Guillaume Bonn, ‘Silent Lives’

Kavina (left) is a fifty-year-old grandmother who works as a maid. She came to Kenya as a refugee from Uganda; her entire family was killed during the Idi Amin regime. Florence, also a maid, is forty-seven years old and comes from Kakamega. She is planning to get married in church so that her daughter may be allowed to have a religious marriage. Her husband works in a hotel in Nairobi.

The maids prepare a room for a guest coming to spend the weekend.

A nanny by the pool of the Muthaiga Club, situated in a residential area of Nairobi, while her young charge relaxes on a sun bed.

Guillame Boon has produced a remarkable series of photos about the lives of domestic workers titled Silent Lives for which he was nominated for the Piclet Prize in 2012.

Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker writes, ” Kenya, in other words, is no longer the place of Karen Blixen’s nostalgically remembered, illusory Eden, where everyone except the whites knew their place….and yet, as Bonn reveals, some of the old social heriarchies persist in some of the country’s most privileged households”.

Bonn’s description of his project is as follows:

Silent Lives was inspired by Juliette, a Madagascan matriarch who worked for my grandfather for 50 years. When he died, she decided to leave us with neither farewell nor retirement package. The family were stricken by her abrupt departure but were never able to trace her whereabouts. Juliette’s actions said she needed neither us nor our money.

My grandfather had assumed that he was in charge but perhaps the true power lay with Juliette after all. So in fact the power relationship between employer and employed is shifting and subtle. What Juliette had demonstrated still tends to hold true today. Employers know very little about their servants’ lives, their families, their dreams and hopes. Their servants have no authority but carry a large burden of responsibility. These people who are banished to small rooms at the bottom of the garden when night has fallen are, during the day, stewards of power.

David, forty years old, left his village in northwest Kenya to seek work as an askari, or watchman, in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. The plot of land on which he grew vegetables was too small to feed his six children.

Phyllis, twenty-three, works as a maid for a family that lives on the shores of Lake Naivasha. She commutes every day to a vast estate containing buffallos, zebras, and giraffes from the nearby shanty town where she was born and raised.

A maid adjusts the curtains on the veranda of a colonial house rented by white Kenyans from black owners. The house is five hours from Nairobi.

A maid cleans an old colonial house on a farm an hour’s drive from Nakuru, a Rift Valley market town.

“Preparing Picnic” by Guillaume Bonn

“Sunday by the Pool” by Guillaume Bonn

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View more photographs here and here.

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