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A Maid in Madagascar

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A Maid in Madagascar

Commentary

A Maid in Madagascar

A Maid in Madagascar

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Commentator Celia Beasley moved to Madagascar and found a nation that still retains the colonial customs of its past. For example, most Westerners living on the island nation have maids and other household staff. Beasley initially resisted getting a maid, because she didn't want to live like a privileged expatriate — but a request from a friend changed her mind.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Writer Celia Beasley started an adventure of a different sort a few months ago. She moved from Seattle to the African island nation of Madagascar. It's a country with a colonial past. Soon after moving there, Beasley suffered from what she calls Westerner's guilt, but now she thinks her politically correct attitude may be doing more harm than good.

Ms. CELIA BEASLEY (Writer): One of the first things my mother said to me when she came to visit my fiancé and me in Madagascar was, you need a maid. No we don't, I said defensively, quickly shoving a pile of newspapers under the coffee table. We are not getting a maid. We're not colonialists. Forget it. My mother shook her head. No one's calling you a colonialist. You need a maid, and you can afford to hire one here. Just do it. My mother was right, but hiring a maid would mean crossing a line into an ex-pat lifestyle I'm just not ready to subscribe to.

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, so anyone coming here from Europe or North America is astronomically richer than about 90 percent of the population. It's a simple fact: Westerners in Madagascar are the upper class. And though Madagascar gained independence from France in 1960, this enormous disparity in wealth maintains a lingering colonialism. Most big business owners are European. The chic restaurants are always filled with young ex-pats. And all Westerners, whether they work in the private sector, for an NGO, or in the diplomatic field, can afford a lifestyle they could never have back home.

An older French couple I know lives in a big villa with a maid, a cook, several guards, and two drivers, one for each SUV. They are two, yet they employ six people to serve them, and I don't want to be that kind of ex-pat. And yet, Pierre(ph) and Monique(ph) employ people, local people, and we don't. Just a few weeks after we arrived in Madagascar, the security guard at Adam's work asked us if we needed a femme de ménage, a cleaning lady, because his wife was looking for work.

In Tana, the capital, 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and unemployment levels are astronomical. That's when I realized that hiring a maid isn't what makes someone a colonialist. I'm the one who sees it that way, not her. She wants a job, and here my privileged Westerner guilt is keeping her from that job because it reminds me of the disparity of wealth between us. But is keeping her unemployed really the best way to close that gap? Pierre and Monique may appear to have more of a colonial lifestyle, but if colonialism means making decisions for other people on the grounds that we are superior in our knowledge and understanding of the world, who is more of a colonialist: Pierre, who gives someone a job, or me, who withholds that job because I think I know what's best?

Finally, we decided to hire a maid. We met the guard's wife, a nice woman who seemed very happy with the salary we offered her. Now, she has a job and we have a clean house. And I understand now that colonialism isn't about having staff or living in a villa, it's how you treat people and how you behave in a country that isn't yours. There's nothing wrong with giving someone a job, and yet that Westerner's guilt still pops up now and then, because I am still a white woman in Africa with an African maid.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Writer Celia Beasley lives in Madagascar.

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