SILENT LIVES was inspired by Juliette, a Madagascan matriarch who worked for my grandfather for 50 years. When he died, she decided to leave us with neither farewell nor retirement package. The family were stricken by her abrupt departure but were never able to trace her whereabouts. Juliette’s actions said she needed neither us nor our money. My grandfather had assumed that he was in charge but perhaps the true power lay with Juliette after all. So in fact the power relationship between employer and employed is shifting and subtle.
What Juliette had demonstrated still tends to hold true today. Employers know very little about their servants’ lives, their families, their dreams and hopes. Their servants have no authority but carry a large burden of responsibility. These people who are banished to small rooms at the bottom of the garden when night has fallen are, during the day, stewards of power. The nannies nurture their employers’ children and help to shape their perception of the world. The chauffeurs take the children to school and back driving in a way that will keep them out of harm’s way from not only car accidents but carjackers and kidnappers. The night watchmen guard the property at night with only a club or perhaps a bow and arrows. It is not uncommon to read that a night watchman has been shot dead by gun-bearing thugs. All these people see much and say little. And they never betray the trust that has been bestowed on them. When their charges grow up and become employers themselves, will they remember who looked after them?
For a large number of Kenyan’s, employment as a domestic servant underlines the seismic disparities of a country in which over 50% of the population survives on less then 1 dollar a day while others reside in stately homes and colonial estates. Whether it be the leafy suburbs of Nairobi or the vast game ranches of the white highlands, domestic staff bear intimate witness to a world so far removed from their own as to be incomprehensible. To many of their employers they remain peripheral accessories to a lifestyle which in many ways demands an intimate complicity of their employees as they guard their gates, trim their hedges and ultimately ensure that any alternative reality be kept far at bay