As a missionary, there was one relationship that I was hesitant to mention in my letters home. I didn't know what to call her. 'Maid' seemed aristocratic; 'domestic help' sounded almost canine. In the local language she was simply called 'the worker,' but that translation was hardly adequate. She was a cultural adjustment, but indispensable. She was order in household chaos, calm in family storms. Her name was Tsegeredah, which meant rose, and while she did have a sweet spirit, she was tough as nails.
Nearly every household in Asmara had a worker, or serahtenya. A young girl might live with a family to help with the baby. Or a cousin might come from a village to stay. Grown daughters shared the workload until they married and had their own homes and serahtenyas. Side by side, these women handwashed clothes in plastic basins, cleaned house with limited water supply, prepared dough for the bread that was cooked daily, chopped vegetables, and sorted grains and legumes by hand.
Tsegeredah washed our clothes, wiped floors, did dishes, all with a careful conservation of water since the city pipes frequently broke. She scrubbed market vegetables, straightened messes, found lost shoes. She negotiated the various personalities who appeared at our gate: the man who sold papaya, the woman who sold eggs, the man who sold potatoes. She advised me if the price was too high or the product too bad; she scolded the seller if he was too pushy. With a self-imposed determination to protect us, she dismissed realtors, favor-seekers, people who'd reached the wrong house, and the landlord himself if, in her view, he came at a bad time.
Tsegeredah wasn't an avid talker, so we only had a brief sketch of her life. She didn't know her birth date--our celebrations were a novelty to her--or even her age. “Ane?” she said; “Me? Maybe...thirty?” Three of her siblings had been killed in the war. Tsegeredah had fled to Ethiopia as a young girl. From a start of selling tea along the sidewalk, she eventually owned her own restaurant. One day fire broke out on her block, and all the businesses were destroyed. So Tsegeredah came back to Asmara to live with her mother in a one-room mud-walled home. Before she worked for us, she had no job.
Part of our challenge was linguistic: Amharic was her first language, Tigrinya a broken second, English a sparse third. I knew no Amharic, floundered in Tigrinya and, with three small children, sometimes spoke a discombobulated third.
Our children loved Tsegeredah; the best translation for this was "to pester." They tugged her away from work for a ride around the yard on her back (a very broad, strong one). They threw sand in her wash basin, to test her temper--which she displayed with a growl and a laugh. Her hearty "kee-DOO!" put them in stitches: from Tsegeredah, it meant "go away, you goofy kids, until I have time to play."
With Tsegeredah, there was less waste in our home. If she saw some leftover destined to be thrown out, she would take it home for her chickens. She could burn unwanted paper in her earthen stove. Empty cans were perfect for dipping water out of a barrel, and a jar made a fine drinking cup. Her own house had no electricity, so why use ours? Even if the daylight was waning through the tiny kitchen window, she would work in the dark. In three years, I never saw her flip a switch.
One day we insisted she go to a local celebration with us. “Leave your work,” we said; “we'll only be gone an hour.” When we came home, there was a stranger's coat and pair of shoes on the floor, and all our rooms were disheveled. A thief! Tsegeredah was riled in an instant. She rushed around the house and yard, looking in every corner--"Alo! Alo! He is still here!” She paced around with angry tears, punching one fist into her palm. She blamed herself: she shouldn't have gone out, it was her job to stay and keep house, why did she ever go? The day was ruined; those festivities pointless. She was so upset that I couldn't be, and I felt oddly light-hearted about the intrusion.
The next day a policeman and a teenage boy came to our gate. I knew it was our thief: he was wearing my husband's L.L. Bean jacket. He was barefoot; we had his shoes. I thought, “When Tsegeredah sees him, watch out.” But she only took one look, gave a quick growl, and went back into the house. Her part—the indignation, the mourning—was done. It was not for the boy to fall into her hands.
I've said that having a maid was an adjustment. But surely we were a new culture to her. I tried to explain American things. “Ay-ya,” she said, looking very thoughtful, “Than-sgee-ving... Ay-ya, Vah-leen-tine Day.” Her tone was one of recollecting a far-off memory; I never knew if she had really heard of these things or was only pretending. “Ay-ya, To-pay-ware...."
Our evangelical faith was something new. She wasn't a church goer; no one had taught her the Bible. One day, side by side in the kitchen, I told her the story of the woman at the well. I found myself intensely excited. Tsegeredah's hands were in the dishwater, but she was listening closely. She kept trying to guess the outcome. When I told her that Jesus knew, without being told, that the woman had five men, her eyes grew wide and she sucked in her breath. When I told her, “Jesus said, 'I can give you living water,'” she shook her head at the extraordinary claim. She was seeing it all. It was real, a story of her neighbor, like yesterday's news. She knew what a well looked like; yes, yes, she could see the woman hauling water. Ah, yes, that is a tiring job. Yes, she would want that precious water, too. Oh, the shame of living with all those men. And oh, she could just picture the woman running into her village eager to report this remarkable man.
For three years, Tsegeredah saw five sinners up close: tempers lost, mischief made, insufficient gratitude, complaints of thirst. When we moved back to the States we lost touch with our worker. A new war scattered the people again. Now, in my neat home and empty nest, I have all the gadgets I need to work alone. But I would like, if only for a while, to sit with Tsegeredah—if I could make her sit. I would drink tea with her and thank her for a thousand things. And I might ask if she could not, after all, tell me something about when and where she was born.