One day we will have to address those swan towels on hotel beds. The ones that sit beak to beak, kissing or just gazing into each other’s eyes. But first, we have to accept that hotel rooms belong to the ladies who occupy them. How they stride in untangling their scarves, tossing their purses aside, and casting their gaze around the room. How they sigh when they sit on the bed, bouncing slightly as they look around appreciatively. How they slide open the door leading to the balcony and lean over the railing, an act that draws their dresses up an inch. How they make cooing sounds when they discover that the room has an outdoor shower. How later, while nibbling on a grape from the fruit platter, they place an army of cosmetics – cleansers, toner, antioxidant serum, eye cream, spot treatment, moisturizer, sunscreen – on the bathroom counter as if embarking on a war of beauty. And then they unpack thousands of clothes they intend to miraculously wear over the two days, hanging them in the closet with all the hangers facing west. And the many shoes; dinner shoes, day shoes, heels that will never be worn, three unnecessary pairs of sandals, a fancy glitter shoe that looks like a canoe which – you observe with glee – doesn’t look kosher at all. Then they will stand at the study table reading the note from management, then scan the label on their wine app and mutter, ‘not bad.’ All this while you will have done only one thing, turned on the TV, your small bag sitting there with your two measly changes of clothes, body lotion and a pair of socks. Of course, you will realise later at night that you forgot your toothbrush. Again.
Over the next two nights and three days, you will toss dirty towels on the floor, leave the bed tousled and rumpled, dirty cups of tea by the bedside, wine glasses stained with lipstick, used whisky glasses and, if you are anything like me, clothes strewn all over; a sock under a bed, a tee-shirt on the table, a pillow knocked on the floor. But each morning you leave for breakfast and you will come back to the room in the afternoon, and always find it like it was the first day you checked in; spick and span and smelling fresh and looking uninhabited again, making you feel like you are the first person to ever stay in that room. That’s because someone was there to clean after you. An invisible someone, silent and dutiful who sorted through the carnage of your stay and restored order and hygiene and brought back dignity to your room – and to you. You will never see these people even though you look at them. Heads bowed, they push big trolleys along corridors, squeezing themselves against the walls, making themselves small, as you – ye the important guest – pass along to your next holiday activity. They are called Housekeeping Stewards or Chambermaids, but generally, they are just people: sisters, brothers, mothers, aunts, uncles, humans like you and I.
I wanted to know what that’s like, to be a housekeeper. So I recently shadowed one at Enashipai Resort and Spa in Naivasha.
She’s called Doreen Kemunto. I find her waiting for me outside room Z318. She has her tools of trade on the trolley; buffer for polishing the wooden floors, two brooms – one for the bathroom and one for the bedroom, change of towels and linens, sanitizing gun, bottles of shampoo and body lotion and soaps, cleaning agents, toilet cleaners, window cleaners, disinfectants for the floor, air freshener, mops. We stood at the railing and shot the breeze a bit. The sun was out and we could smell the health of the grass. She asked if writing was fun for me. I said, most days it was. Some days it sucked pipe. But talking to interesting people like you is more fun, I added. Behind me a row of yellow-back acacias stood in a neat row as if waiting to be praised.
“Have you stayed with us before? She asks me.
I have an interesting love history with Enashipai Resort. It goes something like this, gentlemen. You are seeing someone but then you break up, right? You meet and take someone else for a weekend at the resort. Many months later you make up with the ex. Years later when you tell them, “I’m going to Enashipai for work, pack a bag for the weekend,” they roll their eyes and say, “Isn’t that where you and X* went when we broke up? I’d rather eat all my shoes than go there.” She has dozens of shoes, so that’s a legit threat. You chuckle, wondering how the hell she even knew about that but since that’s a Pandora’s box you say, “come on, are we still hung up on that story?” She says, “no, you aren’t, I am.” You say, “ yaye, jaber…” She says with astounding finality, “I’m not going to Enashipai. If you want to relive your memories I won’t be a part of it.” You say you are going to work, not to relive memories. Besides, it’s been years. But she will dig in her heels. “I’m not going! You go and work,” then because she chooses violence she always adds, “send me photos of your old honeymoon suite together.” So yeah, you end up checking into a massive elegant room with a breathtaking view but one that echoes with loneliness. The sins of men are never forgiven. And if they are, they are never forgotten.
So yeah, I tell Doreen, I have been here before. It’s time to get shit done. Doreen adjusts her facemask and walks up to the door. She knocks, thrice, then calls out, ‘housekeeping!’ Pause. Three rapid raps on the door again, a little pause, then “housekeeping!” She is loud enough for all the birds in the trees to hear. We stand and wait to hear footfalls coming to the door. All we hear are the chirping sounds of some of the 500 species of birds that call the resort home.
One last knock. “Housekeeping!”
The reason she is knocking thrice is to give any guest who might be finishing ironing their boxers time to come to the door.
She turns and throws a quick smile at me as if to say, ‘Let’s do this’, then inserts the key card. The door opens a crack. ‘Housekeeping!’ she calls out one last time. There is nobody running naked across the room so we gain entry. I follow behind. The room is empty. It’s got the warm smell of a room that’s been recently occupied. A human lived here. I can feel their warmth, their pheromones, they radiate from the bed and walls. A half-drank bottle of water sits by the bedside. One empty closet door is open. The bed is undone, the linens showing that not long ago a human lay there, unconscious in sleep, then woke up with their dreams.
She never knows what she will meet when she goes to clean the rooms. When you are in housekeeping you should be ready to meet anything in a room. People sometimes leave weird shit in rooms, I’ve been told. You shouldn’t be surprised to find a whole chicken in the room. Not a feather, but a whole chicken. Because a feather would mean he likes being tickled under his feet, but a whole chicken is taking kinky to another level. Also how do you pass the reception with a whole chicken? Unless you sedated it.
Every morning at 8am Pat briefs them. They are informed of the number and type of guests the resort is expecting. Most weekday guests are usually in for conferences; working suits with lanyards and notepads talking shop. They hardly spend much time in their rooms. Then the weekend crowds are mostly guys like you now, guys for sherehe or to relax. They want to golf, do a boat safari, bike, chill by the pool with a drink or visit their nightclub called The Wave.
Doreen walks to the balcony, opens it and lets in fresh air. It’s called airing the room. The spirit of the previous occupant flies out. She checks if all the towels, bathrobes are there. If something is missing she is required to immediately call her supervisor and say, “Hi Pat, the safe is missing. I also can’t find the television.” The supervisor will ask, “Are you sure?” after which she will hang up and call security who will call the front desk where you will be in the process of checking out. The lady at the reception will smile politely and say, “Uhm, I’m so sorry to bother you Mr Biko – and I’m sure this is just a little misunderstanding that will soon be sorted out – but [clears throat], we can’t seem to find the safe in your room. Might you have packed it accidentally together with the TV?”
[Note; bathrobes, towels, cups, iron boxes, lines, pillows, vases, telephones, curtains, sinks, carpets are not yours to take home. But feel free to take away the sandals and toiletries].
Doreen snaps her gloves on. She disinfects the linens by spraying them and then strips them off the bed. She soaks the toilet with a toilet disinfectant and leaves it there to think about its life. Back in the room she runs the long handle of the broom under the bed. “Guests sometimes leave things under beds,” she says, turning to look at me as the handle makes a smooth arc. Nothing tumbles out.
“What’s the strangest item that’s come out from under a bed?” I ask hoping she would say something like a volleyball, or a dildo or even a prosthetic leg. Instead, she says, “Shoes, wallets, watches, hot water bottles, undergarments. The usual.”
“I bet you have discovered some really ghastly underpants under the bed during your work?” I joke.
She laughs and says nothing. She doesn’t want to be drawn to idle talk. She’s a woman on the grind. Plus I suspect her supervisor told her, “that guy is a writer, don’t be drawn too much into his banter, please be careful what you tell him because he will write about it! So stay Taliban, Doreen.”
Speaking of the Taliban. I’m always forgetting my boxers in hotel bathrooms. I have lost some good boxers in hotel bathrooms but I have also lost some pretty horrible boxers in hotel bathrooms. I mean everybody has that one terrible boxer that is so far away from the person you are. When women say they have that one undergarment that they wear during their menses, a very comfortable cotton one that looks like it was excavated from Kariandusi Prehistoric site I totally understand because I have one of those in my collection as well. A very old pair that you just can’t let go off because of just how comfortable it is, how it holds you. I have left a few in hotel bathrooms and that is not an undergarment you call the hotel for if you forget it behind.
Anyway, all lost items are logged under lost and found and handed over to security who hold them for your collection.
Doreen then stands at the bottom center of the bed and spreads the first linen. It’s the whitest of white. You know the proverbial “light at the end of the towel?” That’s the colour of the linen. They smell fresh as a dawn light. She spreads the bed like a ballet dancer; her movements synchronised, her actions fluid. I get the feeling she could do it blindfolded. She makes it look easy but I know it’s anything but. She pulls and tucks. She then places a duvet cover which she tucks in, first lifting with the left hand and tucking with the right. She smooths it out with the flat of her palms as if telling it, good duvet, good duvet. She has been in housekeeping for ten years now and has made thousands of beds.
“So what can you say is the trick to making a bed?”
She stretches her back. “You have to know the size of your bed. Ours are king-size beds, the size of your linen and the size of your bed should be just right, not too big and not too small. Also you have to watch out for the miter corners.”
“Meter, like meter ya maji?”
“No,” she chuckles, “miter corners, this is a technique made popular in the army and hospitals for the comfort of the patient. It creates a sharp, smooth corner on the bed where there would normally be wrinkles. Like this.” She shows me how to make a mitered corner. She then replaces the pillowcases. There are four pillows on the bed. The rotary fan overhead is static, as if frozen in time.
She takes ten minutes to make the bed. It’s a gorgeous bed with a big leather headboard.
A bed makes a hotel room. But the Enashipai bed is King. A bed among beds if you will. With its majestic Maasai necklace on full display, sticking out like a big chest, it says to other beds, you should know people.
She then moves to the bathroom. She runs hot water in the bathtub as she empties the silver trash can. She discards all the unused and used soaps and shampoos. “Because of Covid we can’t recycle these unused items.” She has three color-coded types of spontex for cleaning the washroom. Blue is for the toilet, pink is for the vanity area and green for dusting furniture. She disinfects and cleans the sink. I lean against the entrance of the outdoor shower as I watch her clean the toilet, scrub the damn thing till it sparkles and then replaces the tissues, folding the tip into a shape.
“Why do you guys fold tissue at the tip like that?”
“To show the guest that it’s unused.” She says. “It also looks nice, doesn’t it?”
It does. She brings back the amenities, shower caps, vanity kit, shampoos, conditioners, body lotions, shower gels, soap. She drapes clean fresh towels on the rack and a bath mat over the tub. I can smell the towels from where I’m standing. Oh and towels make a hotel room. They have to be blindingly white. She excuses herself and walks into the outdoor shower where she tests if the knobs and things are working fine, if the jet of water is coming out of the shower in uniform streams. She has eight rooms to make and it takes her about 25 to 35 minutes to make one room because she is an old hand at this, otherwise it takes a novice 45 to 60 minutes. Time is of the essence because there is always a guest pacing up and down the hotel lobby, muttering to himself and frequently going back to the main desk to ask, “I’m sorry, have you finished with the construction of my room?”
She gives the bathroom a thorough cleaning, paying attention to the spaces between the tiles. She works fast but delicately, with a seasoned eye on detail. She doesn’t hum under her breath, just moving soundlessly.
“What occupies your thoughts when you are working in these rooms, alone?”
She straightens up and catches that beautiful Naivasha light. Standing in the outdoor shower cubicle, she looks like she is showering in sunlight. “Just life.” She says. She’s 29 years old.
“Like what?” I inquire. “What were you thinking about just now?”
“My dad.” She says. “He died in May this year.”
“Oh no, I’m sorry. That’s terrible.”
“Oh that’s life.” She resumes with the cleaning. There is a silence where I’m contemplating asking about her father or leaving that wound alone.
“How old was he?”
“That’s so young!” I say. “A good man?”
“Yes. He was a teacher who had resigned then became a bishop.”
“Do you remember the day he died? What were you doing?”
The day he died, he woke up as usual and went around inspecting the shamba. Her parents loved farming. At noon he said he wasn’t feeling too fresh, a bit green around the gills. A taxi was called and he was admitted to the nearby hospital. When she heard the news of his passing she was at her sink. She had soap in her hands. “I haven’t gone to church ever since my dad died. I’m not very happy with God, I think, for taking my dad. He was a good guy. A nice man.”
She grew up in a village called Miruka in Nyamira, Kisii. They lived in a big, stone house with many rooms to accommodate their family. She’s the fourth born in the family of nine. Hers was a farm life; collecting firewood, cleaning the compound, feeding the chicken. Her dad planted trees which he sold to send her to school. Her mom had a kitchen garden of sorts where she planted vegetables and groundnuts. There was always work to be done. You never sat around doing nothing. You cleaned, you washed, you used a jembe, you cooked. “I don’t mind working, it comes easy for me.” She says. After graduating from Utalii college she interned at the resort and when her time was done, Jimmy, one of the directors, asked for her to be retained, she says.
She disinfects the surfaces of the bathroom, polishes off the faucets till you can see your dimples on them. She sprays the mirror and wipes it clean. She flushes the loo. In the main room she starts cleaning the floor. I boil some water from the kettle and make some green tea which I take to the balcony overlooking the lush grounds. Lately, I have been suffering from grass envy whenever I see a patch of very green grass. I wonder why other people’s grass grows so well when mine in shags doesn’t. Why does God give other people such consistently green grass and others grass that has brown patches? But I know how much it takes to make your grass that green and uniform and consistent. It takes selling your soul. And at Enashipai their greenery rolls effortlessly like something off a postcard. From the balcony I can hear their famous fountain, a soothing sound of water giggling.
“Are you married, Doreen?” I ask her, “Kids?”
“Yes I do! Just one.”
“One what, husband?”
“One child!” She laughs. “He’s called Brevian. He’s a very sharp boy, I’m very proud of him. Even the teacher loves that boy. Actually just yesterday he told me he wanted ten shillings, I asked him for what? Ati to buy for Madam Josephine a lollipop. I love that boy.” I like how she’s referring to him as ‘that boy’, as if referring to him in the third person lends credence and objectivity to her opinion of him. In 2014 there was a guy in procurement who had that vibe that she liked. His name was Daniel. She lowkey liked Daniel and she knew he was going to be her husband. The following year they got married. Now Daniel works in the IT department of a major bookshop in Nairobi. OK, it’s Text Book Center. “I married him because he is so caring, he is always there for me.”
“How does the distance thing work for you and your marriage?”
“He comes down most weekends and all holidays. But of course he doesn’t like the distance. He doesn’t like that we live apart and to travel down but I told him I love my job. I can’t leave my job. I love my job.”
“It will work out, eventually,” I tell her. “My brother likes to say, ‘give time time.’”
“Yes, it will.” She’s up and about the room now. The room smells fresh, aerated. She’s almost done now, just touching up here and there, sprucing it up. When I ask her what her dreams are she tells me of a story of one of her best clients, a frequent guest at Enashipai called Ms RK. She is a fastidious guest who normally wants her room in a specific way and only Doreen knows how to attend to her. “When she’s booking a room she says, ‘I want Doreen to attend my room.’ Because I understand how she wants her room. She is specific; she wants water and lemon. She likes clean fresh towels spread in the closet and drawers. She is very clean and she gives specific instructions which have to be followed to the letter. She wants six pillows on her bed and more hangers in her closet because when she comes she can stay for as long as two weeks.”
“Why do you like her?”
“Because she knows exactly what she wants. She is strict but she will listen to you and she respects what I do. She talks to me, tells me about her business. How she started it from nothing and how hard she has worked on it. She is successful. She works so hard that she can take long holidays here. She always encourages me, she tells me nothing good comes easy, that you have to work hard. That nobody supported her in her life, that everything she has earned she has earned out of hard work. She really inspires me. One day I want to start my own cleaning company and be like her. “
“She sounds interesting.”
“Yes, and she encourages me to give my son the best education I can afford, to sacrifice for him. There was a time she paid fees for my son.”
“I like her.”
“Yeah, she’s nice.”
She’s done. The room looks clean and smells like it’s going on a date. She goes around the room one more time, touching this, adjusting that, wiping off any missed stains, the water glasses and kettle and tea bags all in place, the pillows aligned. She then shuts the balcony door. She sprays the room sanitizes all the handles one last time and sprays the room with air freshener. I look at the room one last time, like you’d look at a lover’s train leaving the station as she pushes her trolley outside, closing the room behind her.
Someone will check into that room. It will be just like any other spotless room at Enashipai and the occupant will not know what dreams, struggles, fears and passions Doreen has left in that room in the half-hour she was there putting in an honest day’s work. They will not know that the same heart that spreads the bed passionately is also the heart that grieves passionately for her own father. And they shouldn’t, maybe because we are all ships in the dark, aren’t we?
She has been at the resort as long as the resort has been there; ten years. The whole of this month (1st to 31st Oct) they will be celebrating their ten-year anniversary by charging only 10K for all rooms but only for online bookings.
When you next visit, please say hello to Doreen. Ask her about Brevian and if she asks you, ‘How do you know my son?’ tell her that you and I used to be friends but then I borrowed money from you and stopped picking your calls. Then watch her face. Ha-ha. You know, just for shit and giggles.
The registration of the October Creative Writing Masterclass (25th to 29th) is ongoing HERE.
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