Sunday, March 25, 2012

What it's like for us: Having a housekeeper

I've been excited to introduce you to one of our most valuable gifts here in Uganda. Meet Oliver (some mzungus pronounce it "Olivia"; we pronounce it "Oh-lee-va," like Ugandans do. Some names are flip-flopped here, like the boy's name Emma, short for Emmanuel. Yes, she shares J.'s middle name). Oliver turns 27 next month, and she hopes someday to be a counselor. Oliver is an orphan because of AIDS. But she also happens to be an incredible blessing to us. She's our housekeeper.
I cannot tell you the burden that this woman lifts from my shoulders as we try to synthesize our lives here. She's asked before what I did in the United States; who did all this work?! I did, I explain. But I didn't do it near as well. And I got a whole lot less sleep.

Some of you might raise your eyebrows at us having a housekeeper, and you're certainly entitled to do that! For us, it has been a wonderful, truly inexpensive way to
  • provide someone a job in a tough economy.
  • develop someone in-depth: professionally, spiritually, and even relationally as we draw her into our family.
  • make it sustainable for us to be here, so that I can focus more on the kids, have a home that is functional, get a little more sleep at night, and ultimately reduce a whole load of stress--sometimes in the form of neatly folded piles of lights and darks. The housework load, like mopping the red-dirt covered floors every day and handwashing all the dishes, is fairly heavy.
  • learn Ugandan culture and language as a family. In fact, our kids are starting to pick up Luganda! She's a great teacher, and has no problem giggling as our mzungu tongues try to wrap themselves around the words.
  • someone--because they are actually staff with eMi--two meals a day, medical benefits, transportation costs, education benefits, etc. This means that after years of putting her siblings through school, Oliver may be able to pursue a degree in counseling soon.
  • transfer my energy from an area of weakness (can I get an amen?) to areas that are much more my strength, and hopefully fruitful areas of ministry and time for relationships--particularly with my kids.
At times I feel like having Oliver around makes the difference as to me sinking or swimming. The amount of work there is to do; the amount of time I want to invest in my kids and their education, or in ministry; and the constant weight of maneuvering in a developing country is simply more than I am personally equipped to do.

I thought I might feel like I was living in a fishbowl. And I'm sure there are moments here and there when that's true. But I think that's so far surpassed by watching minute by minute someone physically removing burdens I won't have to lift later. It also means, I must sheepishly admit, that I'm able to keep my own emotions as a mom more even-keeled. Ever the people-pleaser, I find that my temptations toward overreacting--or discouragement at all the work--are alleviated considerably by Oliver's light-hearted presence. More than living in a fishbowl, I feel like she's almost a familial presence.
We prayed for a long time about who God would provide for us as house help. This is an area where I really feel like He's so generously provided for us. Thus far, Oliver has proved very honest, independent, forthright (not necessarily a cultural norm), detailed (also a rarity), and a sunny addition to our home. She's so thorough--hello, a great complement to me--and has a wonderful work ethic. She's also a snappy dresser! But more, I love that her faith is important to her. I wish I could recount to you all the conversations we've had about God and culture already. She watches how we raise our kids, and we dialogue about family a lot. We both learn from each other on a regular basis!
And the kids love her. J. starts talking about her after breakfast, usually, ready for her to come. When she shakes the lock on our gate to let us know she's here, he shouts, "Owiva heah! Need keys! She at gate! She have chapatti!" Hopefully he has pants on. You know. Oliver does, in fact, usually have a chapatti--like a big tortilla fried in oil--that she splits between all the kids, complemented by a mug of warm sweet tea that they take together in her changing room in the boys' quarters. Then, after Oliver's in her work clothes, they all go out and jump on the trampoline for a few minutes before she starts on her tasks. It works--she has quite a fan club around here. She calls J. and C. "my J." and "my C." and J. calls her "my Owiva".

This weekend, John and I took our first night away with some friends to a little lodge in the rainforest. I cannot tell you how refreshing this was, considering the past year and especially the last eight weeks. I'm learning a lot about what will help us to be long term, and part of it is confessing our need for rest and the occasional break from the crush of Kampala. Oliver and our friend's housekeeper stayed with all of our kids. When I came back, despite the water and power being out for the majority of the time, both ladies had big smiles on their faces, and everyone had a great time. When she left to go home, Oliver thanked me in Luganda: "It was really fun!"

But I also love the little ways she's falling in with our family. She's talked freely about how she feels like our house is her home, because she spends so much of her time here and likes being here. And the other day when we were all at eMi, she mentioned that she would just do something at home. I brushed that idea away with my hand. "Don't wait until you get home, Oliver! You can just do that at our house."

She looked at me and smiled. "Oh, I was talking about your house!"

Oliver in traditional Ugandan dress clothing, called a goma

 If you would, please thank God for us for such an opportunity and tremendous relief for our family.


Anonymous said...

I am so happy and thankful for all of you and your new friend. Thanks for keeping us updated on things.

ErinL said...

Oh Janel what a blessing she is! And she is absolutely beautiful! Thanks for introducing her to us!

Soaring High said...

My mother had someone to help her when they lived overseas and it was invaluable. Blessings!

Lisa said...

What a blessing! She seems like a lovely person! I just found you like week through one of your blogs that had been posted to.Pinterest. I don't know much about Twitter, so not sure if you got my message saying there are tons of comments on there now...from that wonderful post about 50 ways to inspire your husband. Until now I'm didn't know you lived in Uganda! Many blessings to you.

John and Janel Breitenstein said...

@ Lisa, thanks so much for such warm words. God continues to show me that He can do a whole lot without me even in the hemisphere! Grateful for your encouragement; blessings to you today, too.

Lisa said...

thanks for your response. I just now realized you responded back! :-) guess I didn't subscribe to be notified. Also, just noticed I made a bunch of typing errors in that post. But I'm sure you knew what I meant. Blessings to you , your family and your sweet housekeeper. Yes, technology is wonderful..and through this new invention of Pinterest (surprisingly) your 50 ways post..that is so wonderful has had a resurgence of interest. I still get emails that there are new comments coming in on it! I hope you have time to look at them sometime (though it's overwhelming to see there are so many who struggle) Blessings ..from Texas :-)

Andrea Shrewsbury said...

I am so excited for your family as I read about your new life in Africa. What a blessing to hear and see how God is blessing you for being faithful to Him!