For the past few posts, I’ve either been focusing on work: Malaria, the Gambian health system, Gender and Development or culture: Ramadan or local language. This blog is about a routine task in the States that turns into a day-long (or at least half a day-long) event in The Gambia.
Usually it’s Sunday mornings. Today I chose a Wednesday because I was traveling over the weekend, had clinics on Monday and Tuesday mornings and a workshop on Thursday morning. Oh, and I have no clean clothes left. Today is laundry day.
After I sweep my hut and eat my breakfast (a piece of bread), it’s time to get started. I announce to my family that I’m not going to the clinic today, and that I will be tackling my dirty clothes.
“Maangi foot!” – “I am going to wash clothes!”
“Ali… yo munulo foot.” – “Ali, you cannot wash clothes.”
“Muna!” – “Yes, I can!”
Neighbor walks by
“Ali, yaangi foot? Yo jigeenla?” – “Ali, you’re washing clothes. Are you a woman?”
“Deedeet, goor ak jigeen mo neka bennala. Goor muna foot.” – “No, women and men are the same. Men can wash clothes.”
Shakes head “Ali, yo defa dof.” – “Ali, you are crazy.”
“Waaw, dama dof. Maangi dem foot!” – “Yep, I’m crazy. Now I’m going to wash clothes.”
My host siblings run up to my house
“Ali! Ma dimbale?” – “Ali, can we help?”
“Cai dimbalema” – “Come help me.”
And so we begin. We fetch a bedong of water (usually I’ll use two throughout the process), and set out two buckets. Then we go to the bitik (the shop) for soap (20D) and powder (5D) – all together 50 cents. The first bucket is for scrubbing the clothes and the second bucket is for rinsing. To be honest, my family is right. I can’t really wash clothes. When I give my clothes to my family, they’re much cleaner than when I do it. But just to prove a point, I try with the help of my host siblings.
I throw all of my clothes on a concrete slab outside my back door. We use the soap and powder in the first bucket, sometimes letting the really dirty things sit for a while in the sun, and then rinse them in the second bucket. Then I hang them all around my backyard to dry in the sun. The fun part comes when it rains (we’re in the rainy season) on my clothes and I have to do the whole process over the next day.
Sometimes people walk by, laugh, and say: “Bet you don’t do this in America, huh?” And I say no, we have machines like we have machines for everything. But honestly I hated doing laundry in the States, and “doing laundry” literally meant gathering my clothes and throwing them in a machine for an hour. Now I look forward to laundry days: we listen to music and take breaks to color and harass neighbors about gender roles.
One thing I do not even attempt with is my bed sheets (Yes, Mom! I finally am washing my bed sheets!). My family takes those and they come back looking as good as new. While I struggle with clothes just for myself, my host sisters are washing the clothes of 10 different people. When school is in session, they wash their uniforms almost every night as it’s not appropriate to come to school looking dirty.
Here comes the gender aspect that was mentioned earlier: I’ve seen almost no men washing their own clothes. My host brother is the exception, he at least washes his own uniform. But who said that the women have to be the ones with the dry and cracked hands, leaning over a bucket and scrubbing clothes every other day? Who says that the women have to be the ones in the states to carry the laundry downstairs and throw them in the machine? It’s always important, even with simple tasks like washing clothes, to ask why.