The Help (At My House)

Write to Shelvis Smith-Mather
Write to Nancy Smith-Mather

Individuals: Give online to E200316 for Shelvis and Nancy’s sending and support

Individuals: Give online to 052032 for RECONCILE

Congregations: Give to D507554 for Shelvis and Nancy’s sending and support

Churches are asked to send donations through your congregation’s normal receiving site (this is usually your presbytery).

Subscribe to our co-worker letters


I have help. It took me a long time to become comfortable with that reality, probably for two reasons. First, my pride. As a young American woman, I can and should be able to do everything all by myself (so I was taught). Second, I carry with me the baggage of my European-American history, which includes, especially during my mother’s childhood years, a time when white families often hired African-American women to work in their homes, cleaning, ironing, cooking, and caring for their young children. The book The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which was later made into a movie, depicts the ways such arrangements often included unfair treatment of the women employed. The hired “help” worked under a potent power dynamic, causing them to walk on eggshells, afraid of being fired, and allowing them to be treated in dehumanizing ways, including being refused to use the bathroom in their employer’s house.

The last detail hit very close to my home the day I realized that Joice, our hired “house-help,” was walking to the neighboring dormitory to go to the bathroom instead of using our family’s toilet. We had never even talked about it. But, let me back up and tell you about the way Joice came into our lives.

Joice washing dishes at our home in Yei, South Sudan, with Jordan wanting to play.

When we first moved to Nairobi, Kenya, in 2008, the family from whom we rented our apartment had house-help, but the thought of following that route never crossed my mind. While I worked long hours in an office, I could stop by a small supermarket on the way home and find everything I needed. Nairobi is a bustling, developed city, with large malls, skyscrapers, and incredible traffic. I did struggle, though, to wash my clothes by hand, especially my jeans (so heavy). But, I carved out time, often in the evenings, washing my clothes in the moonlight outside our apartment and leaving them on the line to dry while I was in the office (hoping it would not rain).

When we moved to South Sudan in 2011, we found that RECONCILE, the organization with whom we would work, had someone wash clothes for all of the staff living at the training center. At that time, I was glad to let that time-consuming, muscle-building task go. For some reason, the fact that this woman was working for all the staff, not just our family, made me feel less guilty about the arrangement.

It was not until I was pregnant with my second child that I reached the point of saying, “if we could only have someone come and help us clean our house every so often, that would be sooo nice.” In South Sudan, the “dry season” is super dusty, and the homes are designed with holes above all the doors and windows for ventilation. Without air conditioning, and with temperatures often above 100 degrees, the small openings help. Yet, the dust easily rides the breeze through the holes, blanketing the floor and furniture daily; that was the straw that broke my pride.

We first hired Joice Sadiya to help us clean our house in 2014. At that time, Shelvis and I were both working in RECONCILE’s office, and taking turns caring for our first child, Jordan. Not long after hiring her, our neighbor said, “You know, Joice is a great cook. She used to cook for the RECONCILE training center.” So, we eventually asked her to help us buy food and cook too.

Our family’s clothes on the line to dry.

Without regular electricity in our home in Yei, and with no preservatives in the local produce, food often spoiled within 48 hours. Consequently, before hiring Joice, I traveled to the open-air market for fruits and vegetables several times a week. This is not a supermarket but rather a large open space where many gather to sell produce. Shelvis and I used to rush to the market right after work, trying to leave the office by 5:00 and get to the market before 6:00 when it closed with the dreaded blow of a whistle. Sometimes several RECONCILE colleagues would arrange to borrow a car, and we’d ride together. Often, I would walk the 1.5 miles with Jordan on my back, returning with heavy bags that pulled the joints in my arms towards the ground. I understood why other women sharing my path positioned their purchases on top of their heads.

The presence of Joice in our home changed our lives drastically. Shelvis and I have always liked to host friends for meals, and after visiting the homes of our colleagues, we realized that in South Sudan, one way to honor visitors is by serving them meat. When Joice joined our team, we started inviting visitors at least once a week for meals. She could go early in the morning to buy the chicken, slaughter and de-feather the bird, and cook it in time to have guests join us for lunch. Awesome.

We left Yei in July 2016, headed home to have baby number three, and we asked Joice to keep the dust from overwhelming our house while we were absent. During our time in the US, civil war erupted, making our home in Yei unreachable. So, in March 2017, after our 8-month stay stateside, we moved to Uganda, right next to South Sudan, and we started looking for Joice.

Students from a South Sudanese Theological College pray before entering our home for a Christmas dinner

While Arua is much more developed than Yei, we still lacked many appliances common in the US (a dishwasher, microwave, a washer and dryer for clothes, etc.). Add in irregular electricity, causing food in the fridge to spoil quickly, and the equation again makes it difficult for both spouses to work outside the home without house-help.

“Yaba, ita arufu, Joice Sadiya wen?” (Grandfather, do you know where Joice Sadiya is?), Shelvis asked loudly in a phone a call to a friend still in Yei. We kept asking around, and eventually learned that, earlier in the year, she fled to Adjumani, a place in northern Uganda.

Then the moment came when we finally connected with Joice by phone. She already knew we wanted her to come and work, so she said quickly, “I am ready to come.” Wonderful.

Shelvis then spent three days looking for a place for her to rent in our new hometown, Arua, and shortly after, he met Joice and her 5-year-old granddaughter at the bus stop. Upon her arrival at our house, we ate sweet potatoes with peanut sauce, and listened to the details of Joice’s journey out of Yei.

While her husband and daughter chose to remain in Yei, with the increase in violence surrounding the town, Joice decided to leave, taking her granddaughter, Blessing, and her lastborn child, 16-year-old Edmond, with her.

“I walked from Yei to Moyo (Uganda). I walked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., for seven days straight. I carried sweet potatoes and peanut paste on my head, water in my hand, and Blessing on my back. I cried to God as I walked.” She traveled with a group of 22 people. At one point, they were stopped by soldiers who wanted to take Edmond. “If you have money, we will leave the boy. But if you do not give us money, we are taking him,” they threatened. Joice paid them the money we gave her to clean our house, and Edmond avoided becoming a child soldier. One man beat him before letting him go, though, and Edmond could not hear for the next eight days.

“Life in the Adjumani was hard,” she said. After remaining in Moyo, waiting to get into a refugee camp for 3 weeks, Joice found a friend whose home was in Adjumani. She moved in with the friend and became a day laborer on a farm. She dug from early to late, and then received pay at the end of the day. The sun stung her eyes as she worked in the field. Her goal was to earn school fees for Edmond to go to school. There was not enough for Blessing to attend too. “Mama Jordan,” she said to me, with tears welling up, “I am tired. I am happy you called.”

Blessing, Addie, and Nicole playing with bike helmets at our home.

Edmond and Blessing are currently both in school in Arua, and our family remains deeply grateful for Joice’s presence in our home. She cleans the unending dust, goes to the market almost daily, cooks food, and allows us to host visitors regularly. Without her, we would not have thought to invite the students and faculty from the theological college for a closing Christmas meal. She was excited for the event, as many of the students were previously pastors in Yei, and culturally, it is an honor to serve a meal for “big” people like pastors. I think seven chickens lost their lives for that celebration. That’s a lot of feathers.

Joice takes pride in her work, likes things done well, always loves to help throw a dinner party, and is kind to our children. She is a survivor. Her faith is strong. She believes in prayer more than I do, and truly appreciates each day of life. When I feel low or lose a spirit of thankfulness, I gain strength thinking about Joice.

In our relationship, the power dynamic of employer-employee remains present. She and I are both very aware that if she lost her job at our home, there is a high probability that she would need to move into the refugee camp to be able to feed her family. It is difficult for someone from South Sudan to find a good job in Uganda. The fact that Joice does not read, write or speak English makes future employment even more difficult. Yet, with her incredible perseverance and deep faith, I do not doubt she will find a way for her children to eat and to go to school.

When our family steps away from Uganda, I will not miss “needing” house-help. I will not miss the presence of an employee in our home almost every day, witnessing my young children meltdown over very small things. I will not miss having someone do laundry for me or cook or clean (well maybe a little); my pride will be at peace being able to do it “all by myself” again. But, I will miss Joice.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?