Phoenix Down

There was a woman that came in every weekday to clean the house I stayed in. She also did the dishes and the laundry. The arrangement made before I was moved there was that she would be paid by the resident for the number of days she came in a month.
But I wasn’t always around, so rather than calculate which days I was around for, it became easier to pay her a constant amount at the end of the month for 20 weekdays.

After establishing this, the cleaning lady stopped showing up every weekday. She would either send her son to tell me she wasn’t coming in, or the next time she came in, she would offhandedly apologise for not coming in because someone had died.

Her excuse was always a death. Her aunt died, her friend’s husband died, her husband’s sister died, some days she wouldn’t even bother explaining the person’s link to her, she would just say “sorry I didn’t come yesterday, someone in the village died” and then go back to sweeping.
She wasn’t even trying.
Each time, I would disinterestedly reply, “that’s fine” and leave for work.

At some point, she was missing at least two days every week, so much that I was starting to worry that I would go out someday and the world would be empty. Everyone would have died.

I started to see a pattern.

On normal days, she would come in after I had gone to work, get the keys from the security man, clean the house and return the keys to him.
But on other days, she would show up early while I was still home, come in and start cleaning noisily, asking me questions and making herself noticeable. On days like that, she would not show up the following day. Because someone died.

One Monday, she showed up early, and was cleaning loudly as I left for work. As I went out, I thought, “I guess someone will die tomorrow.”
Predictably, she didn’t show up the next day.
On Wednesday after her absence, I was getting ready to go to work, and I heard a rustling at the door followed by a muted knock. I open the door and she’s standing there crying.

She looks like she has been crying for a while. Her eyes are swollen, there are streaks down her face, the rustling is from the wrapper she’s using to cover her face and cry into.

She’s standing there, about arm’s length away from me, sobbing, louder now. She is able to tell me in between sobs that her uncle has died.
Do I reach out and hug her? Pat her on the back, say “there, there, everything will be alright”?

Per our established balance, I expected someone would have died. But what I didn’t foresee was her reaction. This is at least her fifth death this month, and there were about nine last month. How surprised am I supposed to be? She should have known eventually someone would die for real.

I do nothing. I stand there with my eyes slightly widened and drum my fingers against my thighs, not in a mean way, but in a quiet clueless way.

Finally, I say “it is ok, you don’t have to come to work. Take as much time as you need to take care of your family.”
She sniffles a few times and says, “Sah, that is not why I came.”
“Oh?” I am puzzled.
“Sah, I was hoping you would give me something.”

Now I’m shocked. Something like what? A resurrection potion?
So I ask.

“Something….. something like what?”
“Something for the burial, sah, to help”

Ah… of course, of course. Nigeria. So I give her some money, she thanks me as she leaves.
She does not return at all that week or the week after.

But when she comes back, she cuts her absences down to one death per week.

I believe we made progress.


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