Donanne and Fred Hunter knew that his foreign correspondent’s assignment would eventually end. But we were sorry when we got the news of our transfer back to Monitor headquarters in Boston.
One evening dining at the home of friends, the Oxfam man and his wife, Donanne and I made an unsettling discovery. The topic of servants’ pay came up. We discovered we were paying our people far too little. I considered myself fair, but it turned out I had no accurate idea of what a fair wage was.
We convened a “staff meeting” with Murugi, and Laban whom we had known almost since we arrived in Kenya. We explained that we were raising their pay and giving them the “back wages” that should have been paid them. They suddenly became beneficiaries of an employer-mandated savings plan.
A few months later, three weeks before Donanne and I were to leave the country, Murugi sprained her ankle while babysitting. When we returned after being out for the evening, we found her sitting uncomfortably on a chair outside the baby’s room, hardly able to move. By now Murugi seemed almost family. She took such good care of Pauly! We were distressed that she had injured herself.
I called Laban. Fortunately, he was in the servant’s quarters. He and I stood on either side of Murugi, our arms under hers, and lifted her onto one foot. We carried her to the car and settled her inside it. She did not want to go to a hospital. We took her to the workers hostel where I now knew she lived and where, I assumed, her room was “kidogo sana,” but at least her own room. As Laban and I carried her inside, past fellow lodgers on the porch, I felt their distrustful stares.
Inside the entry was a wall of curtains. Material hung from wires eight feet high, sectioning the room into cubicles. We helped Murugi down a curtain hallway and arrived at a place where she pulled the fabric aside. We helped her into a curtained enclosure, large enough only for a bed, a chair, a small dresser and a rod on which to hang clothes. We put her on the bed and Murugi, her eyes filled with tears from the pain, kept repeating, “Asante sana, Bwana. Asante sana.”
Returning home, I found Donanne with the baby. I told her that in the car Laban had kept assuring me, “It is all right.” But what did that mean? “Her lodgings would turn your stomach,” I said. I described the place. “I used to watch her go down that steep path so carefully dressed. I had no idea where she went.” We decided to get her to a hospital first thing in the morning.
I woke in the night and paced in my office. Unwelcome thoughts assailed me. Why? Because departures were the expatriate’s moment of maximum vulnerability. Sometimes, if legal actions were pending against a person, he could not leave the country. The hostile stares from Murugi’s fellow lodgers seemed to assume that my negligence had maliciously injured her. Would those friends urge her to exploit her situation, to force us to pay damages in order to leave the country?
But how could that be? There were bonds of real affection between Murugi and our family. Still, when I thought of the curtained cubicle in which she lived, I realized how much she might need money. We were leaving. Where was the next job? Murugi was a single woman, old by African standards, her children gone.
Months before, in an essay titled “Who Is Murugi?” I had written of her: “She is honest and a willing and careful worker.” Was she really honest? On the other hand, had I really been fair? Certainly for a long time I had not paid her fairly.
The next morning I fetched Murugi at 8:30 and took her to the hospital. She had fractured her ankle. Once it was set in a cast, I took her back to the hostel.
I did not see her again until the last day of the month. I went to her hostel with her wages for the two previous weeks. She refused to accept them. I tried to insist – certainly she would need the money – but she was adamant.
“It is not good,” I told Donanne, adapting Laban’s phraseology. “We’re being primed for extortion.”
“I reject that,” said Donanne. “For a year now we’ve had Murugi with us. She’s enriched our lives. We’re better people because she’s been in the house. She’s benefited, too.”
I left for a final reporting trip in Angola. When I returned, I learned that Laban had told Donanne that Murugi intended to ask for compensation for breaking her ankle. I had thrown my back out in Luanda and now I understood why. If it seemed to Murugi that we had damaged her so it seemed that Murugi had damaged me.
But things work out. Murugi did not, in fact, seek compensation. By the time we left, she had discarded the cast and was walking normally again. We gave her and Laban presents of money. We wrote laudatory reference letters and tried to make sure that both would move into new jobs.
She answered for us the question, “Who is Murugi?”
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