Madams and Maids: an opportunity for empowerment

By Athi Koyana

I recently read the book, The Help by Kathryn Stockett[i]. The story is set during the time of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. The story raises many issues about segregation and inequality between men and women. However, I couldn’t help but wonder about the strangeblessings that come from racially complex relationships between the black woman who is the help (maid) and the white woman (madam) she works for.

After I read the book I was deeply moved and started to ask questions about how things are in our country because the relationship between a white woman and “her help” is vastly different from that of a black woman (like me) and “her help” (and not always in a good way but that it is whole can of worms for another day).  The reality is that there are still tensions among black and white South Africans but there is so much hope and many inspiring stories that can emerge from these complex relationships.  I could not help but appreciate the blessings that come when women choose to use their historically ordained roles of the madam and maid as a model for change in themselves and their communities.

On World Aids Day I had the privilege of witnessingthe beautyof Durban in the new South Africa.  I attended the Olive Tree Church(OTC) Sewing School Graduation[ii].  Women from the OTC volunteer their time on Thursday mornings to teach sewing skills to women who are domestic workers or unemployed.  When I walked into the room I immediately noticed how different these 2 groups of women are, in terms of race and socio-economic backgrounds (their historically ordained roles).  The reality is that, the white women who volunteer could be (and in some cases are) the women that employ black women to clean their homes and care for their young children.

The respect and understanding underpinning the relationships formed in the school amongst thewomen has seen the school run successfully for 19 years.  The women from OTC volunteer their time, skill and patience to serve the domestic workers or unemployed women so that they are empowered with a skill to uplift themselves and their communities.  The black women receive a sewing machine at the end of the 2 year course so that they can teach other people in their own community and they can start their own business.

As people spoke of their experiences I realized that they were similar in the sense that the sewing school has given the volunteers a sense of purpose while the students graduated with a skill.  There was a collaboration where all involved were learning. It was inspirational to hear one of the volunteers giving hope to all the women by sharing her personal life of being a single mother.  These are the issues that bind us as women no matter what race or class and it’s vital we share these aspects of life to motivate each other.  This makes us all belong to the human race.

Equality is not a word to throw around loosely when it comes to the relationship between a white woman and a black woman within these historically embedded positions.  There are incredibly complex issues that I cannot even begin to delve into but believe me when I say that there is equality amongst the women at the sewing school.  Perhaps not equal in terms of social capital or class but equal in value.  Each has needs that need to be met and no one is being exploited; the women have a symbiotic relationship, a balance.  That is equality.

It is vital that we play our part in seeing a change within our communities.  We all still struggle with stereotypes of how a relationship between a black and white woman cannot be seen as equal, but I saw that equality is not always about equality in material possession but it is a mutual respect and understanding that the women at the sewing school share.  Recently I was walking with a friend at a shopping center and I was carrying her baby while she did grocery shopping. Onlookers were of the impression that I was the nanny (not friend or colleague) because I was minding her daughter because it is hard for people to see past historically ordained roles of madam and maid as far as black and white female relationships are concerned.  There is no need for us to stay in these stereotypical roles if we understand our value.

The reality is that in order to have a renewal of mindset, it starts with the individual;are we being the change we would like to see in our cities and country?  It’s no use to have conversations at dinner parties asking these questions. There is so much we can learn from each other, but we need to be vulnerable to volunteer because when we give of ourselves we open room in our hearts to receive.  My experience in Durban made me realize that the need for transformation is great but we can’t change it with one grand gesture.  It takes the 19 years of women committed to the sewing school.


[i] Kathryn Stockett, who was raised in Jackson, Mississippi, was inspired by her close childhood relationship with her family’s black maid to write The Help. Her debut novel tells the story of privileged families in Jackson and the black women who work for them but lives in a separate part of town and are segregated from whites.

[ii] The Olive Tree Church Sewing School is situated at the Whirling Wheel Building off Arbuckle Road off Umgeni Road.

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