What life is like behind the gates.
TRANSIT ZONE, Dubai- The flight to Oman was full of young Ugandan women. They were on the way to begin their tenures as domestic servants, working in the homes of Muscat’s wealthy and wealthy-ish. I sat next to a couple of them and asked if they were afraid. They said that they weren’t, paused, and then admitted that they were. As we rolled over the tarmac towards the gates of Muscat’s new airport they looked out the window at a world nothing like anything they’ve seen before: dry, parched desert being grinded down by a sandpaper-harsh sun.
I cannot say that I saw many of these women throughout my stay in Oman, and I kind of forgot about them. They essentially become shadow people upon arrival, disappearing into homes, displaying little in the streets which alludes to their existence. They are not like the Filipinos or Indian workers, who have a very public presence in Oman.
But as I was at the airport leaving Oman I again began seeing droves of Ugandan maids:
They are wearing extremely colorful robes. One is all yellow, the girl sitting next to her is all red, next to her is blue, white, and then the one on the end is wearing a mix of purple, black, and green. They are around 22 or so years old — a group of domestic workers going home after serving their terms in the homes of Muscat’s rich. They are talking loud and laughing.
I began to talking with one of them. While all the rest were colorfully clad in robes and head scarves, she was decked out in dark western style clothes — a tight black long sleeve athletic shirt, dark grey sweat pants, and a dark grey hoodie. It was L.A. style — dark colors to blend in with the streets. Urban camouflage. The contrast between how this girl was dressed and the rest of the group made me curious. I began talking with her. I seemed to have freaked her out.
As I was wandering around the airport in Dubai, two hours into a ten-hour layover, I suddenly looked down to see the girl in the dark grey hoodie. I nearly stepped on her — she was sitting up against a support beam off to the side of a crowded corridor. We both kind of surprised each other and flashed a look of mutual recognition — she was the girl dressed in dark colors and I was the guy that tried to talk to her in Muscat. We said hello, she smiled and was open to talking, and I sat down next to her. She told me the story of what life was like working in the homes of Oman.
She terminated her contract early, only working 10 months of what was supposed to have been a two year term. She couldn’t take it anymore — being away from home, being yelled at, being continually watched and punished. She still danced, but had to do so from the privacy of bathrooms. She still made phone calls home, but had to do so while hiding from her employers. She didn’t have a very good run in Oman, but she got out and was on the way home.
“You don’t just marry a wife there, you marry a wife and a maid,” she joked. “They don’t know how to do anything. They don’t know how to cook, they don’t know how to clean. They can’t even boil an egg! They have other people to do everything for them.”
Nearly half of the people in Oman are foreigners working for Omanis. Over the past few generations, the oil-rich nation has been able to lean back and depend on foreign labor to do their dirty work. Filipinos, Indians, and Ugandans are imported in droves and have become a vital national resource, as many Omanis seem to have forgotten how to do what most cultures would call the basic acts of life — they’ve never cooked, never cleaned, never …
She told me that they lady she worked for wasn’t very nice; that she smoked five packs of cigarettes per day and yelled at her regularly. She said she nearly had what amounted to a nervous breakdown and tried to quit. Her employer told her that she could quite and that she was going home on multiple occasions — ‘pack your bags, you’re leaving today’ — and then leave her sitting there waiting until she eventually realized that it wasn’t true. When she was actually taken to the airport it came as a surprise.
“The sun is so hot that nobody goes outside,” she described Muscat. “I think God is punishing those people. Punishing them for how they act.”
I invited her to join me for a cup of coffee. There are a few options for this in the budget terminal of Dubai — McDonald’s, Costa Coffee, and some French chain — and I went for the later. It was more expensive and the seating was nicer.
She told me that she was from a village outside of Kampala. Her parents built their own house, adding on additions as needed. “People of my generation built their houses from bricks they made themselves. Your generation can’t do that,” her mother sometimes tells her.
She heard about the opportunity to go to Oman to work from friends and decided that she wanted to do it. Her mother and father were against the plan but she insisted.
“Let me try to find out.”
Finally, her mother relented. “You want to find out? Go find out then.”
She ended up spending the next ten months waking up at 4:30 in the morning to make chapatis. She was told she that would be paid 80 rial per month but was actually only given 70.
“But still you see all of these girls going to Oman to work. They know how it is but they don’t care. They go anyway.”