Things I’m learning in Uganda #6 – Community Trumps Supermom

I have a confession to make:  I have a full time househelp.  For those who may not know what that means, it means we have someone who works at the house Mon-Fri from 7:30am until 5pm and she cleans, does laundry, and helps with the cooking and shopping.  She also occasionally watches the children.
Our wonderful househelp Maureen, whom the kids adore

My Kenyan and Ugandan friends might be wondering why I am making that confession – what is the big deal?  Househelps are the norm not the exception here in Kampala, for local women as well as expatriates.

In the US, the ideal mother in our individualistic culture is the mom who can do it all, by herself – she can take care of the children patiently and lovingly, keep the house clean, keep the laundry done, and cook nutritious meals without help from anyone.  And possibly balance that with a full time or part time career.  Needing or asking for help, except during “extreme situations” like the birth of a new baby or during a medical crisis, is often seen as a sign of weakness. Many American women (myself included!) have a hard time asking for help because we feel like we “should” be able to do it all ourselves.
I’ve had two recent conversations with fellow Americans here in Uganda that reveal our strong bias toward the self sufficient woman, and our discomfort at having help.
One American commented how wonderful it is to have help around the house, but gave a guilty smile and commented that its not something she tells people about back home, as though it were something to feel ashamed or guilty about.  Another American mom  who I met briefly has an almost 2 year old and another baby on the way, and proudly declared that she doesn’t have a househelp (although they could easily afford one) because she can do it all herself.
In Ugandan culture, the ideal is not self sufficiency but community.  The ideal mother here would be surrounded by friends, relatives and paid help so that she can take care of her children, pursue her career, and manage her house well without becoming lonely or overly stressed.  Help is seen not as a sign of weakness, but as a blessing for both her and her children, as children benefit from being surrounded by extended family and loving significant adult relationships.In comparison to the American moms I mentioned above, a Kenyan friend living in Uganda is pregnant with her third child.  She is currently a stay at home mom, has a live in househelp, and hires another woman a few hours a week to help handwash the laundry.  She told us this without any hint of shame or guilt, but rather proudly and with gratitude that she is able to have support during this time of her life and take good care of herself and her family while she is expecting.supperAnother story illustrates this point as well – when Muigai’s dad passed away, one of my coworkers suggested we travel with Maureen to Kenya for her to help out with the children during the funeral and funeral preparations.  (Nathan is in the throes of separation anxiety and there are about 4 people in this world that he will stay with without screaming his head off).  My first thought was a defensive one: “Doesn’t she think I’m capable of handling my two children for a week in Kenya?  I can do this myself.”  But of course, her thinking was not that I couldn’t handle it myself, but that I shouldn’t have to handle it myself.  She knew it would be a stressful and emotional time for our family and knew that having a helping hand would be a blessing.  Ultimately, I did end up swallowing my pride and traveling with Maureen, and I was so incredibly grateful she was there.  The actual journey was not stressful (Muigai had left for Kenya immediately so I would have had to travel with both kids by myself), I was able to attend the committee meetings to plan the funeral without distractions, and I was able to be fully present at the funeral without chasing after the children.

I feel like this post is a little over simplified, since there are many other factors besides cultural values that come into play.  Help is more necessary here since housework takes more time – dishes are done by hand, many families do laundry by hand (although washing machines are becoming slightly more common in middle and upper middle class families), clothes are line dried and everything needs to be ironed (because of insects that can get onto drying laundry and burrow into skin), the dry, dusty weather and lack of air conditioners means that doors and windows are always open, so dusting must be done almost daily, and everything is cooked from scratch (convenience foods are rare and very expensive).And of course, there are many American women who do have good support systems and accept help without feeling guilty about it.  When we lived in the US, my mother was an incredible blessing and would often drive four hours in a day just to help out with the kids.  While she was visiting, she would often do some cleaning and bring food as well.  She stayed with us when Muigai left for Uganda a month ahead of us, and I always felt very grateful, not guilty, for the support that she gave us.Despite the oversimplifications, my main point in this post is to examine the core cultural ideals of self sufficiency vs community.  Of all the things I am learning here, this is one that I most want to “bring back” when we return to the US.  I hope to look for creative ways to support and be supported by other women, and to view asking for and receiving help not as a sign of weakness, but as an invitation to community.

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