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ceding culinary control

After holding out for the better part of ten months, S finally gave in and decided to hire a cook. It was a difficult step to take – not just because S loves to cook, but also because she is particular about her food. For instance, she usually scans her favorite recipe blogs before going grocery shopping so that she can prepare specific dishes during the course of the week. It was, however, a necessary step. In contrast to her previous job at the Embassy, S now has to contend with massive traffic jams during her commute to work downtown. She found that there literally were not enough hours in the day for her to work, study Russian, and also cook.

One of the perks of living in Africa is that S’s dilemma had an easy, practical solution. Many families employ cooks, so all S had to do was look in the Embassy newsletter, where house staff advertise their services. Having house help is a natural part of daily life here – and not just for the expat community. Kenyans likewise hire housekeepers, cooks, and ayahs. Even those families that are not well-to-do will employ someone – even if it’s just a younger female relative – to help around the house and look after children. If one is well-off, hiring house staff is the expected societald norm; as we certainly fit that definition by Kenyan standards, we would be considered extremely peculiar if we did not.

This facet of life is at times hard to explain to those who have never lived in Africa. In fact, the orientation materials handed out to newcomers by the CLO include a whole chapter on how to explain this situation to friends and how to overcome the unease some families experience when hiring house staff. Our friend Cam exhibited an inkling of the white guilt that is at the root of this unease during our stay in Tiwi, referring to the staff at the beach house we rented as ‘servants’ and feeling a bit uncomfortable in his interactions with them. The distinction is not mere semantics. In a country where the unemployment rate exceeds 40% and where more than half the population lives on less than two dollars per day, one should hardly be faulted for offering steady, non-exploitative employment.

Having someone help prepare meals has definitely helped reduce S’s stress level and has generally improved our quality of life. Unlike the first woman we tried to hire, who thankfully opted to work full-time for another family, Emily is great – both in terms of her attitude and her cooking skills. Even so, it’s been difficult to get S to disengage and give up culinary control. Emily works for us two afternoons a week. The rest of the week, she works part-time for several other families, all of whom are only too happy to cede their kitchens and eat whatever Emily chooses to prepare for them. By contrast, S still plans the meals and does all the shopping. Not only does she leave Emily specific recipes, but she also texts her detailed lists of ingredients and supervises her cookery if she gets home early enough. With the exception of one meal that did not turn out exactly quite as we had anticipated, Emily has been superb, which hopefully means that S will learn to get out of the kitchen.

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