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?