One evening- Murugi was staying with Pauly and I would drive her all the way home – we went to a dinner party hosted by our great friends, the regional director of Oxfam and his wife. The conversation flowed easily and, as not infrequently happened, it made a stop at the subject of servants. Not just servants, but what they were paid.
Donanne and I were appalled at what we learned. Clearly we were not paying Laban and Murugi at anywhere near the going rate. Of course, we did not admit this oversight to our friends, but we glanced back and forth at one another, feeling more deeply embarrassed as the conversation continued. I was particularly chagrined because I had written articles from South Africa about whites exploiting African workers. (“Slavery is not dead” had been the lead in a think-piece I had written.) And here we were doing the exactly the same thing. It seemed that I knew more about wage scales in South Africa than I did about them in Kenya.
“We better do something about this,” I said to Donanne as we drove home.
“And as soon as we can,” she agreed.
Clearly there was only one appropriate thing to do. That evening we got out the paybooks and calendars and did some figuring. The next morning I went to Barclay’s Bank, where the sound of clerks rhythmically stamping forms could be heard throughout the great hall. I withdrew money and got it in small increments of cash. (One’s servants, unused to banking, did not want to receive large bills they would have trouble breaking.)
Back home we called Laban and Murugi into the house for a conference. Since we had never conferred ensemble before, they must have wondered what calamity had occurred. We apologized for our ignorance of local pay scales and acknowledged that we had not been paying them what they deserved. I got out the paybooks. We explained that we were raising their wages to the going rate. In addition, we were giving each of them a sum representing the difference between what they had earned since starting their employment with us and what they would have earned at the higher rate.
The paternalist in me (one had to acknowledge occasional paternalistic tendencies although they were one of the evils of colonialism) thought this not such a bad deal for “the staff.” We had, in fact, acted for them rather like a savings bank. We would be paying them that day amounts that they probably would not have saved if we had paid it to them when we should have.
Laban and Murugi seemed uncertain about exactly what was going on. This was especially true of Murugi who had to look to Laban for translations of what we said. She frowned and bent closer to him. He shrugged and repeated what he had told her.
They both regarded us with puzzlement. Europeans were strange; association with them had taught them that. But Europeans had never acted this way. They did not give away money. They did not ask to be pardoned for their oversights. When I handed them their shillingi and asked them to sign for the back wages, they understood that the money really was theirs. Moreover, they would be earning at a higher rate in future. They signed the paybooks, pocketed the shillingi and returned to their work wearing grins.