Silent Winter

With the help of my maid, Gloria, I’ve been battling white fly for more than a year. Tiny little things, they lay their eggs on plants, and the larvae eat the sap from the leaves and stems, drip sap all over the ground beneath, and kill the plants they are feeding from. I’ve replaced dead plants, I’ve paid passing itinerant plant-sprayers, and most of all Gloria and I have spent countless hours with a bucket of soapy water, washing the eggs and larvae off the leaves. But the problem just gets worse.

Some time ago, after I had bought new bougainvillea plants to replace the dead ones, one of my guards (a former gardening assistant at the American Embassy) suggested I buy Lannate that he could treat the plants with. Not knowing what this was or where I could buy it I sort of nodded, and did nothing about it. But last month I found myself walking past a gardening supplies shop, so I went in to ask if they had anything to counter white fly. “Lannate!” cried the assistant, triumphantly, “it’s the only thing that works”. So I bought a packet.

Back home, unwrapping it, I found the back of packet covered with safety warnings. Strong stuff, this Lannate. So I told my maid about the danger, set aside a bucket for mixing the produce which could be thrown away afterwards, and left her money to buy protective face mask, gloves, etc. I told the guard who said he would do the first application that week.

I flew off to Guinea Bissau for work. Back home the next Saturday afternoon, it was clear that Gloria had not been in for a day or so, as there were dead leaves and dust all around, and no milk waiting for me in the fridge. Then I heard a key turn in my door, and a faint voice called my name. Gloria stumbled into my hallway, and asked if she could sit down. In fact she immediately laid down on her side, holding her ribcage as if in pain – clearly she was not at all well.

She had come to bring my milk (and to sweep the leaves but of course I told her not to bother), but told me how ill she had become after my guard applied the Lannate. She had bought mask and gloves for him, but followed him round a metre behind as he sprayed, and having not bought a mask for herself she was breathing in large quantities of this poisonous pesticide. She had not eaten for the three days since the application, was vomiting every time she took a drink, had dreadful pains in her middle somewhere, headaches, double vision, a shortness of breath, aching muscles, cold, clammy skin…

I instructed her to go to the hospital and promised to pay the costs. Then the next morning I flew to Ghana for my next work assignment.

I got back three weeks later. Gloria had slowly got better (although without any hospital assistance), the white fly larvae seem to have gone – and there is no longer any birdsong in my courtyard. I mentioned this silence to her and she said that after the second application of the Lannate she had removed six dead birds from inside the courtyard. Oh, what have I done?

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