Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Is this the same mother that died last week?

Since Brian and I both work, we have hired a couple to take care of our lawn for us. Defa comes one morning a week to tend our garden and flower beds, and her husband comes and mows our grass every other week or so. Although it sounds nice to have your own gardener or house help, being an employer in Papua New Guinea has a whole new set of rules than it does back home.

For one thing, the employer-employee relationship is much more permanent than in the U.S. You can’t just hire and fire people willy-nilly. Once you hire someone, unless you have a really good reason for terminating their employment, you are expected to continue that relationship for a long, long time. The first day we arrived in Ukarumpa, people started approaching us looking for work. Luckily we had received some good advice about checking references first and not hiring someone right away. We also hired our yard workers on a trial period first, to make sure that we were happy with their work before we committed to them.

Defa usually comes on Wednesday mornings, and she showed up at 8:00 today not to work, but to tell me that her husband’s mother had died and to tell me that neither of them would be able to work for the next few weeks. Here comes another confusing part of being an employer in PNG. First of all, what she actually said to me is that “mama bilong Sika em i dai”, or “Sika’s mom died.” Seems pretty straightforward, right? Not necessarily. Because in Pidgin, “mama” could mean any number of aunties two or three times removed, as well as one’s “true mama.” This can cause some confusion if your employee tells you that their mother died, and you’re like, “wait – didn’t your mom die last month too?” Rather than try to delve into the complicated tangle of family relationships, I decided to just accept the fact that a female relative died and they needed to stay at home and mourn. I knew that it was especially important for Defa to stay at home, because it was her “tambu”, or in-law, who had died. In PNG, you must show a greater degree of respect if it is your in-law who has died – even more than if it was your blood relative.

Now we come to a second tricky point about being an employer here. Defa was telling me about her woes, and I was almost certain that she was indirectly asking for money. A good Papua New Guinean will not come out directly and ask for something. That’s seen as very bad manners. For example, in the village, our was papa would tell us how much his back was hurting him, and we were expected to interpret this as a request for Tylenol. But he wouldn’t dream of just asking us directly. In the case of Defa, I also knew that as her employer, I am expected to contribute something when a relative of hers dies. When Defa started talking about how she needed to buy rice and other things for the funeral, I knew for certain what she was hinting at. So I gave her a little money and she went away happy. I think I handled this instance ok, but sometimes situations can come up when I’m not at all sure what the appropriate way to proceed is. That’s when I call up a neighbor who has been in the country longer and say, “help!”


Anonymous said...

HI Susan,
Good to hear about how you guys are going. Heard you had a good Madang trip as well - and you got to Goroka! We are in N Carolina and met the Sleeps (had dinner with them at a friends' place) which was nice. Hopefully we will get to see them more being some of the few young'uns around.

Kyle said...

Wait, I need money. What do I have to say to get some? haha That is an incredibly tricky way of asking for help.