Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Things That Make You Go WTH

"I'm taking what they giving cause I'm working for a living."
     -Huey Lewis

I hope you are not too disappointed to find that this post isn't about our trip. I will continue to share our amazing adventures in Botswana and Zambia shortly. 

I once read that one of the hardest parts of expat life is being a "fish out of water." This means that when you live in your home country, you are used to your surroundings. You may not like everything that you see and experience but it's the way it's always been so much goes unnoticed.

When you move to a new country the water that surrounds you (remember you're pretending to be a fish) is different and you notice everything. Living in South Africa a lot of what I notice is sad and puzzling. I often see things and think that I understand the situation but I also doubt my conclusions because I'm not from here and what do I know? 

This week, we are having the exterior of our house painted. As it is the outside that is being painted the workers are not in my way but I do feel inconvenienced as I feel I need to be home while they are here working. The reason is the bathroom. I am worried that these guys will need to use the bathroom and I can't leave the house unlocked if I am not here because of the millions of horror stories I have heard about theft and crime. As head of Ops I am responsible for keeping the house safe and secure. Mr. Deep does not want to come home and find that his computer has been stolen because I found it necessary to run out to get my nails done.

It is awkward to have people working at the house and to behave in such a manner that clearly illustrates that I don't trust them. When I want to leave the house I go outside and tell the workers that I am leaving and that I have to lock the door and ask them if any of them want to use the bathroom before I go. I think part of the reason I didn't have children is because I don't find enjoyment in asking people if they want to use the bathroom. It's just not a fun conversation.

Today I was out for three hours and while I was gone I was worried about the workers and the bathroom situation even though I gave everyone fair warning before I left. Also, because I've been on this planet for 45 years I know that most men don't really care if there is a bathroom around if you know what I mean. And it's not like we have a huge garden/lawn where someone could walk a few meters away from the house and use a tree. If someone is "going" outside they are still near the house so my concern is partially selfish.

Back in the USA I did not give two seconds of thought to workers and their bathroom needs. Most of the time when we were having projects done at home I was at work myself and I didn't even see the workers except maybe to let them in each morning. I don't remember if I was concerned about people stealing. Maybe I took the time to hide a few valuables or to lock certain rooms? One big difference is that in U.S. workers would arrive at the house by car so they could come and go as they pleased throughout the day. If they were working outside and no one was home and the house was locked they could get in their cars and go somewhere to use the bathroom or get water or food or whatever. The painters working at my house here are dropped off in the morning and picked up in the afternoon by their boss They have no transportation. My bathroom is their only option.

When I first arrived in Joburg, I assumed that people who had proper jobs were quite fortunate given the high unemployment rate in the country. To clarify by proper job I don't mean Christine's part time job cleaning my house twice a week and I don't mean car guards who work for tips and have to pay for the privilege of working. By proper job I mean guys like painters, full time domestic workers, security guards, etc. However what I have come to learn is that most of these people are still painfully poor even though they appear to have
"good jobs."

There is a security guard who works in our complex who lives in a shack without electricity, heat or running water. Maybe it is his choice to live this way so he can send the maximum amount of money he earns home to his wife and two kids who live in another province but it is shocking to realize that someone with a seemingly coveted full time job finds it necessary to live in such conditions. Also, I am willing to bet I am the only resident who knows where he lives. Because I think I might be the only one who ever asked him. 

There is also a gardener who works across the street at a neighbor's house (not the neighbors whose house went to on Christmas Day, another house) and I often see him standing on a garbage pail (the kind with a big lid that is on wheels) to reach the top of the small trees that he is trimming. More than once I thought about offering him a step ladder to use. I have to assume that the people he works for don't know that he stands on the pail for surely they would agree that it is incredibly unsafe.  Or maybe they do know and they just don't care.

In addition to the bathroom situation I feel sorry for the guys painting our house because of their equipment. One of their ladders seems to be held together with wire and fabric and their broom, while not unsafe, it just pitiful. Is the painting business so slow that a new broom cannot be purchased? 

The reason I am writing this post now is because a few days ago I came home and saw the painters sitting out front taking a lunch break. Only they weren't eating. It certainly could be that they had already eaten but there was no sign of food and I hadn't seen any of them eat or drink anything on any of the days prior. So I offered them some food and they accepted. As desperate and poor as these guys are I think that if they had already eaten they would have declined the food but they accepted it and so I kept bringing out more and they ate it all. And from then on each day I have been giving them lunch because I personally can't imagine going all day without eating. 

And because I'm a fish out of water I can't help thinking that I could be wrong about all of this as everyone else is going about their business acting like everything is fine. Does the painting boss not know or not care that his guys don't eat during the day? Does he think the ladder is fine and is proud of the efforts to make it last? Or maybe the guys had already eaten and they were just being polite. Or maybe they eat a big breakfast and like to skip lunch and now they are annoyed because I keep feeding them and they are feeling sluggish all afternoon? Maybe it's fine to stand on a garbage can if you have good balance and have been doing so for years without incident? Maybe the security guard is happy to live in a shack? Or, maybe the workers are starving and scared that the ladder is going to break one day. Maybe the security guard is miserable and freezing. Perhaps the gardener will be injured one day when he falls from the can. I'll just keep swimming. 


  1. Posting this on my FB page. I found it very thought provoking but also funny. I must admit I never pondered the bathroom situation of workers at the house quite as thoroughly as you have. But these are all very valid points. I think you might be the only one even offering your house toilet to domestic workers. I do recall that I once saw a worker being led around the corner to use my domestic's bathroom, and I found that disturbing, as of course I would have offered him the house bathroom, but my domestic apparently didn't think it was appropriate. Reminded me of scenes in "The Help." Which I was reminded of often while living in SA.

    1. Your comment has got me thinking that I don't have domestic quarters in my house and maybe that is what a lot of people do in this situation. The workers use the bathroom in the domestic quarters. Yes, I am often reminded of "The Help" as well.

  2. Now that you are giving them something to eat and drink, they will need to use the bathroom more often. By being hungry they are probably more alert to balance themselves on their ladder. I think you better build a bathroom on the outside of your house, like an outhouse or have a portable toilet delivered when you have work done on the outside. Just a thought . . .


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Hello and thank you for taking an interest in my blog. This blog tells the story of some big life changes. First, my husband and I have just moved to Geneva, Switzerland for a few months following a few years of living in Johannesburg, South Africa. The two places could not be more different. I'm excited to share our adventures, challenges and insights with you! My thoughts and opinions are my own.