed to hesitate a bit.
He then promised to pay her more if she agreed to be his wife briefly. Mildred got shocked and was lost for words. "We stood at the door to his bedroom for almost 30 minutes as he pleaded with me to 'keep him warm'," she recalls.
Then the man took his phone and started searching for something. He asked her to give him her contact. She did. Then out of the blue, an MPESA message showed up on Mildred's phone. The man had sent her Sh1,500.
"Your problem is that you are not telling me how much you want. I would have given you exactly what you want," he said. "Add me Sh1,000, or Sh2,000 or any amount you feel suits me," Mildred found herself answering.
This time, the man went for his wallet and fished out Sh2000 in cash and gave it her. She gave in. The man did not stop there. Since then he's been inviting her to his house when his wife is away. At one time, he took her to a lodging when his wife was around. Mildred, a single mother of a five-year-old son says she doesn't regret having an affair with this rich man. "He gives me good money," she says. She still works at the house, but his wife has no idea what is going on."
The two women promise to go on with these affairs as long as the men continue to pay them.
Some bachelors, however, have paid for their shameless ways when their cleaning ladies cum lovers pilfer valuables from their houses and vanish never to be seen again.
"One once stole almost Sh14,000 from me. I would never have known given the money was in my coat," one bachelor who declined to be named explains.
"You cannot trust them entirely. They have a habit of stealing small but valuable things, so you must be extremely cautious when dealing with them," he warns.