South Africa joins the guacamole revolution

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The Independent Online
MAIDS ARE as intrinsic to middle-class life in the new South Africa as they were in the old. But now, employed both by white and black "madams", they are called domestic workers. They have rights, in theory, and a few are learning to make guacamole.

"Can anyone pronounce it?" Judy Hodes asked her 11 pupils, enrolled by their employers for the summer cooking course at Domestic Bliss, a Johannesburg housekeeping academy. "Goo-aca-moley," said Wizzington Manda, the only male "delegate", as the pupils are called. "Goo-ood," said Ms Hodes with the elocutionary deliberateness of a primary school teacher.

"We are at the end of the summer, so it is getting difficult to find ripe avocados," she said as they sat around the academy's poolside patio table. (Domestic Bliss is run at the suburban home of Ms Hodes's partner, Christi Singer.) "Do we all remember what we do to ripen the avos? Yes? We wrap them in newspaper, and put them ... in the fridge?" "Yes," the delegates chorused. "No," said Ms Hodes. "We put them in a dark place, don't we." Everyone giggled.

The delegates, each wearing a hygienic paper hat, were live-in domestics from Johannesburg's suburbs. This was their third and final Friday morning learning summer cooking. Other courses on offer include winter cooking - beginning in April - housekeeping and childcare.

It may not seem a great step towards emancipation for black Africans - many of them semi-literate and used to a staple diet of corn meal and meat - to learn recipes for guacamole, vichyssoise and pate. In fact, it is: their madams send them to Domestic Bliss to learn new recipes but they leave the course with confidence gained from speaking in class and a new assertiveness from having broken the isolation of life as a domestic.

Mr Manda, 54, a Malawian who cooks and cleans for a professional couple in Killarney, Johannesburg, said: "I have been cooking for 37 years. My madam wanted me to come to give me more skills. After this course I will have a certificate and something of a market value."

Loyce Phiri, 50, also from Malawi but working for a French family, said: "The first day of the course, I thought, `What is wrong with my cooking? Why have I been sent here?' " But, she said, "The others encouraged me and said I should feel proud to be here and proud of what I am learning. Nicest of all has been to meet new people."

At the end of the course some of the madams arrived to collect their employees from the 290 rand (pounds 29) course. Marilyx Stafford-Mayer, a director of the Executive Women's Club of South Africa, said: "I enrolled Doris as a contribution to her but also because I'm a busy working woman with no time to train her.

"Last night she made us a cold chicken salad, which she learnt here, and a divine cherry cheesecake. Now I shall be able to ask Doris to prepare fancy dishes for my dinner parties."

Doris Zwane, 56, who has worked for Mrs Stafford-Mayer for five years, said: "This is my first course ever. It has been nice to meet others and compare our families. It opens your brains."

Jodi Solomon, 25, said she had enrolled her domestic worker, Anna Kganyago, specifically to boost her confidence.

"I discovered she had been sending herself to school to learn English. Anna worked for my grandmother for 20 years, so she always did things the same way. This is her third course at Domestic Bliss and now she organises things herself rather than asking our advice. It has been good for all of us."

Ms Hodes conceded that some of the madams could do with a course themselves. "And we only see the cream; the people who care about their staff." A qualified teacher, she started Domestic Bliss two years ago. "People send their domestic workers here because we can help deal with the whole confrontation issue," she said. "We can make things clear without scolding them. We explain how to interpret the care label in clothes and a whole range of cross-cultural issues, like the fact that whites distrust people who do not look them in the eyes."

In African culture it is disrespectful to meet your superior's gaze, but after a course at Domestic Bliss delegates are much more likely to look whites in the eyes "in a confident, not a cocky way", Ms Hodes said. "We address everything here, except politics and pay."