Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Law West Of The Nile

Village girls
Village girls, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Most of the village families here find an outside source of income very useful. If they are farming, there is little likelihood that they will starve to death, but you need money for clothes, electricity, doctors, and school books. Quite a few of my neighbours make the long commute into town to work, some of them are employed in local hotels and restaurants. My grooms live just down the road from the paddocks where I keep my horses. I know that for each of them, this income is incredibly important.

Until last week, I had a young girl of about 20 years coming in three mornings a week to help me with my housework, most importantly washing the tile floors. She'd been working for me for about 8 months and on the whole been satisfactory, but I had noticed that some odd things had gone missing. I couldn't say for sure that she had taken them, but they weren't the sorts of things that I would usually lose. One of them was a nice kitchen knife, another was the connector cable to a digital camera, and so on. Just before the feast, however, when I went in to the bank to deposite some dollars that someone had given me in exchange for being able to use my credit card I discovered that I was USD 900 short. I was not pleased.

When I sat down at my computer checking my appointments and tasks for the past few days, I discovered that there was exactly a fifteen minute window when the wallet had not been with me. I'd taken it out of my purse to pay my garbage collectors before the girl had arrived and left it on a table in the living room. I was going out in a couple of minutes, so I guess I got sloppy. When I came out of the bathroom before leaving, I noticed that the wallet wasn't in exactly the same position and put it down to "cleaning the table". Incorrect.

By the time I'd sorted out what had happened, we were well into the Eid holiday. I was at a bit of a loss as to how to proceed, so I went to my neighbour, Haj Abdou. Haj Abdou is the head of the main clan in the area and as such is the arbitrator in situations like this. He sent a couple of the younger men with a car and asked the girl and her mother to come to see Morad, who shared her services with me and who also employed her sister as to keep records for his stable management and tack business. She called me on the way, quite concerned. I told her I had no idea why Morad might want to see her.

When she and her mother arrived, Haj Abdou was out but his younger brother Haj Shaban was there to handle the situation. He went into a room with mother and daughter and explained the situation while we sat in the cavernous living room freezing to death. (Because important negotiations, conferences, and events occur in the Omda's house, there has to be a room with seating for about 60 people. Usually it provides an indoor playground for his grandchildren, however.) Daughter confessed and mother was in tears. Apparently she'd taken the money without even understanding how much it was and had given it to a young man that she knew to exchange for her. Luckily, it was a holiday and banks were closed, so he wasn't able to do so.

She promised that he'd give her the money that night and that she'd bring it back the next day. None of us were exactly willing to hold our breath for this, as it was the perfect situation of a young girl being taken for a fool by a young man. She had no proof that she'd given him anything and he could just deny it. Astoundingly, he did give her the money in the presence of her mother, and it was returned.

The damage to the family, even without any interference from the police, was considerable. The girl, youngest of three daughters, is sitting at home unemployed and unemployable in the near future. Her mother and sisters have been holding positions of trust in the community. Her mother is the keeper of the local gamaya (an informal sort of savings plan where everyone contributes a certain amount and then people borrow from it in turn), while one of her sisters is the custodian of the safe at a factory where she is employed. The second sister had access to all of Morad's house and files. As far as I know, the gamaya hasn't been removed from the mother and the other sister still has her job. The second one is on leave for a bit while Morad moves, but he and I are definitely without cleaning help.

I was so happy to get the money back that I never even asked about the other items, but later over coffee Morad and his wife and I realised that she'd been helping herself to various things over the months. Where I was missing a connector cord for a digital camera, he was missing a camera, an ancient one that wouldn't work with the connector cord from my house. Oh well.

This isn't the first time that something like this has happened. I employed a woman in my old home in Maadi for 8 years, paid her medical expenses and those of her children and mother, loaned her money for school fees when her husband traveled to Dubai to look for work and so on. When I moved and was renovating the house, she asked for a sink if I was throwing one out and I told her that she could have one when the workers removed it. Unbeknownst to me, she went to the house, removed sinks (plural), toilets, bidets, taps and so on from the bathrooms and kitchen and carted them off, telling the workers that I'd told her to. When I found out, I was furious naturally, but what could I do? She'd sold them already and used the money. A number of months later, she had the occasion to call me to say that she'd found work and would I write her a recommendation. I had to laugh at the absolute nerve of her request, and I told her that anything I would write would not exactly be helpful.

I could have taken the first housekeeper to the police. There were witnesses. But what good would it have done? Who would have cared for her two sons? It's a very hard call. The resolution of the problem in this case was much more satisfying for me. I got back the most important loss, the money, and my ex-employee learned that Very Bad Things Happen When You Steal. Hopefully, she'll turn over a new leaf, but it will be with someone else. I'm too busy mopping floors.

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