African Library: Intimate Strangers

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Intimate Strangers
Francis Nyamnjoh


Francis Nyamnjoh is probably better known in his academic capacity as a leading professor of social anthropology and a prolific author of scholarly publications with past appointments at universities in Cameroon (his birthplace) and Botswana and with CODESRIA in Dakar, before his present appointment as HOD at the University of Cape Town, although he has a steady, and by now substantial, output as a novelist (writing in English). His eight novels to date are listed as “ethnographic novels” on his UCT web page.

Intimate Strangers is a text in which connections with and a basis in social anthropological research are highly evident – indeed, the entire framework is that of a research project undertaken in Botswana by an American academic with roots in Cameroon. (Although Nyamnjoh prefers to refer to the country as Mimboland in his fiction, it is a very thinly veiled allusion to his motherland.)

The title, which might seem to suggest that this is an African Mills & Boon romance, alludes to the topic of the study undertaken in Botswana by Dr Winter-Bottom Nanny, described as “a middle-aged African-American woman who had traced her descent to the Tikar of Mimboland through DNA [who] came from the USA to do research on the relationship between maids and their employers in Africa”. She is referred to as “a world expert in the matter [who] needed the African reality to complete her understanding” (19). Dr Winter-Bottom Nanny is in many ways more of a framing device than a character; it is the focus of her chosen research that determines the nature of the very large number of mini-narratives or profiles (almost all of these being detailed reminiscences about relationships between female employers and female domestic employees) which are piled one on another in the course of this quite lengthy work of 327 pages.

Though the subject might seem very similar, the style of Nyamnjoh’s text (in its generally anecdotal format and the chattiness of the discourse) differs strongly from the more evidently analytical approach of Jacklyn Cock’s well-known study Maids and Madams (of which there are two editions with different subtitles, the earlier dated 1980 and the later and shorter one 1989). Partly this is a matter of choice of presentation and format and partly because Nyamnjoh evokes the fieldwork stage where the various informants are interviewed and recorded, in contrast with the focus on the later stage of the resulting analytical conclusions in Cock’s text, and partly it reflects the different contexts – postcolonial Botswana in Nyamnjoh’s book and apartheid-era South Africa in Cock’s.

Intimate Strangers has a huge “cast” of spokeswomen (hardly any male informants feature as the subjects of the interviews) representing a variety of national origins ranging from African countries to the USA and different European areas. The interviews are conducted with employers of domestic workers and with women working as maids; also with a staff member at a human rights-focused NGO that has a programme focused on Botswanan domestic workers. More employers than maids are the interviewees in the sequence of “reports” on relationships in the domestic work environment. Few of the employers are white, reflecting the increasing embourgeoisement of cosmopolitan urban African families. Along with this one needs to remember – although the point is not made explicitly in the text – that (given the American identity of the researcher) the necessary restriction of the interview medium to the English language limits and shapes the kinds of informants who can be consulted. Many of the interviewees have a connection to the local university known in the text by the acronym DUST (for Diamond University of Science and Technology). The acronym may contain some kind of sly mockery, as perhaps does the name of the researcher (Winter-Bottom Nanny), which might be an echo of the colonial officer Winterbottom featured in Achebe’s Arrow of God and his tendency to misunderstand African conditions about which he fancies himself knowledgeable. Giving his characters odd names seems to be a quirk of Nyamnjoh’s, alleviating excessive seriousness.

The nominal main character is Immaculate, a young Mimbolander who came to Botswana in an attempt to get a visa that would allow her to join her fiancé in the USA. She is both heartbroken and stranded when her attempt fails and he makes this a reason for ending their engagement. For Immaculate, the opportunity of well-paid employment by Dr Winter-Bottom Nanny (as her research assistant) is a godsend and she throws herself heart and soul into the project. Interestingly (and reflecting a typical and widespread academic hierarchy), we never learn Immaculate’s surname, nor do we find out what Dr Winter-Bottom Nanny’s first name is.

Immaculate opens the text by announcing that she has spent thirteen years in Botswana. Her “story” (which is quite sketchily told in the opening section and resumed post-project at the end of the text) gives the book a light “autobiographical” frame, although even the details of aspects of Immaculate’s life have an anthropological flavour. She has never worked as a maid, but we see that as a new entrant to the Botswanan economy and society she has a keen eye for telling detail.

Some of her initial experiences are quite disconcerting. At her first place of employment,

[d]uring lunchtime no Batswana would sit with me. I had two friends, boys, Zimbabweans. One was 22 years old, the other 23 and a half and I was 24. These were the only people I could talk with. The only people I could share food with. If I tried to greet in Batswana, they would speak to me in Setswana. I didn’t know there was any African who could not at least speak and understand a bit of English. [….] At 10 o’clock, teatime, the tea girls would say, “Ah! Let that Mokwerekwere come and make her own tea.” When I got there to make tea, they would say, “Don’t put too much sugar.” (2)

These rather unwelcoming and xenophobic attitudes, unpleasant as they are, nevertheless fail to make Immaculate give up her dreams and her determination to succeed in the new country. Luckily, too, she encounters one extremely warm-hearted local woman (significantly named Angel!) who gives her free accommodation when she loses her job and her lodgings. Angel refuses to take her on as a domestic worker, even though she makes a sincere offer to be Angel’s maid. She assures Immaculate that what she needs is “someone to talk to in the evenings” (13), as she is a single woman, and it becomes clear that Angel fears that professionalising and hierarchising their pleasantly equal relationship would sour it.

Dr John-Strong Long-Bottom, a professor at DUST, is the academic connection in Botswana who is recommended to Dr Winter-Bottom Nanny by a cousin of his, an exiled Tikar from Mimboland who is her colleague in the USA. Long-Bottom being away at the time, it is his Mimboland lover Evodia Skatta who recommends Immaculate to Dr Winter-Bottom Nanny as a Mimbolander and a Tikar who has some local knowledge and is friends with many maids. To make sure that Immaculate is the right person for the job, Dr Winter-Bottom Nanny first subjects her to an extensive personal interview in which she asks her probing questions about almost every aspect of her life and recent experiences in Botswana. “At times,” says Immaculate, “I felt like thanking her and walking away, but recalled her introductory statement about how the work was so important and the pay good, that she absolutely wanted the best woman for the job” (19). So Immaculate endures the probing and slowly begins to respect her prospective employer’s academic integrity and the trustworthiness of her assurances of confidentiality. Immaculate pronounces her verdict on the local context in the course of their interview. “Botswana is not a bad place,” she says; “politically, it’s peaceful” (24). However, she adds to this that “socially, it’s bad here. AIDS is everywhere. … It scares me” (25). She declares:

Batswana men, they are not responsible. They are not responsible in the sense that if their women are bad, they have made their women be bad. If a woman tries to persevere in a relationship and she realises she is not happy, there is no love, there is no relationship, how will she stay faithful? [….] We foreigners always say Batswana women like to be single. I believe men have made them single because they don’t want to take responsibility. When a woman tries by herself and she doesn’t make it, she looks for a man to assist her economically. In many instances, she has been left with a child. On the surface, it seems like women are bad people. The majority of men do not like to take responsibility, and when it comes to sex, they want to be in control, even when they know there is a deadly infection about. (25)

In a citation like this, even though comments similar to it have often been broadcast, one begins to see some of the more problematic aspects of a text like Intimate Strangers emerging. The charges made against “Batswana men”, while not unheard of, are made about men of many other nationalities. Recorded here as an opinion (and that of a non-local woman), it is neither subject to social scientific analysis (as in being cross-checked or recognised as a subjective, isolated opinion), nor is it located in the complex web of a novel where good writers such as Bessie Head or Unity Dow would balance this kind of portrait with those of good and profoundly responsible Batswana men. Still, Immaculate’s comments have anecdotal force and convey the accumulated indignation of many, many African women, Batswanan ones among them, as in the following passage:

A man says, “I want to marry you. Why are you refusing to have sex with me flesh to flesh?” “Ok,” you say, “let’s go for a test.” He says, “It means you don’t love me.” A woman who wants a little excitement in her love life or who wants to also say, “I am Mrs So and So” might accept, and then after a couple of years, she is terminally ill. [….] So I think social life here is not good. It’s not. [….] I talk with people every day, so I see these things.” (25)

What begins to emerge in the course of the text is that even a predominantly “female” terrain, like relationships between “maids and madams”, inevitably impinges upon other relationship matters, particularly (in this text, where there is no mention of gay people or relationships) marriage or other intimate heterosexual relationships. And because the text consists to the extent that it does of women’s talk and their strongly held opinions, there is a lot of “male blame”. Many of the women interviewed contrast Batswana men (who are, besides being labelled irresponsible, said to be crude and lacking refinement or sophistication in initiating intimate relationships or making approaches to women) with “foreign” men of various kinds, but especially whites, who are said to make the effort to expend “TLC” (tender loving care) on the women to whom they are married, or with whom they have relationships.

To return to the text’s main focus: a good starting point is “the very first interview” that Immaculate transcribed, which she describes as “one of my favourites”. It is with Dr Winter-Bottom Nanny’s own maid, “a Zimbabwean named Amalion” (43), a good choice, because (even more than Batswana men’s conduct) the behaviour as maids of Zimbabwean women (who seem to be the majority of maids in Gaborone) is a constantly recurring topic of conversation in the interviews. And if it does not arise spontaneously, Dr Nanny raises the topic with her interviewees. Saying that she arrived at the beginning of 1997, Amalion states that she came to Botswana “because back in Zimbabwe there was nothing. There was drought and no food. There was no work.” She adds: “And the government was a mother hen who had abandoned her chicks” (43). Amalion does not believe that the employers who treat maids well can be distinguished along racial lines from those who treat them badly, stating sensibly: “There’s no difference between a black and a white heart, either can be good or bad” (43). Her opinions concerning Indian employers are strongly negative, however (and are confirmed in various other interviews): she believes that Indian employers tend to exploit and overwork their domestic employees and either underpay them or refuse payment altogether. The latter is a problem which the Zimbabwean maids who are illegal immigrants in Botswana (of which there are very many) also have with other employers (such as Batswana, not often with whites, it seems). The problem arises because the maids who do not “have papers” have no legal recourse; if they go to the police to report employers for defaulting on payment, they are likely to be told that they should not be there in the first place and have only themselves to blame; they are also quite likely to be arrested and deported from Botswana on such occasions. Batswana employers may even (according to Amalion) call the police at the month-end when payment is due and tell them to take the domestic off their property for allegedly causing “trouble” (46).

Dr Nanny is already aware of the reputation Zimbabwean maids have (besides being hard workers) of being inclined to steal from their employers. She asks Amalion whether this might be described as almost a type of “insurance policy” on the part of the maids, who know they run the risk of being ejected without pay. Amalion replies that it is indeed the case that when an employer suspiciously “postpones” payment, the maid would be inclined to take items from the household to the value of the money owed to her, or more, as compensation or punishment for the defaulting employer, adding: “As madams misbehave, so do maids avenge the abuse” (46).

Interestingly, Amalion reveals that she has sent her passport back to Zimbabwe as she has already far outstayed the three days’ legal stay originally allotted to her. She explains that if caught with her passport she would be liable to a ten-Pula fine for every day of illegal residence. Without a passport they could only deport her and so this even becomes a way to get free transport home (say at Christmas time, but not too close to it!), only to return illegally once the home visit is over. The timing is important since arrest too close to Christmas would cost one spending the festive season in a holding cell, she says, even though treatment is not brutal. Wearing the badge of the ZCC (Zion Christian Church with its headquarters in South Africa) helps her and protects her from arrest on the streets, Amalion believes.

As the tape rolls on, Immaculate ironically hears Dr Nanny complaining to a caller from the USA that the sense of luxury of having a maid for the first time in her life has worn off, and that she has begun to resent the invasion of her private life and space!

One fairly early interview is with Mrs Mirabelle Wangui, “a secondary school teacher of Kenyan origin also studying part time at the university” (63). She reports on the problems she ran into with an initially satisfactory maid, an older (local) woman who took the job but then balked at aspects of it, such as doing washing in a household not equipped with a washing machine. She was succeeded by a younger, “jolly” woman, also local, but in her case exploitative use of the telephone and a string of boyfriends coming to visit during her working hours compromised her initial efficiency. Then Mrs Wangui employed an older Zimbabwean lady, but she soon noticed that pilfering was going on – dresses, shirts, disappearing, so she too had to be sacked. Because of this, Mrs Wangui says, she decided subsequently to employ maids on a part-time basis only, as a more efficient and less troublesome working arrangement. Mrs Wangui also raises the problem (seen, again, from the female employer’s perspective) of younger maids wearing provocatively short clothing and seeming to angle for the sexual attention of the employer’s partner or husband, though she balances this point with the recognition of occasional cruel or unjust treatment by the employer, whose partner’s sympathy for the maid might arise from this, or who may feel that the maid has become the true provider of meals in the home.

This discussion leads yet again to the issue of the “sexual manners” of Batswana men (their alleged lack of finesse in approaching a woman), and to various inter-ethnic and inter-racial perceptions and stereotypes – positive as well as negative – being aired.

Occasionally in Nyamnjoh’s text he sounds what may come across as a slightly apologetic note to readers more accustomed to single, complex narratives between the covers of a novel-length text, in contrast with the rather large number of interviews presented in series format in Intimate Strangers . One such “occasion” is the following:

“Only when one understands the nature of research,” so claims Dr Nanny, “can one understand the need to ask the same questions to each and every interviewee, even at the risk of appearing [apparent?] repetitiveness and [being?] boring.” She was reacting to a remark I [Immaculate] made, wondering if it was necessary to ask exactly the same questions every time we interviewed someone. I had my reservations, but I was equally aware of my position as a research assistant. (81)

This is followed by a further critical comment by Immaculate, when she states at a slightly later point:

I observed how Dr Nanny, not often though, seemed to manoeuvre her informants into a certain position. In wanting to confirm her own understanding, was she influencing their opinions? Were they just giving the answers they thought she wanted to hear? When I asked her about this later, she said you sometimes have to challenge your informants by putting the evidence there on the table for them. (90)

While this source of potential tension seems interesting, it is in no way developed into an exploration of the complexities of the relationship between the researcher and her assistant. Perhaps in a novel the assistant might have been presented as a local person differing in culture, ethnicity, gender or class from the employing chief researcher, and other complicating details might not only have added plot interest but yielded insight into the local community. Here, it is only a point briefly mentioned, as if a concession to a possible critical assessment of the research methodology’s affecting the results. To complement such critical remarks, it must be added that a number of the interviews actually turn into lively conversations, with vivid pen sketches of the interviewees’ personalities and social roles.

One of the few men interviewed is a young Malawian assistant lecturer at the Department of Social Sciences, Julius Settle. He flummoxes the local people because he has learnt to speak Setswana fluently – they don’t know whether to “categorise [him] as a typical Makwerekwere or as a wanna-be Motswana”! Among locals, he says, Malawians have the reputation of “being friendly and being easy to move into compliance” (138) – without indicating whether he considers himself as fitting the bill, or being asked about it by Dr Nanny. As a social scientist, this young man outlines relationships between locals and members of the Asian expatriate community, saying that because of cultural prejudices on both sides hardly any such relationships exist – or succeed, on the few occasions that they are attempted. Some local men, he says, think they could get rich by marrying Indian women, but the locals have almost entirely negative attitudes towards Chinese people.

When Dr Nanny has an interview with a staff member of the leading human rights NGO in Botswana (named God’s Tear) she concentrates on the fact that the organisation has a special project focused on domestic employees, but that on the local radio station it advertises meetings which are held in Setswana, thus attracting exclusively Batswana women, most of them more elderly. Marvellous Faith (as the staff member is unblinkingly named) stands her ground under Dr Nanny’s rather aggressive questioning as to why God’s Tear does not make its services more accessible to Zimbabwean maids without papers, who are in far greater danger of human rights abuses than the local ladies. Marvellous Faith ably defends their organisation’s work, saying that they assist countless Zimbabwean refugees, but have not specifically focused on those among them who work as maids. Dr Nanny persists in her challenging attitude, observing that the view that is seen as comprising “the bigger picture often depends on the sensitivity of your camera lens” (168) and that the “too bad, the world’s never just” attitude will leave those whose needs are unattended to, “in tears” – naughtily punning on the name of the NGO and its implicit promise.

One of the Batswana interviewees is a lecturer at DUST named Dr Beauty: a stylish and accomplished woman who (not long after a particularly worthwhile interview) is subsequently appointed as the Minister of State for Higher Education. On the point that only foreign and no Batswana men show the proverbial TLC towards women, Dr Beauty has an interesting response:

We have heard stories of white men, especially British and American white men who marry Batswana girls. They behave very nicely to them when they are here. When they take them back home, they change and they become normal. Which means when they were here, they were not normal. They could not afford to take their women for granted because they were living with them as daughters of the soil. A foreigner living here wants acceptance. He is lonely and there are no support persons around. So this local girlfriend is the only person on whom he has to focus, and she brings him the confidence and visibility he needs to survive and excel in a foreign environment. Whereas for the Motswana man, the wife is there, especially when he is already married, and he is a son of the soil. As a daughter of the soil, and she won’t go anywhere. So there is a possibility that there is some taking for granted going on. (214)

It seems these astute comments do not square with Dr Nanny’s views, so she responds by remarking “That’s confusing to me[,] I must confess” (214). Especially noteworthy is perhaps Dr Beauty’s notion of what is considered “normal” in the behaviour of partners or husbands towards “their women”!

Immaculate’s friend and benefactor, Angel, also a Motswana (as was mentioned) provides a rich and lengthy interview, bringing up the issue of maids who, if older Motswana women, will tend to become “bossy” (her word) towards her, the employer, full of demands and refusals that are hard to handle. Another maid was even found to have abused her small children both verbally and physically – pinching them on their soles and palms, where the working mother would be unlikely to notice any marks (191). She also relates the devastating experience of her employment of an older local woman as a maid – a person who started criticising her, the employer, as failing in her wifely duties towards her husband, only to have her mother-in-law (and later, even her husband) joining forces against her by taking this maid’s side when she eventually calls the police to help her to oust the woman after she refused to vacate the premises subsequent to being fired from the job. Predictably, this was the major factor in her divorce, followed by other unpleasant experiences with other maids, on whom she was dependent for looking after her children while she worked.

Mrs Sebese Sebeso is another DUST academic and also a local; a former employer of maids when her children were small. The interview with this motherly woman is one of the longer ones. She, too, mentions the problem of maids’ boyfriends coming to visit them in the employers’ homes, although judging it an inevitability, considering that the maids, too, must and do have their own social lives. Her comment on Angel’s terrible experience of the maid as a major factor in the marital rift is, however, that that was a case of the mother-in-law interfering in a situation that would otherwise have been resolved more satisfactorily. Like that of others, her image of Zimbabwean maids is that they are particularly hardworking and that they “will do their level best” because “they cannot afford to lose any job, as their lives depend on it” (239). An additional comment Mrs Sebeso makes on Batswana society is that there is a deep longing among women for being given a greater say in their marital affairs and other matters by their husbands.

A Mrs Happy Karabogo, who is completing her doctorate at a British university, confirms that maids do generally prefer to work for “Lekgoa” (whites) rather than Batswana employers: the work for whites is perceived as both lighter and better remunerated. She also bemoans the hold that the maids’ boyfriends exert over them, even giving up lucrative employment opportunities because the boyfriends want to keep them close and perpetually “available” to themselves, rather than allowing the maids to develop their own careers.

Another (Nigerian) informant, a Mrs Amina Oga Yorigbo, employed in an American NGO (named Bot-Home-Care) for HIV/AIDS victims, refers to a “maid market” in Lesotho. She adds:

I think historically, in the whole of the southern African region, blacks are migrant labour. The maid market in Lesotho is not only for maids to work in Lesotho, it is exporting maids to South Africa. It was not only miners who went to South Africa; […] an entire population of maids […] went there as well. In Johannesburg and everywhere, if I visit most of my South African friends, and even well placed foreigners, their maids are from Lesotho. (284)

Mrs Oga Yorigbo seems strangely unaware of how close to the discourse of slavery her expression “exporting maids” is – she even describes Lesotho as “one of the high producers of maids” (284). On the other hand, this interviewee is adamant that in cases where husbands succumb to the sexual charms of housemaids, “[w]hen the two primary parties [the wife and husband] lay the blame on a third party, they are going for a soft target” (287), thus condemning “blame-the-maid” parlance.

The final interviewee featured in the text (as an employer of maids) is Dr Daisy Zambezi Moyo, a Zimbabwean academic in her home country whom the interviewers encounter at the airport. She is on her way to participate in a Cape Town conference on “Rights of the African Woman: From Sister Talk to Sister Work” (293). She describes her upbringing in a family that rapidly lost a decent social position because of political tensions and how she was reduced to the position of an “unpaid servant” in her uncle’s household, working alongside the paid help and sharing blame – often for minor transgressions or by way of unjust accusations. Dr Moyo explains that this bitter background made her extremely scrupulous about treating any maid she employed not only fairly, but with respect. All the same, she too had experiences of manipulative and dishonest maids, saying of one woman who stole from her that “[s]he was rather good at human psychology”, although in the end “it was tiring keeping up with her little plots.” The description of how Dr Moyo says this is amusing: “She laughed a disciplined laugh, tinged with both anger and admiration” (297).

The last two chapters of the text, when on a return visit Dr Nanny gives Immaculate a copy of the book that resulted from the research, seem to diverge oddly from the topics raised in the main body of the work. In this section, Immaculate describes at length her romantic misadventures with a strange and abusive Motswana man, a person she believes has bewitched her – an account that falsifies all the feminist principles established earlier in the text.

All in all, Intimate Strangers is certainly worth reading, but requires a patient reader willing to make concessions to a text that remains on the social surface of things rather than revealing profound truths.


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