Masters and Servants Abroad

If you’re going abroad to volunteer, including to places like India and Bangladesh and Ghana, you should have some awareness of the dynamics between your host family and their servant(s).

I recently came across a photo essay called Close Distance by Jannatul Mawa, a documentary photographer and social activist in Bangladesh. Mawa photographed more than a dozen housekeepers in Dhaka and their bosses as they sat side by side. The aim was to show the distance between the two people.

I don’t pretend to fully understand the relationship between a host family and their servant. But I know it is a very complex one. And it differs among countries; even within a country based on things like ethnicity, caste, geography etc.

First off all, you should understand that, while not every host family abroad has servants, many families do, even middle class ones.

The servants are usually young girls (some not even teenagers yet), from rural villages, who come to big cities like Delhi and Nairobi for one purpose — to earn money as housekeepers then send the cash back to their family in the village.

In Ghana in 2011 my host family in the capital city Accra had a 15-year old girl from their village (and “Ewe” tribe) who was their live-in housekeeper. She did all of the cooking, cleaning, laundry and watching the young children.

In exchange, the host family fed her and gave her a bed and would pay her medical bills if she ever got sick. Then, when she returned to the village the next year, the host family would be paying her high school tuition.

How are the servants treated?

Again, it’s complex. But for the most part, the servants are not treated like family members. They are there to work, and work extremely hard, from the crack of dawn until nighttime when all chores are done.

Some families beat their servants, thinking it will keep them in line and get the most work out of them. Other families treat their servants well — and include them on family outings, help them get an education and sometimes help the servant’s family back in the village.

For foreign volunteers and their program managers (like me), our natural instinct is to be friendly with the servants and chat them up.

How can you blame us? Most Americans of a certain age (like me) grew up watching the Brady Bunch with their beloved housekeeper Alice, who spent most of her time acting like a dear aunt to the kids and as a best friend to the kids’ mom.

But it’s best for you as a volunteer, and the servant of your host family, if you disavow yourself of the ‘beloved housekeeper” paradigm from our TV sitcoms when you’re in places like India and Nepal.

Tread lightly when you first move into the house. I suggest that at first you don’t even talk to the servant when the host mother is around. If the host mother hears her talking to you, the mother will assume that she’s hitting you up for money or otherwise saying something that will make you the guest uncomfortable.

And even thought it will take place out of your sight and hearing, the servant will likely endure a scolding and perhaps a physical beating from the host mom for “bothering” you at all.

Many-many host mothers have told me privately over the years — “If we the host family or the volunteers we host show affection to the servant, it will make them lazy and they won’t do their work properly.” [Translation: “They might get ideas!”]

Yep, that’s right. Once again, we find that this whole volunteering-abroad is more complicated that it may seem.