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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

January 2003

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The author recounts an unusual household problem encountered at one of her posts. Or perhaps it was not so terribly unusual for Foreign Service families living year after year abroad in various countries. Certainly she and her husband solved the question that arose with a minimum of complications and a maximum of imagination.—Ed.

A Witch of a Cook

One aspect of living in a developing country that is far outside the experience of most Americans is having full-time household help. In a place where you must boil and filter your water and soak your vegetables in bleach—and where you cannot simply call the pizza man to deliver dinner—it helps to have assistance at home while you work long hours at the office. You give up some privacy, but in exchange you get a front row seat into the local culture. But sometimes that experience is so out of the ordinary that you cannot even begin to grasp what you're involved with….

We arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in July 1994 on our third overseas posting. We went a little overboard hiring people and found ourselves with a gardener, a nanny, a housekeeper, and a cook. Andrew the cook was about fifty years old and originally from Malawi. He had a young wife and a small daughter, and they occupied the servants' quarters. Aside from cooking our dinner and preparing lunch for our daughters, Andrew also prepared a simple meal at noontime for the rest of the domestic staff.

For the first few months my husband, Jim, did not yet have a job, so he was around the house a great deal and quite involved in household operations. Being a great cook himself, he kept a close eye on Andrew's activities and didn't hesitate to critique his efforts. Jim also was concerned that kitchen tools be used properly—and had to tell Andrew that it was not acceptable, for example, to pry things open with the tips of the Henckels knives. I think Andrew did not feel he was getting the respect that he felt he deserved. He did have one agenda item though—he wanted us to find a housekeeping job for his wife and had asked me about this several times. His wife had no previous experience however and wasn't a likely candidate.

One Friday I traveled to Zanzibar for the day to look after Embassy property there. When I returned that evening Jim had a story to tell me. In the afternoon he had found our housekeeper, David, lying on the laundry room floor, his eyes rolled back in his head and groaning in pain. Jim put David in the car, found his relatives, and got him medical attention.

On Saturday, Andrew came to us and said that since David was going to die, we should hire his wife as our housekeeper. Remarkably, our suspicions were not aroused by this announcement. David recovered and was back at work a week later.

On Monday the nanny and the gardener refused to eat Andrew's cooking. They informed Jim that Andrew was a "witch." We didn't get it. We were, however, completely disenchanted with Andrew and this latest development made him even less useful. We decided to fire him. We gave him the bad news that evening and asked him to move out of the quarters. He took it badly and refused to go. We had to get the embassy's guard contractor to remove him.

With Andrew gone, we offered the quarters to our nanny. She didn't want to move and made many excuses. We wanted her nearby to be able to baby-sit some evenings and after two weeks she finally agreed. She told us on Friday that she'd come and clean the place out on Sunday and then move on Monday. On Saturday we had a Halloween party for the embassy children, complete with trick or treating. We carved two small jack-o-lanterns for the occasion. We spent all day Sunday away from home and didn't see our nanny at all.

On Monday morning the nanny came to work and announced that she couldn't move into the quarters. There was a problem. She was reluctant to talk about it. After much persuasion she admitted that the problem was with the rooms themselves. She took Jim inside. At first he didn't see anything, but she called his attention to small amulets—little strings of beads, tiny pouches of animal skin—hanging from window and door handles. She said these were evil things left by the witch to prevent anyone else from living there. We had a "juju"—black magic—problem.

I went to work and consulted my staff. My story was met with horrified silence. Finally someone said I should see the security office. They called the guard contractor, who sent a special person they had on staff to deal with these contingencies. Jim called later to report that he and the juju-buster removed all the amulets, burned them outside the gate, and buried the ashes. As they were removing the items, our helper asked Jim if he believed in juju. Jim said no and the man said he didn't either, but that you had to be careful with amulets because witches used real poisons, such as pesticides like arsenic, in them.

At lunchtime I went home and was puzzled to find Andrew's wife at the gate. The nanny was clearly upset, but had a lame story about how she had come to collect money due for making bread. It was clear to us that the story was out that the "magic" had been found and that the wife was there to check it out. Jim angrily sent her away—and then was seized with an inspiration. He grabbed the two jack-o-lanterns, set them on the spikes of our property gate, and told the guards that this was special "mzungu"—foreigner—juju to keep "witches" away. Jim told them they must keep the candles inside burning, and they enthusiastically did so until the pumpkins rotted away. We learned later that any "magic" that foreigners did was considered to be very powerful—after all, we were "rich" and could afford the really good stuff! We were not bothered by witches again—but we did notice all pedestrians giving our gate wide berth as they passed.


A former U. S. Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, the author and her family have served abroad in India, Tanzania, Pakistan, Mexico, and Botswana. She has earned degrees from the University of Virginia and the American Graduate School of Management.

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