More Downsides of Domestic Help

Our housekeeper has lice and it looks like I am going to have to fire her. While this might seem drastic, unfortunately I think that she comes from a segment of society that has not been educated very well in hygiene and accepts lice as a fact of life. And here I have to draw the line. Even our nanny’s family said that they don’t think that our housekeeper will do what it takes to get rid of the lice (wash everything, nitpick, etc.). I really like our housekeeper and  I feel horrible about her situation and the poverty in which she lives. I was willing to overlook certain things and teach her how to run a home (not putting clean wet clothes on the floor of a dirty patio to dry, using utensils to serve food rather than her hands), but at lice I draw the line. And I feel terrible.

So here is what happened: my friend and I were on our daily walk when she said “You know, we are near your housekeeper’s house. Do you want to stop by and say hello?” Sure. I was curious about where our housekeeper lived. We walked down a small street and then turned down a dirt road. There were barking dogs and trash everywhere. “Is it safe for us to be here?” I asked my friend. “Don’t worry”, she replied. We walked abit further until we got to a rusty metal gate with laundry hanging on it. We knocked and our housekeeper opened the gate and sheepishly invited us inside. It was obvious that she was embarrassed about her home. As we stepped inside, I could see why. It was basically a dark collection of several “rooms” with tin walls and roof and a dirt floor. There were huge holes in the tin so I could only imagine how frigid it gets at night (the temperature sometimes drops to the 40s at night). There was trash all around. The cooking pots were sitting on the dirt floor. She showed us their bedroom with its blaring TV (even the poorest homes here somehow have a TV). She and her husband sleep in one bed and their four kids sleep in a nearby bunk bed. A heap of clothes was piled up on the floor or maybe it was a low lying shelf. This is our housekeeper’s house? There is poverty and then there is filth and her house was crossing the line towards the latter.

We then met three of her four children, 7 year old twins ( a boy and a girl) and a nine year old son. They were wearing school uniforms (Noemi is very proud that they all go to school since many children here do not) but their hair was greasy and their uniforms were slightly dirty. Their eyes were curious and shy. I couldn’t believe that these kids have to live in these conditions. And with a father who abuses them and beats their mother! Ughh! It was overwhelmingly disturbing.

We left our housekeeper’s house, and I was reeling from what I had seen. My friend was pretty shocked too and said, “I think the little girl has lice. I saw tons of eggs in her hair.” Now I know that it’s pretty difficult to see lice eggs unless you get really close and examine the hair, but the whole scene left me really grossed out. I am not the neatest person in the world (my parents are probably nodding their heads as they read this). Not even close. But I was seriously grossed out. I pictured our housekeeper arriving for work at our house and I wanted to fumigate her before she entered. And then I felt guilty for thinking this. Poor woman with the wounded puppy dog look on her face. She has been working so hard to do a good job. And she clearly needs the money…badly.

So now I was thinking about how to address the potential lice issue. My head started itching just thinking about it. I didn’t want to degrade our housekeeper by checking her head as she showed up for work but I also couldn’t expose my children to lice without looking into it. So our nanny and I concocted a plan that I would tell our housekeeper that I heard that there was a lice epidemic in Chia and that I wanted to check everybody’s hair in the household. Apparently there is a lice epidemic in Chia, at least in our housekeeper’s world, because she didn’t look the least bit surprised by any of this and said “Yes, there is tons of lice. My daughter had it before but I took it out with a special comb. I paid 50 COP (about $25) for this special comb.” Ughh… again.

Well you know what happens next. I checked the girls’ hair. All clear, Pheww! Then I checked our housekeeper’s hair and sure enough I found tons of nits. I tried to explain to her that the lice combs don’t work, that you have to painstakingly take out the eggs one by one on a daily basis for like a month and wash everything, all the bedding, the sheets. Our housekeeper told me that she was going to go home and take a shower. She wasn’t getting it. I felt terrible about it because I know how much she needs the work. I paid Noemi for the day and sent her home. I just couldn’t have her cleaning my house and cooking my food with lice in her head.

After she left, I realized that there was no way she could continue working for us. I could see that there is no way she would do the work of painstakingly removing all the eggs from her kids’ heads and her own. And even if she did, they would probably come back, given the overall hygiene levels in her home. This would leave me to check her hair every day. Or the eggs could be on her clothes. Or given the conditions that she lives in, there are quite a few other parasites she could be bringing into our house. I just can’t live with that.

And yet, I feel so bad for Noemi and her situation. I feel responsible for helping this woman who has been a gentle and helpful presence in our household. I keep thinking whether there is some way that I can help her but I don’t know how. All I can think of is to pay her a month’s salary and hope that she finds another job. Any suggestions, my dear friends?

This entry was posted in Domestic woes, Life in Colombia, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to More Downsides of Domestic Help

  1. Hi Natalie-finally found your blog to catch up with your adventures in Colombia. After reading the recent post – I just wanted to say ‘hi’ and let you know that you are not missing anything in Massachusetts. As a matter of fact some of your Waldorf friends struggled with Lice this summer- not as a result of poor hygienes by the way. They came to us twice and we also spend a fortune getting rid of them. Yes they are no fun but also not so horrible after all. Would you like us to send you some special Preventative Holistic stuff for your girls? A little spray and braids can do the magic. I would ask your help to wear a scarf or hat maybe -but letting her go might not be a guarantee to get rid of them for sure. You can also stay on top of (drown) them with Olive Oil. SO just keep in mind that you probably will get them here as well – no matter what – no matter where or who you are with. Please keep writing and stay safe (don’t wonder around in unknown neighborhoods). Let us know if you need a care package for lice 😉 be well and lots of love to you,Esteban, the girls and of course the cat (is he actually with you?).
    Mirja

    • Thanks Mirja. I would love some holistic anti-lice stuff. I am not sure how to get it here but esteban does come to the US every so often maybe he can pick some up. What’s it called? And sorry to hear about your situation this summer. We ahve had lice twice too in the States so I know what a hassle it is. Anyway, how are you and the girls doing?

  2. Lisa says:

    Hi Natalie,
    I just read about 10 of your posts–ever since FB changed its format I never see it anymore! So I had to go looking. As I sit here and scratch my head…I want to say, what a sad, sad situation…and I would probably do the same thing as you. How stressful. Ditto the above–let me know if you need a care package, including some lice-prevention shampoo. Love you and love your writing!

  3. IRA MARKS says:

    I GOT YOUR BLOG FROM A FRIEND. I AM NOT YELLING AT YOU I JUST USE CAPS. GOOD LUCK I AM A FORMER EPIDEMIOLOGIST AND USED TO TRAVEL TO INDO NESIA WITH ALL SORTS OF MEDS, BETADINE AND PEOPLE USE TO COME TO ME FOR HELP. I KNOW THAT YOU ARE CONCERNED ABOUT THIS FORMER MAID AND THE BRINGING OF HEALTH PROBLEMS INTO YOUR HOUSE. ALL I CAN SAY THAT FOR THINGS TO CHANGE FOR YOUR FORMER MAID IS TO HAVE A MAJOR INTERVENTION BY OTHERS OUTSIDE OF JUST YOU AND HER. TO DO A MASS CLEANING AND TOSSING OF THE HOUSE. TO ADD ABUSE TO THE SITUATION REACHES FARTHER THAN I CAN TELL. I DON’T KNOW WHAT SORT OF PROGRAMS THERE ARE IN COLUMBIA,BUT IT SEEMS THAT A MAJOR PUBLIC HEALTH PROGRAM IS NEEDED TO EDUCATE AND SUPPORT PEOPLE LIKE THE WOMAN YOU HAD TO LET GO. SHE NEEDS HELP IN A BIG WAY, EDUCATION, ACCESS TO HEALTH CARE, CLEANING SUPPLIES, I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT THE WATER IS LIKE IN THE TOWN. IT IS ALL WELL AND GOOD TO DO ORGANIC, HOMEOPATHIC, THAT WESTERN MEDICINE. I AM LUCKY TO HAVE AVOIDED LICE, THAT THERE ARE CHEMICALS THAT ARE NO SO HEALTHY, BUT IN A SITUATION WHERE YOU HAVE CONSTANT EXPOSURE TO LICE AND PARASITES. ARE THERE ANY CLINICS. YOU COULD ALSO PAY A GROUP OF PEOPLE TO CLEAN OUT THE HOUSE. THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO GIVE HER ALTERNATIVES WHERE SH AND HER KIDS CLEAN THEIR HOME AND CLOTHES. I DON’T KNOW IF THIS IS HELPFUL, BUT IT IS AN IDEA. IRA

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