In Rwanda culture, a standard for most homes includes having a house girl or house boy help with weekly chores, and also for a guard to patrol the property at night. So, a portion of my monthly rent in Kigali goes toward the salaries of one house girl and a guard named Frank.
Frank keeps our house safe at night. From Sunday through Saturday, he sits at his guard post between sundown to sunup regulating our gate and keeping watch over the property. Frank wears a blue uniform with tall black boots and a baseball cap that my roommates occasionally borrow while intoxicated on the weekends (we recently bought him an extra hat as a gift for his good spirits). Frank keeps the gate locked every hour he’s on duty, so even my roommates and I cannot get in without knocking on the metal door. He takes his job seriously, and I like that when it involves my safety.
Frank only speaks Kinyarwanda, French and the English word “yes.” When he opens the gate for me to enter or exit, I say “Bonsoir, Frank! Merci” (Good evening, Frank! Thank you), usually with a smile to let him know I appreciate his work.
“Yes!” is always his reply.
Our house girl, Liliose, while no older than any of my roommates, acts like a mother figure to us in many ways. She runs the home, making sure the seven of us living here have everything we need and are well taken care of. She hand washes our laundry, cooks breakfast and dinner, makes our beds, cleans the floors, tends to the garden and ensures a pot of hot water is boiling every time she knows people are home.
Liliose speaks Kinyarwanda and limited English. I do not know much about her personal life, but I know she loves to blast the radio and sing loudly when she thinks no one is around. She giggles a lot and goes above and beyond her call of duty at work. Last month, when I moved to a new closet-less room in the house, she spent the afternoon taking care of the issue. She hung a sheet down one wall and hammered nails in horizontal rows across it (as if making a pegboard). When, I arrived home from work, all my clothes and shoes hung neatly from the nails, illustrating a colorful cloth display. She’s a creative one, that Liliose, as I had planned to just live out of my suitcase for my remaining month in Rwanda.
To have another person tend to my every need and pick up my messes has been an odd concept for me to grasp. I grew up in a society where daily chores correlate with independence. I live permanently in a U.S. city where I carry mace on a key chain and my wallet behind several zippers even during the day. My parents taught me to take care of myself – and others – whether it means carrying a guest’s dishes to the sink, or looking out for my own safety.
But, don’t get me wrong – just because I learned to do my own laundry doesn’t mean it gets done on an even nearly regular basis. I have had more clean clothes in Rwanda than I have ever had back in the States.
I do not know where Frank or Liliose come from before their shifts, or where they leave to when they go. In over two months, I have had few conversations with either of them. But, I have interacted with both more regularly than I have many others. They are an integral part of my daily life, and I appreciate the ways they make the sometimes stressful parts of Rwanda significantly easier.
My house helpers do not get enough credit. Nor do most of the house helpers around Rwanda. But, Frank and Liliose are two of the most special people to me here – not because they clean up after me, or make me feel safe. But, because they work harder and more diligently than most other people I have met in Rwanda. They protect our house on the hill. And, they do a damn good job at it.