African Encounters with Domesticity

By Karen Tranberg Hansen | Go to book overview

9 Men at Work in the Tanzanian Home: How Did They Ever Learn?

Janet M. Bujra

I didn't know how to wash up or clean floors--at home our Sisters do that.

Male house servant

It's just natural for them [men]. They know.

Female employer

Ideology, as Edmund Leach once remarked in relation to myth, is "a language of argument, not a chorus of harmony" ( 1954, 279). Ideologies of domesticity are no exception, though feminists have sometimes argued otherwise. In this case study of male domestic servants in Tanzania, I show that not only do workers hold inconsistent or situational ideologies regarding gender and work--housework being unmanly at home, but manly if it generates a wage packet--but employers too hold contradictory views, their view of men as the best and most suitable domestic workers conflicting with their own domestic arrangements in which women take the major responsibility.

The historical predominance of men in domestic service in this example offers a mirror image to more familiar patterns of domestic work as a female ghetto, often explained as the transfer from the home to the work place of domestic skills, the lowly status that devalues those skills and the demeanor of subordinates. This too I want to question, by looking critically at struggles over the way in which skills appropriate to this occupation are defined, acquired, and evaluated. By considering a case where men rather than women have always been the dominant labor force in domestic service, I argue that an apprenticeship in gender subordination is not essential even to acquiring domestic skills for wage work: class subordination is sufficient in itself to produce this effect, while class differences render the ideological link between gender and domesticity a contradictory one.

-242-

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