There’s just something about washing your laundry by hand under the hot, African sun. I first encountered this simple pleasure on my gap year in Senegal, and have wished to revisit the meticulous, tactile process ever since. The method, as I understand it, goes something like this:
1. Obtain two shallow, plastic buckets from the market (or in our case, hotel reception).
2. Sprinkle your laundry soap into one, preferably an unfamiliar brand with an awkward English name like Sparkling and an electric blue or yellow tint definitely not found in nature.
3. Fill both buckets with water, agitating your soap-filled one until milky suds begin to appear.
4. Dump your clothes in this bucket, and start kneading the ever-living hell out of them, one article at a time, until they begin to relinquish their accumulation of filth. Use the bottom of your bucket, extra soap, and the abrasion of fabric on fabric to aid you in your persecution of grime.
5. When that article of clothing seems sufficiently scoured, douse it in your second bucket of clean water and let it stew.
6. Repeat as necessary, saving larger and dirtier items for last, until the water in bucket #1 is speckled with floating bits of flotsam and has turned approximately the same color as the ground on which you sit.
7. Wring your clothes out, slap them on the line, and voila: crispy but clean in just a few hours.
I’m not sure what it is about this laborious process I find so intriguing; part of it may be the physicality, the way you throw your whole body into the chore until your biceps burn and your back aches. I also enjoy how, regardless of the process, all varieties of laundry-doing produce the same result: clean, dry clothes emanating the faint perfume of soapsuds and arid heat. When I emptied my basin out this afternoon, there was even a bobby pin (pocketed and forgotten) waiting for me at the bottom, same as I always find after removing a load from my parents’ big, white washing machine back home.
I think my favorite part, though, is the visceritude of performing a task fully and completely by hand. There’s no sterile metal box separating you from your mess. I realized today, forearm-deep in murky water, that at home (a place that is, as Robyn Davidson writes, “increasingly homogenized, commercialized, and trivialized”), you don’t even need to touch the soap you empty into the machine. But crouched in an unsheltered courtyard, sweat trickling down the nape of your neck, skirt tucked up and away from the splashing suds, this detachment becomes absurd.
I’m always struck by how well turned out the people of Gashora are; even if they wear the same outfit every day, their ensembles are always crisp, pressed, and spotless. It makes sense. Scouring your laundry by hand heightens your connection to your clothes in a way that the inelegant, indiscriminant transfer from hamper to machine never could. Touch something, cradle it in your hands, scrutinize it for budding flaws; such engaged attentiveness generates respect towards the objects in your care – a reverence that is magnified when one’s entire wardrobe consists of four or five items.
This feeling of connection goes beyond the relationship between person and cloth. This afternoon, I knelt in the sun and scoured soap from a t-shirt – dunk, scrub, rinse. Dunk, scrub, rinse. The repetitive rhythm lulled me into a near trance, untethering my mind from my body and enabling clear, unencumbered thought. It occurred to me how many women all across the globe were currently doing the exact same thing under the exact same sun (dunk), and how many women had knelt and scoured before me (scrub), and how many would continue to kneel and scour for years to come (rinse).
It’s funny, how little everyday rituals can suddenly take on such meaning. After today’s epiphanies in regards to clothes cleaning, I have half a mind to abandon my planned course of study back at Western and instead dedicate my life to writing an exhaustive history of female triumph and oppression as chronicled by our relationship to laundry. And while that certainly sounds enticing, for right now I will have to content myself with a heightened level respect for my belongings, a reexamination of my privilege, and a new appreciation for the smell of sunlight baked into my clothes. And tomorrow, when we walk into town, I will smile at the women, and imagine us kneeling and scouring together, side by side.