The Essentials of House Help in Senegal

There happens to be a lot of manual labor that is required for living a clean and orderly life in Senegal. And for those of us who have a full-time job, and our spouse would prefer not to be consumed every day with cooking and cleaning, we almost always come to the conclusion that having house help would be a welcome relief.

But what do we need to know about starting a relationship with hired help, whether that be a maid, a nanny, a driver, a guard, or a cook? What do we need to know about cultural nuances? What is an appropriate salary? Should I be expected to sign a contract, and what kind of benefits would they be expecting? Can I trust them in my home? What kind of products do we need, and where do we get them?

This article will give you all the basics you need to know before hiring your domestic help:

  • Cultural Awareness & Understanding your Staff;

  • Finding Help;

  • Negotiating Salary;

  • Contracts & Benefits;

  • Your Pets;

  • Safety Measures;

  • What to do in the case of theft;

  • When and how to let someone go.

Cultural Awareness

Most of us who come to live in Senegal have never had anyone help out with the housework. Unless we come from wealthy families, most Americans and Europeans do not have “house help.” In fact, for most of us, this is stigmatized ; for us, the thinking is that most adults should be capable of keeping things clean, cooking, dusting, and more – right? (In the U.S., there is even extra layer of sensitivity to our dark past involving ‘unhired help.’)

However, when we arrive in Senegal and try to set up a life here, we realize that life is….well…harder to keep clean than we are used to.

The Harmattan dust, wind from the ocean and sand throughout the city, Sahelian surroundings, and not-so-airtight window and door construction, seems to leave our houses messier than before we cleaned it. Leaving your house for 2-3 days without sweeping, mopping, and dusting, makes for a pretty messy house. Cockroaches are quick to enter the home, and are hard to eradicate. Not to mention that much of the cleaning is by hand; as most homes do not have a washing machine installed, and most do not have a dishwasher. If you are lucky to have a brand new, modern home, there is a small chance you have these appliances installed, but they are usually small and not of lasting quality. (Using multiple appliances also puts a burden on the standard electricity allowance in the home, which can cause circuit breaks, high electricity bills, and fried machines.)

In short, this requires lots of manual labor to keep your home clean – which is not what we are used to, nor what many of us are used to spending this much time maintaining. So most of us eventually come to the conclusion that we’ll need to hire some local help.

The Senegalese, however, have an unavoidable, ubiquitous, if sometimes torrid relationship with their house help. Maids are an integral part of everyday life, and have been for generations. Nearly every family, rich or poor, has help. Large families often have 2-3 maids, and many families have live-in help who sleep in the home.

In the best of cases, maids become part of the family (although it takes years to earn this standing). In the worst of cases, there can be theft (most common), lateness and lack of quality work, drag-out fights between the maid and the Mrs. that occasionally spill into the street, illicit sexual relations between female staff and the men of the house, unpaid wages, child abuse, and more.

Girls who are destined to be nannies and/or maids, are educated by their mothers and female caregivers to be subservient, quiet, and submissive to their bosses, and to stay out of their way. They are told specifically not to make eye contact, to make themselves sparse, not to smile or make small talk. They should stay in the kitchen or out of the way of guests. They should curtsey when they give their boss water or juice, and answer respectfully when spoken to. They should never protest or ask questions. This is considered respectful in Senegal, and a maid who knows her place in a family this way earns their trust over time and can begin to open up. This is sometimes mistaken by foreigners as “having an attitude problem,” or “not being friendly,” when in reality acting “friendly” by our standards is considered presumptuous and rude.

If an employer tries to be funny, silly, or open with them from the beginning, this can lead them to think you are being too “lenient,” or that you are naïve, and that you would “miss” certain things from happening. A certain level of respectful distance at the beginning keeps a healthy amount of respect between you; a distance which that can be eroded naturally and organically over time.

While most of us wish to have a positive experience with our house help, it is important to know what most staff – especially maids – are used to, with previous families they have worked for.

Engaging with household staff is a delicate affaire, which requires a sensitivity to the culture, ways to let them earn their trust, measures in place to protect yourself, all the while being understanding and patient.

Understanding Your Staff

Where do they come from? Knowing how to properly manage the people who work in your home is always easier when you have an idea of what their lives are like, outside of working for you. Living in a country with such a wide wage gap requires sensitivity to other people’s realities – and sensitivity to the burdens of their lives, can put you in a better position to have a good relationship with them.

The women and men who search for low-skilled jobs like cleaning, cooking, caring for children, and driving (yes – it is relatively easy to get a driver’s license in Senegal – FYI, they do not have to be literate, they can take the test orally!), live in relatively similar circumstances.

The neighborhoods are typically far from the main areas where they work, and you live, (Almadies-Ngor, Virage, Ouakam, Mamelles, Mermoz, Point E, Fann Residence, and Plateau) – and getting farther. They live in places like Geudjawaye, Keur Massar, Pikine – or within downtown, like Grand Dakar, Grand Yoff, Mariste, Parcelles, Liberte 6, Djeuppel, and other lower income, crowded areas of the city.

Family life is hectic, crowded, often multiple generations and extended family, adopted children, and visitors from other cities, living under the same roof. Most people are not working, and those who are, working long hours early in the morning or late at night. When they come home, there is often more work to be done around their own house, before they can relax. Income insecurity is a daily reality. People getting sick, most often means there is no money for even basic healthcare. There are often many children; some who go to school, and many who don’t. The children are only lightly supervised; as people sell items on the side of the street, do laundry, do the cooking, and more. Much of the time, the houses they live in are not structurally sound 100%; ceilings are rotting, there is little to no drainage, there has been no upkeep over the decades. With the first heavy rain, many of these homes risk the roof falling in or flooding entering the home. There is therefore a huge temptation to steal, as you can well imagine, given the scarcity of things like children’s clothes, nice quality curtains, jewelry, perfume, shoes, and more. We will talk about managing this risk later on.

With all the people in the home, there is often drama, fighting, jealousy, and other sources of stress that can accompany your staff to your home – so they can seem upset, distant, or stressed out, and this may seem like a “bad mood” to someone who may not know what they are going through at home.

The best time of the year they look forward to is the holidays; which, although financially stressful (most people borrow money for the holidays), this is the one time they get to dress up in something fancy and new, wear makeup, eat a delicious dish, visit friends, and escape the drudgery of everyday life. That’s why holidays are such a big deal in Senegal.