Saturday, December 10, 2005

Oscar of Malawi

You may be able to imagine the adjustment involved in having full time household help. Or maybe not. I have to slap myself some days. It’s just too bizarre, really. We’ve hired Oscar, a man from Malawi (another country in Africa, for the geographically challenged amongst you) to work around the house here. He dusts, he vacuums, he does the dishes, and the laundry and ironing. He is so much neater than I could ever be. He has such high standards! “Ellie, this room is verry verrrry dirrty!” I look around, some dust, yeah. But Oscar does his magic and it looks so much better. I didn’t even SEE the dirt, and now it’s gone. Wow.

Oscar’s a great guy. He irons beautifully, and even those golf socks of Mr. D’s are all pressed! Oscar and I, we’ve been doing a lot of house projects together, like hanging curtains and so on. As long as we can both find our reading glasses, we do fine (I bought him a pair the week after he came on board, when I realized that neither of us could see a damn thing.)

For someone who’s living hundreds and hundreds of miles from his wife and children, he is remarkably steady. He works here, and sends money home monthly. This time of year, his pay is really critical, as it’s planting season, and seed and fertilizer need to be purchased. These things are, by Malawian standards, extremely expensive. And due to an extensive drought, the worst since 1992, food is already in very short supply, months before any harvest can be expected. That, along with the ever present scourge of HIV/AIDS, has put the entire population at risk of starvation.

Malawi has one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world. About $170 per person, per year. Can you imagine? You can’t. Don’t even try. By the way, if you are interested in donating to Malawian hunger relief, the World Food Programme (, in association with the UN, has been doing fine aid work there. Oxfam as well. ( Check out those web sites (Southern Africa/Malawi pages). Right now, hunger programmes for Malawi are seriously underfunded, due to ... Well, who knows? Natural disasters right and left all over the globe? Donor burnout? Lack of effective publicity? At any rate, anything you give will surely mean a lot to people who earn less than 50 cents a day. Think about it. One fourth of the cost of your FIRST Starbucks of the day feeds an entire family in Africa for a whole day. "Aiysh!", as they say here.

But back to Oscar. I know he thinks we’re really a strange bunch, Mr. D, me, and Miss T. Over the years, we’ve accumulated so much “stuff”,even just in terms of dishes. With four kids, and all their friends as well, it seemed I always was cooking meals for at least 10. So one needed to have at least a dozen soup and cereal bowls, just to cover the mealtimes and manage breakage issues (especially with all those teenaged boys sloping about, balancing cereal bowls on top of the TV or whatever). Now, that stack of bowls stays standing in the cupboard. We use two, maybe three dishes and then they’re washed, dried -- all clean again immediately after the meal. We could in fact get by with only three of anything.

And Mr. D’s been traveling a lot, so Miss T and I have developed some strange habits. It’s hard to get geared up for cooking when there’s only two of you... and one person only prefers pizza. The other morning, Oscar stopped me and said, "E! E! .... Sorry! Sorry! ..... I must.... I have been wanting to ask you. Aiysh.... What do you people eat? I am thinking you buy food only for me.”

I had to stop and ponder. What WAS in the fridge? Beet root chutney, some pesto, a tube of wasabi. Diet Coke, sparkling water, half a bottle of Mr. D’s favorite Chardonnay. A brick of mozzarella, a few ears of corn, some yoghurt, and a couple of eggs. My gosh, what HAVE we been eating? Ai yi! And, hmmmm! Good question! For Miss T it’s been pizza and pasta. For me, fresh corn on the cob, biltong, anchovy toast, and pickles. (Yes, I must be salt-deprived in this heat.) For Mr. D, when he’s here, the Atkins diet (ugh.) Yes, we’re an odd lot.

And then there’s Vladi, who hasn’t been eating anything. He was getting awfully scrawny looking, even for a poodle. He was starting to look like a starving African dog, for crying out loud. Then last weekend, he seemed oh-so-sick, and he just lay around all day. We ended up taking him to the veterinary hospital late Sunday, where he was diagnosed (after numerous tests) with Addison’s disease. Same as in humans, it’s a failure of the adrenal gland, quite common in male standard poodles around five years of age. Bingo. He’s got that. A poster child for genetic poodle disorders. Oh well.

Fortunately, with a lifetime regime of inexpensive pills, he can lead a long and healthy life. A week later and he’s already almost himself again. Of course, this makes him one of the more expensive dogs in the world -- a few international flights, those grooming fees, special food, meds, boarding on occasion. Somehow when we took on a puppy back in the year 2000 we forgot to open a mutual fund to finance his upbringing. Ach. What can I say? He’s good company in this strange place.

But then think on this. I’m spending all this money on my dog. My dog. I do love him, it’s true. He’s kept me going, faithful companion, through some tough times. But I could feed families, whole villages, with that money. Life’s tragic ironies. Dogs owned by Americans and Brits have health insurance and Science Diet Adult Large Breed dog food, and then babies and two-year-olds and young mothers and old people starve and die of malnutrition in a country you’ve never even heard of. Where’s the fairness in all of that?

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