She followed me, a sign of respect to her employer, as we climbed the twenty steps to my apartment. When I reached the top, Aziza was still only half-way up. Panting heavily, she hauled her heavy body up each step with great difficulty. Her right hand pressed her right thigh as her right leg moved up one step to the next; her left leg moved the same way. Every time she exerted force with her legs, her fleshy feet squeezed into her little shoes, seeming to want to burst out of them.
Sweat seeped through her veil near her temples when she reached the top of the stairs. Her thick lenses were so foggy that I could not see her eyes. She removed her glasses, which bridged her nose with a Band-aid holding the two sides together. As she wiped the lenses with her dress, she heaved a big sigh as if she was just relieved of a burden.
Aziza had been recommended to me by a colleague. Having worked for Indian expats for the last eight years, she had a skill that many housemaids lacked -- she spoke English.
She cleaned my apartment and ironed clothes two days per week. I could not ask her to do many things, such as clean the constantly dusty windows or vacuum the carpets, because she could not bend or stand on a stool without fainting. I took her in because she was the only wage earner for her family of ten -- two children, aged four and seven, her in-laws, a widow sister with three small children, and a husband who had been in prison for several years.
She lived in a poor neighbourhood near Agami, a resort town on the Mediteranean Sea, which was two hours by bus from where I lived in Alexandria, Egypt. Since unemployment was high, she was one of the lucky women who found jobs as a housemaid. Her 350 pound (RM266) monthly salary was just enough to buy food for the entire family. She was well-off compared to many people in her area.
Like other poor families, Aziza's family meals consisted mostly of "aish" (a coarse, flat bread that cost just 5 piasters, or 6 Malaysian sen, each) eaten with "tahini" (a dip made of ground sesame seeds, garlic and cumin) and tea laden with sugar. Sweets made of ghee were eaten whenever Aziza recieved her daily wage. Vegetables were eaten only as supplement when there was no money to buy sweets. They had never developed a taste for fruits; they were too expensive to buy.
Meat, a high status food, was also too expensive for the poor. Since Aziza did not get a chance to eat much meat when she worked with the Indian families, who were all vegetarian, she could not help but eat as much meat as possible whenever I made Malaysian dinners for friends. After she ate all the meat she wanted, she was usually sick the next day.
The high level of fat, starch and sugar in her foods took a toll on Aziza's health. She tired easily and often took rest for days because of diabetes and high blood pressure. Her face often grew crimson and puffy after she finished a cleaning task. Physical activity seemed to take a lot out of her. I often found her laying on the floor overcome by dizziness when she had her period.
When she first started to work for me, I did not know that she had serious health problem. "These people, they are low class and they are lazy. They don't want to work but they want your money. If you pay them, they get even lazier!" said the Egyptian neighbour who lived in the apartment downstairs as we sipped afternoon tea in her satin-walled lounge. Having just arrived in the country, I took her advice and I did not pay Aziza for the days she did not come.
Despite her sickness, Aziza came to work whenever she felt better. It was not until months later that I found out her problems. "Don't come to work if you are sick!" I advised.
"Aziza no work, no money, no eat, baby cry," she insisted, determination in her eyes.
Ashamed of myself for being so uncaring, I offered to pay her wages if she took a rest for a month. "No, Madam. If Aziza not come, other lady come, Madam forget Aziza." She was afraid to lose her job because there were so many other women in the neighbourhood who would jump at the chance of a job.
One time, I could not bear the thought of her food habits any more and I tried to explain the benefits of eating a variety of foods to her. As I described a balance diet for her, she looked down humbly and listened quietly.
Then, she showed me her swollen hands. An indentation was left when I pressed my finger on one of the palms. Her hands retained water because of her weak heart.
She looked at me sadly and said softly, "Aziza sick because Aziza no money. Aziza eat "aish", Aziza work, Aziza happy. One day, baby big, Aziza no sick."
Just before I left Egypt, I heard from my colleague that Aziza was in the hospital, seriously ill. Her mother had died and her seven year old had broken his legs from falling into a manhole in the streets.
I know I will miss her smiles.
(This blog is about the inter-relationship between poverty and nutrition and health status. Poverty determines the nutrition and health status because it affects the kinds of food that a household eats. Poor nutrition and health status, in turn, affects the income level of the household by making individuals less productive. Often, women are the most affected by poor diets.)
By Chong Sheau Ching