Dirty Laundry

Like most volunteers, I often find myself missing things from the USA. Some of the first things that come to mind are the foods, living conditions, and lifestyle differences. However, there are many benefits of living in Togo too.

One example is being able to hire help around the house. PCV's pay for people to dust, sweep, clean, cook, do laundry, get water, or help with gardening. Until recently, I avoided this because handling it alone did not seem too bad.

However, when only a week remained before a PC training, I found myself with a full schedule until then and basically no clothes to wear. Partly because of time constraints, laziness, and personal inefficiency, I decided to go ahead and get a laundry lady. Up until that point, I did laundry for myself but I gradually found that my clothes never got as clean as they were originally.

Fortunately, I had someone in mind for the job. One local laundry lady offered to wash my clothes when I first came, but I always refused. Last week, I decided to take her up on that offer. The biggest obstacle was that she only speaks the local language, Kotokoli. When I tracked her down just two days before my training our conversation ended up being through gestures morethan words.

I offered what bits of the local language I knew and thought were applicable. “Tomorrow morning. Work? Me. House.” I said, making motions to myself and then in the direction of my home. 

She offered an alternative, along with lots of other things I did not fullly understand, “No, after tomorrow morning.” 

By then I would already be gone, so I kept insisting, “Eye-yo, cherreh terreh.” “Je vais partir apres demain.” No. Tomorrow morning. I leave after tomorrow. I said , switching back to French. She responded with things way over my local language vocabulary, and sensing my confusing called someone nearby to come “speak French to her” as she put it.

The translator explained to me that she had some things to do the following day, but was available in two days. I explained to him my dilemma was that I needed the laundry done the next day, because I would be leaving early the day after that. They went back to explaining this to her in Kotokoli and got her to understand. 

She agreed to come to my house the following morning ar 7 a.m. I was not sure if that would mean real-time or with a hour or two delay because of the l’huere Africane.

Surprisingly, she came the next morning knocking on my door at 6:30. I would have normally already been up at this time but stayed up late the night before. The weather has been moving toward hot season, and I find my house more and more uncomfortable to sleep in at night. 

Instead getting to bed immediately, I decided to work on a few documents with my computer until I bored myself to sleep. With that and a few splashes of cold water, I was off to bed by around 10:30 or 11:00 p.m.

It took me a few seconds to hop out of bed and throw on the only pair of clothes I intentionally kept out of the laundry pile before greeting the woman at the door. We took care of the normal salutations in Kotokoli, and then she got to work. “Good morning. How did you sleep? How are the kids? And the house? And the work? And the activities? And the walk?”

I handed her my entire clothing collection and she let out a gasp of surprise. Then, she explained again in Kotokoli how she could be more available the next day. Using one word phrases, I tried to reiterate that I would not be home. 

Then she started filling my buckets with water.

Washing clothes is usually done with a three bucket system. This requires arranging the buckets in the order of: 

1. Soapy, 
2. Less soapy, and 
3. No soap. 

As the first bucket becomes too dirty to use, that water is disposed of--thrown on the ground, used for gardens, flushing toilets, or otherwise. Then, the remaining two buckets move up accordingly and a new “no soap” bucket is added. This process is repeated until all the clothes are done.

I stood to watch as she started rubbing a bar soap on my purple clothes, and thrashed them in the first bucket to the second, last, before hanging them to dry. She then moved on the the blues, oranges and methodically continued making her way through all of my colors of clothing. 

Arranging them by color avoids dye stains when the local fabrics run. However, rather than seeing buckets filled with dyed water, today all I saw was the brown Harmattan dust running off my clothes.

I had given this lady every piece of clothing I own, minus a few socks and underwear. This was the largest amount of my laundry done at once in Togo. Then it hit me--I might be severely under-equipped for drying them all. 

I only have one sturdy metal clothesline because my second nylon string was literally falling apart from the weather. I underestimated the skills of this professional laundry woman. She made all the laundry fit anyway; piling some on top of others, then went to placing them over the concrete walls surrounding my house.

At the end of the three hour job, she only asked for a pair of my flip flops, which I graciously offered along with 2,000 fCFA (a total value of less than $5 with the $.50 flip flops). 

Packing my clean new clothes to wear, I headed off the next morning to a four-day PC training.

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