Doing laundry by hand in red plastic tubs on the back stoop is challenging work. When we were in Uganda at our apartment I tried to do some laundry every night. I prefer to do it outside so the spills don’t add to my work. We use three tubs, one for soap, one for softener and the first rinse, and then a final rinse. I heat up the soapy one because I think that kills odors and releases the dirt from the fabric. This job is hard labor. I stick a firm finger at Jack’s nose and warn him how furious I will be if he drops clean clothes into the laundry pile. I said wear them twice and make sure they stink and have visible dirt on them or I will come after you with my angry eye. (there is a side to me no one ever wants to see and it comes out when someone wastes my time.)
As we drive along in Kampala we see women everywhere at their front stoop bent over a plastic tub of laundry and they are laughing, talking, watching the children, and keeping an eye on a bubbling pot nearby. Their legs are long, straight, and their round bottoms perch up high under long dresses. This is a clue why women wear long dresses in Uganda! Can’t bend over and do the never-ending laundry with a short dress. Good heavens what a scandal that would be! It’s interesting to note that a woman’s thigh area is the most exciting for a man. Their bosoms can fall out and a man won’t notice, but a glimpse of thigh and he’s falling over himself. I’ve seen both incidences with my eyes and never cease to be amazed at cultural differences.
After they scrub each piece vigorously, wring out all the water, which they are so strong they can do it so there isn’t a drop attached, they hang the laundry over lines, over bushes, and anywhere the sun can dry it quickly. If you are keen with your observations you will notice there is never underwear hanging to be seen in public. Ever. Individuals wash their own underwear in their bath and hang them in private so no one sees them. All of the children in our home arrived knowing to do this for themselves. And if you dare to use the toilet in their bedroom you’ll find little boy underwear hanging.
Laundry is a chore in Uganda that takes a lot of time. Many old women and young girls earn extra money by doing laundry for someone else. Some of the girls in our home did laundry for pocket money. Many many times Phiona says to me, “bring your laundry to the house we’ll do it for you.” No way. I’m not giving them my chores to do. It’s hard enough for me to let Julie do all the cooking so I can sit and eat it. I’ll take the challenge and do my own laundry at night. Even though when my back is aching and my hands hurt I want to kick myself for being stubborn.
I am not so good at the laundry by hand chore. I don’t like scrubbing, so I found a shoe polish brush works just as well for removing dirt. Bending over hurts my back on a good day, but for a chore like this I’m eying those pain tablets and thinking they might be a good idea for once. While I was doing my wash one day, the neighbor children at my apartment complex spied on me and giggled. I suppose they assume a mzungu would pay someone to do that chore, or that I was miserably terrible, or that my rubber gloves looked ridiculous. I had to resort to gloves because the twisting and squeezing had worn my hands into raw pulp. One of my neighbors passed me, didn’t crack a smile or linger too long with his eyes on my work but he said, “well done Mzungu.”
That moment of approval and praise from a native Ugandan sealed it for me. It was almost like receiving an unexpected bonus. It was a high five and an A+. It caused me to work with a little more vigor and complete the job. Unfortunately though I can’t hang my laundry outside on lines, it will disappear and no one will know a thing about it if asked. American clothes are coveted and stealing occurs as naturally as pouring a cup of coffee in the morning. So I have laundry hanging every where in my apartment. It’s not the sort of décor that we see in magazines, but I have to say there’s some satisfaction I feel with it draped everywhere to remind me I can settle in to the Ugandan way of life just fine.
One last note about laundry, Jack is old enough and should be involved in this chore. But some how he’s quick to volunteer to read to the kids, teach them a game or lead a bible study when it’s time for laundry. And when he puts on the freshly washed and dried clothes he says, “ oh they are stiff and scratchy” you might imagine he should run for cover from me. So I put him to the job one time, and when he hung it to dry, sweaty and sore, I passed by him and said, “well done Mzungu.”
It comforts me to remember the toil with laundry in Uganda because it is Saturday and my baskets are full of smelly boy clothes and frilly girl things. I should sing and give thanks that the machines do the work for me. I should be happy to bury my face in fluffy warm spring scented dry clothing and feel it is a great pleasure to fold them and arrange them neatly into their drawers. Because there are countless women in a culture far away who bend over plastic tubs and wear their hands into leather with songs on their lips and twinkles in their eyes. A big part of me wants to be content with my work as they are. Contentment and gratitude can make any chore feel like fun. That’s what I’m telling myself as I stand in front of my laundry room.