'ALIIICCEE!' R calls from the foot of the stairs, eyes cast skywards. 'I'M LEAVING NOW!'
'Okay,' says Alice, standing beside him.
'Alice,' he says, 'I didn't realise you were there.'
Alice came with the house. She is the maid. An observant, motherly figure in her late fifties, Alice could have been a character in a silent film. It was possible to walk into a room and not know that she was there, levitating through the house like a human hovercraft. Alice didn't say much, but when she did, her delivery was usually slow and dry, often accompanied by a barely perceptible, faintly amused roll of the eyes.
Alice once drafted me in to witness two baffled plumbers at work in the bathroom. The first plumber had called in the second one for back-up and Alice and I had watched from the hallway as they attempted to work out the problem with the shower.
Alice had turned her head slowly towards me and wordlessly raised her eyebrows.
Alice worked for R's company and always ran the director's house, an old property with shocking sofas at the end of a dirt track. I struggled, though, with the idea of a maid and having someone around all the time.
R and I shared the cooking. I also took over the shopping that Alice had done before I got there and, for a while, carried on washing my clothes in the shower, a habit formed after years of travelling. My friend Sally had shared a room with me in Kenya and woken up most mornings to the sight of my underwear hanging from the curtain rail in the shower.
'Try not to do that with R,' she had advised before I moved.
It is not only the wzungus (whites), the wealthy and the expats, though, that have maids. People living in towns and villages very often have housekeepers, cooks or childminders, although how much they are paid depends usually on who employs them.
To not have a maid is to deny someone the chance to earn a living and to impact on the lives of the children, siblings and parents that they are probably supporting. It is common, too, to create jobs for locals. Friends of ours had employed members of the same families for three generations.
When later we were about to move from Kisumu, one of their employees came to me and said:
'So, you are moving?'
'Yes,' I said.
He had clearly been chatting to our security guard.
'I have a daughter,' he began. 'She lives where you are going. I will give you her number.'
In a country where over 50% of the population is living below the poverty line on less than $2 per day, and where youth unemployment (those aged 15 to 34 years old) stands at around 35%, everyone is on the look-out for work, if not for themselves then for someone else. Most will tell you they would rather have a job than a handout.
The company that R worked for employed four askaris (security guards) to guard our property on a rotating basis even though we only needed two.
One particular askari, John, thought that he was also there to guard me, the lone white female. This became a challenge when I wanted to leave and John, who had the keys, would not open the wrought iron gate.
'Madam,' John would say, shaking his head under his balaclava (Kenyans can be cold even in 30 degree heat). 'I cannot.'
'John. You cannot keep me locked up.'
'It will be dark soon,' countered John.
Sometimes, I would call on Alice for help. At other times, R would speak to John over the phone and, on rare occasions, I was able to convince him myself. Many times, I thought about scaling the fence.
The only one who objected to Alice was Fuzzy. Fuzzy, the normally sweet natured dog that had spent most of its life in the arms of R's young daughter, had, and still has, a few racial issues. Fuzzy was prone to chasing Alice, and anyone else who was black, out of the living room whilst attempting to bite their ankles.
'Fazzy,' Alice would say, trying to coax our yapping dog towards her, 'Fazzy, come here.'
Fuzzy's split personality came to the fore when R and I would leave her in the yard playing with Alice's granddaughter, who had a tendency to pick Fuzzy up by her front legs and carry her round like a chicken. This would result in R and I standing in the yard, each cradling an invisible baby as we tried to show her how to hold a small dog, with no lasting success.
As soon we drove away, Fuzzy would wriggle free, run round the corner, and take up residence in Alice's living room.
Taken from the blog Sunset Under the Baobab Tree: My African Life