The Modernity of Slave Trade

My family moved to Kenya in January 2010, about 8 months before I moved to France. My father was to join one of the million networks of Gujarati families who have settled in East Africa. The job came with a fantastic big house, a kind we, as a middle class family, could have never imagined ourselves living in. And the house came with a maid.

Not that having maids was new to us. We have had plenty over the years, changing every few years in our apartment in Ahmedabad, with labor being cheap and plenty. I grew up thinking that house cleaning, laundry and dishes were to be done by maids and that was my vision of normality. When I first arrived in US as an exchange student to my host family, I had a lot of difficulty in understanding that I was supposed to do cleaning, dishes, vacuuming and laundry by myself, that I was supposed to pick up by dirty laundry myself everyday so that my room didn’t become a mountain of mess. I had a hard time turning my vision of normality upside down.

So I try to imagine my parents with their vision of normality similar to the one I had before, and similar to that of all these Gujarati middle class families who moved for work to East Africa, crystallized and rationalized through all these years . And to this normality, add the fact that the skin shade of Kenyans is tanner than an average Indian’s, and you have the ultimate slavery. From women as maids being locked in their houses, made to stay over-time, denied their salary on time, denied food and water, men as security guards who would be standing under the tropical rains for nights without lights and proper clothing, both of who get accused without proof, when time comes, of robberies and murders that happen as a result of the inequalities between Indian expats and the Kenyan nationals. All you get for asking a big why to any Gujarati on the streets of Westlands (bourgeoisie neighborhood in Nairobi) is an odd broken racial-supremacy theory that smells like Mein Kampf and hipster-fascism.

I learnt today that Norah, who worked as a maid in our house in Nairobi, has passed away. The reason for this is not known to me. My parents moved to Tanzania about two years ago, so there is no way for me to know more details. Norah had two children; one is about 17 and the other around 20 according to my brother. Norah walked from her house to ours, starting her journey on foot every morning at around 4:30am to get to us around 7:00am. And then, she would walk back. My mother would try to pay her a bus journey back home if she was running late, but she would save that money instead and walk her way back. She was a wonderful woman, like all the women and men I met in Kenya. She taught me to appreciate the local diet of Ugali (corn meal) and Sukuma (a leafy vegetable cooked with tomatoes and onions).

I am against slavery, of any form, of any kind. But I find it strange that in no way shall I ever be able to change the normative that is so stuck in how things are in Gujarat, and in most parts of India. I find myself hopeless in front of normative. Laws can be easily changed in India, but when it comes to the normative, it is still stuck there, like chewed gum on everybody’s shoes, hardening every day. The richer you get in India, the more maids you have. And Bourdieu’s hopeful economic and cultural distinctions for tastes that would predict that as people become culturally richer their tastes would change, will still not get you anywhere in India. The normative comes down like water from faulted dams and floods all that economic development you talked about, destroys all the culture you thought you were getting from being a seller of the most-read English newspaper. You drown, I drown, we all drown!

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About Shreya Parikh

I am Shreya. Project Rethought is my attempt to rethink my own observations as a brown woman of Indian origin. I currently live in Paris where I teach at Sciences Po Paris and Parsons Paris-The New School.
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