When I first moved in to my new home, I met the people living on the compound with me: my landlord, his sister, his brother, and a 16 year old girl named Wubit. Or maybe it’s Wudit. I’ve asked about 100 times, but I still don’t know- it’s a nickname either way. Her history is also a bit of mystery to me. What was made clear was that she was the seratenya. My landlord, who’s English is very good, introduced her as the servant.
Seratenya really translates to something like “helper.” There are all sorts of jobs with seratenya in the title- like secretaries, accountants etc. But a compound/household seratenya is really a cross between a maid, a cook, and a guard, so basically yes, a servant. Having a servant in America is jarring- you employ a butler (rare), or a cook (I wish), or a weekly cleaning service (more normal), but to call someone a servant has so many connotations, most of them conjuring up a Downton Abbey-esque existence with tumultuous social conditions and giant mansions.
But here, the concept of a servant is commonplace, expected, even positive. If you live in a grand estate in Ethiopia, you have a seratenya (or 5). If you live in a mud hut in a village and have 15 children and are barely working class, you also have a seratenya.
The path of a seratenya is varied. Many work for extended family members. Nieces and nephews come in from the rural countryside (from that family of 15) and work for their more situated relatives who may be teachers or shop owners. Usually a girl comes to work in the house, and a boy might be a farm hand. Many of our host families employed seratenyas. Mine did not, but much of the work was done by the oldest daughter—a substitute seratenya. Others are hired from agencies, or through networks (social capital!) of people who know people who need servants or are looking for work. Many Ethiopians also go abroad to work as household servants for families who will pay them five times as much in Dubai, Abudabi, and Saudi Arabia.
This is Wubit’s story, from what I gather of our extremely broken conversations. She has no English, I have minimal Amharic, but I try to talk with her, mostly because she’s the one who’s always around. The only time she leaves the compound is to go to the market or to take night classes.
Wubit is from a village east of Gondar in the Woldia region (I think), which is about an eight hour drive from here. She came to Gondar to work when she was 14 and is not related to my landlord’s family. Her daily duties include cooking meals, washing clothes, cleaning dishes, and general household upkeep. She sleeps on a mattress on the floor in a small room that also doubles as the pantry. She is the last one to go to bed, after she lets the guard dog off the leash, and the first one awake to make breakfast for the others in the compound. She had never been to school before, and started to take extension (night and weekend) classes when she came to Gondar. She is 16 years old and now in Grade 2.
Sometimes she shows me her exercise book, which is full of notes of new English words that she cannot read. The education system here is very much done by rote, a topic for another time, and so she copies things off the board she does not understand. But it is impressive that she continues to study and attend class when she started so far behind and probably will stay in the housework industry until she gets married, and then will still do housework. But this is an advantage of the system. Young girls who would not be able to go to school living in the countryside (either because they help at home, it is expensive or too far away, they get married young, or their brothers are already going and so why bother?) They now have the opportunity to take alternative education classes in the towns where they come to work. It is hard. Their days are filled with chores and responsibilities, and education is only valued by some of the population, one of whom is my landlord, which I appreciate.
But sometimes these girls are easy targets for other fates: trafficking, sexual exploitation or abuse, especially the ones who go abroad. But the lure of high pay tends to trump these worries. Many of these women come from Muslim communities in the east part of the country because the cultural ties are stronger to head to the Middle East.
Labour here is cheap, and people need jobs. In fact, in a town where the average “ferenji” is a doctor or university professor and making a foreign salary it is somewhat expected that I would have my own seratenya. I have been approached multiple times on the street with offers by women to do my laundry, and neighbors have asked who cooks for me. A single woman who works and runs her own home is fairly rare. Even single women who do not work employ servants, and single men, if they don’t live with family, absolutely do. Some volunteers do hire someone to do their laundry every couple weeks, or cook a meal here or there. The monthly cost would be the same as one nice meal out here.
Male volunteers face this question more than most. Friends of mine who loved to cook in America get some weird looks when they make their own meals and do their own laundry. Half of it is gender roles, but the other half is the same associations I get- that you are foreign, ipso facto you are rich, so why don’t you employ someone? But even though I am not “rich,” I could still afford a seratenya at the labor rates here.
For now I like to do my chores on my own if only to prove a stubborn independent American point, though after a year of hand washing my clothes I may sing a different tune. But for better or worse seratenyas become a member of the family. Chores are done by women together. A few weeks ago everyone on my compound was out together grinding peppers and other spices to make berbere, laughing at my high pitched sneezes (I couldn’t help it!). And even though she doesn’t work for me, Wubit is like a little sister. Sometimes I help with homework, and she knows the names of all my friends. And every time I walk through the gate she greets me and her eyes light up with that adorable smile. She talks a mile a minute in a language I don’t know, and when I’m tired sometimes I can’t handle it, but it’s always with a giggle and a kind “Algabashim?” (You don’t understand?). Nope, I don’t girl, but we get along just fine in spite of it.