Caution: This is a really long story – especially because we haven’t heard Internet working in three days - which I wrote more for myself than anyone else. If you want all the gory details, literally, then read the Long Version, but I am not offended in the least if you just read the Short Version and move on with your day.
Last week we had two incidents with Ida that helped us decide finally to let her go. First she asked us for a lot of money (again) and then she used poor judgment while watching Grace for a few minutes. We let her go on Monday morning; initially she took the news somewhat well (whatever that means) but then a very strange series of events occurred in which she started a huge fight with Charles to try and get him fired; she tried to take a lot of our stuff with her and actually succeeded in taking a few things (luckily, I was able to get them back from her). It was stressful and awkward and bizarre and, thank God, is now over. Even though we feel bad about letting her go, she was not a good fit for us and we feel really relieved not to have to deal with her anymore, especially after seeing that side of her yesterday. Our instincts to not trust her with Grace were spot on. And, since we’ve let her go, we’ve heard from two of our neighbors that their staff reported that Ida will not be missed because she was very rude and snobby to everyone on the compound.
If you’ve been reading this blog for the last few months, you already know that Kristoffer and I have been struggling with our housekeeper, Ida. Being an African woman – a single mother at that – is probably one of the most difficult things to be in the world and we have tried to be empathetic in that regard, but still we have had a hard time communicating with her, an even harder time trusting her, and have generally been stressed out by her. I say the word “we” lightly, because Kristoffer has not had that much to do with her and mostly these issues are mine.
Last Thursday was a particularly tough day for us. Ida first asked me for a Ksh. 60,000 loan, which is about US$800. This was upsetting because when we had a big meeting before our summer travel I specifically told her not to ask us for more money. To date she still hadn’t paid off the much smaller loan we gave her and we told both of our employees not to ask us for any more loans. When I reminded her of this, sounding like a rich, white b@#$! to a Kenyan I’m sure, she said she thought this was different because she really needs the money and she cried a lot and tried to make me feel very guilty (which worked to some extent). I told her we would definitely not give her a loan for that amount but that I would talk to Kristoffer and see if we could come up with some smaller amount, although I tried to stress that she shouldn’t count on it. We have to pay our rent 3 months at a time (due this week!) and so money is a little tight right now.
That was Episode 1. Episode 2 happened later that day. I was scheduled to tutor the boy across the street for just 30 minutes. I left Grace – freshly napped – in our house with Ida. I am across the street tutoring and 15 minutes into it I hear a cry outside. I assumed it wasn’t Grace because it was not a familiar cry and there is another baby on our compound. A few minutes later the boy’ sister comes running upstairs screaming “Lisa! Your baby needs you!” The cry was in fact Grace and by the time I got downstairs and outside Ida was at the door with Grace: bright red, screaming like she has never screamed before, hyperventilating, and shaking all over. It took me several minutes to calm her down enough to feed her and then another 25 minutes before she stopped shaking and returned to her normal breathing. What happened?!
Ida had taken Grace to another neighbor’s house to visit their housekeeper – who I will call J; Ida had done the same thing last week and J scared Grace because she talks really loudly (unusual for a Kenyan) and Grace doesn’t like loud noises. But Ida gave Grace to J on Thursday again and J started dancing around and singing loudly while holding Grace. Grace got so scared that she started screaming in fear, etc. I asked Ida why she would bring Grace to J if Grace was scared of her the last time and she said she didn’t really know. I told her that from now on she should not leave the house or our yard with Grace, which was very upsetting to Ida. This incident bothered me more than usual because I have never seen Grace in such a state and Ida clearly showed poor judgment.
Kristoffer came home and was really sad to hear both of these stories from me. We decided – after much discussion – that we would let Ida go. We have been debating it for months and I think these two were the straws that broke the proverbial camel’s back. Given all of the problems we have had, the only reason NOT to fire Ida would be because it will be awkward and uncomfortable. We decided not to wait any longer and to let her go on Monday.
I didn’t sleep much Sunday night because I had the biggest knot in my stomach. It doesn’t feel good to know you are going to turn someone’s life and stability upside down, especially a Kenyan whose life is difficult already. I could never be in a position to fire people on a regular basis! Kristoffer stayed home later than usual on Monday morning and when Ida came in we asked her to sit down with us. We had planned what we were going to say ahead of time and I started by telling her that we appreciated the work she had done for us, we think she is a nice woman, and we wished nothing but the best for her and her family BUT we have decided not to employ a full-time housekeeper anymore and so she would no longer be working for us.
She took the news much better than I expected her to – she is often crying about something and so I expected tears right away, but they didn’t come. She asked if there was anything specific she should know that she did wrong and we honestly told her that we truly believe there is a family out there that will be a better fit for her and that we just aren’t cut out for having full time help. I was just not going to get into every complaint we had about her because at that point it didn’t really matter. She also apologized for asking for the loan last week – suspecting that is why we were letting her go – but I thought it was interesting that it didn’t occur to her that the incident with Grace was a factor too (and the biggest factor at that!). We explained to her the severance pay we would give her and also told her that we will put up something at the UN bulletin board to help her get another job. That all seemed to go fine. She told us that she worked harder for us than any other family she ever worked for and that she has no regrets and leaves feeling good because she knows she did a great job. Maybe we disagreed, but what could we say? We said thank you. She said she believes that when one door closes another one will open which had better be true because how else will she pay her rent and feed her children? We said that we believed and hoped for the same thing.
Then Ida says, “There is one thing I need to tell you…” and proceeds to say that our driver, Charles, has been verbally abusing her for months. That he calls her bad names, makes fun of her, puts her down, has a very bad temper and gets angry with her. We were shocked. We had specifically told her when we hired her that if she ever had a problem with Charles, to tell us right away so we could sort it out (and we told him the same thing). She said she was afraid of losing her job if she told us but that we should know for the future if we hire someone else that he is abusive. That was really weird!
We told her to pack up her personal belongings and when Charles got back from taking Kristoffer to work, he would drive her home. Kristoffer told Charles that Ida was getting another job (trying to be diplomatic b/c we weren’t really sure about her accusations) and to be very nice to her today. Ok.
After a little while I heard so much noise coming from Ida’s quarters and wondered what she was doing. I went outside and realized that she was planning to take EVERYTHING with her: all of the furniture we bought for her rooms was taken apart (table, chairs, bed, mattress, shelves), all of the dishes we bought for her to use, all of the food, the stove and even the gas cylinder. I told her that we bought those things for her to use but that they didn’t belong to her. Then she started to cry. GREAT – now I am even more evil than I already was! I also asked her for both sets of keys to her rooms and she gave me one set saying the other set was in the house. I told her that I didn’t see the other set anywhere.
Charles came back and Ida started loading her things into the car. Then she came running in the house hysterically crying saying “Charles threatened me! He said that the next time he sees me I will be picking up his children’s trash and that I am worthless. Do something!” Ok. This was more than I bargained for. I went outside and said, “Charles, Ida says you aren’t speaking very nicely to her,” to which he replied, “Madame, she said something to me. She barked at me to open up the car for her but she knows how to do it.” Ida then started yelling and crying with more accusations against Charles, including that he told her he is the one who got us to fire her (which would be a silly thing for Charles to tell her since it is not true). He tried to defend himself, “Ida, why are you telling these lies to Madame?” She just kept saying the same things over and over again and crying.
In my great wisdom (not) I decided that Charles could not drive Ida home for the next hour because who knows what would go down. I called a taxi driver we know and he came right away to take her home. I gave Ida her severance and all of the documents she had given us when we hired her (certificates of courses, letters of recommendation, etc.). She said she was grateful for the kitchen class we gave her, the water filter we bought her family, and the opportunity to work for her. She said she really didn’t like being a housekeeper (no kidding!) and that she would prefer to be an ayah (nanny) so she hoped we could find someone to hire her. The missing set of keys mysteriously appeared on the kitchen counter – was she planning to take them?!?! I checked her room to see that she hadn’t taken anything; I asked about the food and she said that she and Charles split it in half. Grace started to cry a lot and needed to eat so I didn’t check the rooms that carefully; I paid the taxi driver, gave her a hug (weird!) and she left.
After Ida left I went back to check the rooms again now that Grace wasn’t crying and realized she did take the rug, the curtains and some of our pots. I called her and said, “Ida, did you take….?” She said she forgot to put them back and would send them back with the taxi. Ok. Then Charles asks if he can talk to me. He said he was very upset about what happened in the morning, that he really thought that he and Ida were friends, and that he definitely never spoke to her in a mean way. They ate lunch together and laughed together every day and until that morning he could never say a bad thing about her. But after their fight and before Ida left, Charles admitted that he asked her again, “Ida, why are you doing this?” He claims that she replied, “Just wait, even you…they will put you out next week. You’ll be next.” And, she lied to me about the staff food because she took all of it and left nothing for Charles.
My theory of all this situation is that yes, she was angry about losing her job and yes, she feels desperate about her situation, but even more so I think she knew all along that the two of them made the same salary and she felt like Charles didn’t do as much as work as she did and so that was unfair. I think that misery loves company and if she was going down she wanted to bring him with her. Sigh. Kristoffer says that we can never be truly sure who is telling the truth but our instinct is to believe Charles, who we have known longer than Ida and who has never given us reason to distrust him. Charles also thanked me for sending her home in a taxi because he was nervous about taking her home alone and having her “call her people to do some mischief”, which means he was afraid she was going to have people ‘jack the car or beat him up. All of her strange behavior that morning really affirmed our decision to fire her; we know for sure that she was not the right help for us.
All of this was EXHAUSTING and stressful, I assure you. Now that I am a real housewife – not just a stay at home mom! – I need to plan for how to get things done like laundry, dish washing, cleaning, and cooking with a baby who demands a lot of attention! We are thinking of hiring someone part time – like 4 days a week/not-live-in to help around the house and provide a few hours of babysitting when I tutor. We have learned a lot from this experience with Ida and next time, I assure you, we will be more careful about who we hire as well as what expectations, boundaries and precedents we set for them from the beginning.
AND...since we let Ida go on Monday we have now heard from two of our neighbors that their personnel gave less than flattering accounts of Ida’s time here. The driver across the street reported that Ida treated Charles terribly the whole time she worked for us, that she refused to say hello or anything to other staff or the guards on the compound, and that she generally carried herself as if she thought she was better than everyone else. Another staff person told her boss that Ida came from a family that had some money and earlier in her life she drank a lot and was very promiscuous so her family abandoned her. She was not raised to work hard, didn’t know how to work hard, and had no intention of working hard. In fact, this person said that Ida told her, “I don’t want to cook for them, I don’t want to clean for them, I just want to hold their baby.” Sheesh! It really appears that we were bamboozled…or at least it took us way to long to really listen to our instincts.
The guards on our compound have been instructed not to let her back on the premises should she show up and we have decided that in good conscience we can not recommend her to anyone else for employment. Let’s hope the situatin is over at last.
p.s. We have not had working internet for 3 days which is why this blog is soo long...I've been writing it and adding to it since Monday morning!