Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps


1/25/09 Husband-ly Generosity

Just about the same time the king's foundation came through, distributing largesse (see previous post), Baba (my host dad) bought Ama a washing machine.

He'd told her he would a month or two ago, and she's been pestering him for it, and now the time has come.

When I was at their house yesterday, I was shown The Machine, in all of its pristine glory.

I was a little surprised it had never been used, but it turns out they'd been waiting for me to make it back from my work/Inauguration/blizzard travels...because the instruction manual is in English.

Baba speaks some English, and can read Latin letters easily enough - he's fully literate in French and Dutch, and probably others - but he hadn't gotten far with this document. I soon saw why: it was written in the miserable, pigeon-English that I've found so often on products sold in America but manufactured...somewhere else.

I read through the manual a couple times, then stared at the machine, then read the manual some took me the better part of an hour to figure out how to hook up and use it. It didn't help that it has a separate "spin" basin, which they recommend you use to "save water and engry". By the time I'd worked it all out, the sun was low in the sky, so Ama asked me to come back in the morning for the trial run. (Baba hadn't bought a dryer, and clothes need a full day of sunlight to dry in this cold weather.)

So this morning, I climbed up to their house, perched halfway up the valley wall, to inaugurate Ama's new toy.

I started by hooking up the water hose, only to be told that their pipes are frozen and have no water. I explained that that was a problem, but Ama assured me it wasn't. Baba had checked with the salesman: it works fine if you pour water in, manually.

So our first task was lugging water from the external spigot closest to the house. Then I got to teach Ama and Xalti how to use it, which was quite a language test for me. I think my explanation sounded something like this: "First, put some water in here. Then some soap-for-machines." Apparently, the ubiquitous Tide is designed for handwashing, not machine washing, so Baba had bought special detergent for the makina win sabbon (machine of laundry). Unfortunately, all the instructions on the detergent were in Arabic. The only part I could interpret was the image of one-and-a-half scoops of soap next to a lightly soiled shirt, and two scoops next to a heavily soiled shirt. But how much is a scoop? There wasn't one provided in the package. A teacup? A measuring cup? A handful? I gave it my best guess with a shrug.

"Then put the clothes," I continued. I was demonstrating as I went, both because it's a useful teaching tool (that sidesteps language challenges) and because Ama and Xalti were wary of breaking their shiny new toy. Though I'd never seen a washing machine as lightweight (only 10.6 kg) or one with attachable/removable filling and drainage hoses, I was still the acknowledged expert on washing machines. I felt the pressure, but soldiered on. "Don't fill the clothes all the way to the top. Just to here," I added, indicating with my hand. "Then pour in more water," I said, dumping a few more gallons in. Ama and Xalti murmured to each other about how much water the machine used. They had a lifetime of experience handwashing, which requires a fair amount of water, but only in small doses. The sight of me pouring in gallon after gallon of water seemed to disturb them. I assured them that once the pipes thawed, this whole thing would get a lot easier.

It just occurred to me that the external taps have only been in Berberville for two or three years. Prior to that, every ounce of water had to be carried up from the river (about a kilometer away, and muddy) or the spring (about 3 kilometers away, but clear). No wonder my cavalier attitude towards the thirsty machine upset them.

Once the water, soap, and clothes were good to go, I closed it up and pointed to the knob. It was a straightforward egg-timer style countdown, that reached up to 15 minutes. The manual had indicated that 7-8 minutes were generally enough, so I turned it to there. "No, no, no," Baba corrected me, "Turn it all the way." I figured that his guess was at least as valid as the crazy folks who had mislabled half the diagrams, so we went for the full 15 minutes.

"Now take out the water," I said to Ama and Xalti. This was the best I'd been able to come up with for "drain it out". There was a separate knob to open the drain hose, so we twisted that, and watched the water pour out towards the drain in the floor. "Now we have to take out the soap," I said, having given up on trying to guess the word for "rinse". They'd done laundry a thousand times, they'd know what I meant. "You can do it here," I said, indicating the wash basin, "Or here," indicating the spin basin. I've never had a separate spin cycle option, but the book recommended it, and I like following instructions. But earlier, I'd told Ama that the spin basin would dry out the clothes - which it is also good for - so she insisted on using the main wash basin again, pouring in clean water and running it for a few more minutes. I hoped a few minutes was enough.

When we opened it up, Ama frowned. "This didn't get clean," she said, indicating the cuffs of her daughter's sweatshirt. I felt like defending the machine - my little sis, like everyone (including me), rewears clothes for days at a time. Those cuffs had been filthy. But she was right, it wasn't clean, so I held my tongue. "And this smells like soap," she announced. Again, she was right. I wondered if the spin basin would have done a more thorough job of "taking out the soap", as I'd put it.

We put a few garments into the spinner, including the soap-scented one, and let it rip.

The second load went more smoothly. The little pink sweatshirt went back in, along with a pile of other clothes. Xalti put in about half the water I had, over my protests. When I looked inside, the water was about two inches below the level of the clothes. Xalti had stepped back outside, so I went ahead and poured in more water. Her daughter started shouting. (All four kids, ranging from 6 to 11 in age, had watched this whole process with unending fascination.) I was irritated that my little cousin had ratted me out - what happened to generational loyalty?? - but when Xalti came back, I explained how important it is to have more water than clothes.

That time, the water that poured out was a greyish brown. We all kind of stared at it. Then Ama told Xalti, "Well, it's the same when you do it by hand." She turned to me and explained, "These are the kids' clothes. They're outside constantly, so their clothes are ----." I couldn't recognized the word she'd used, so made a stab at an echoing statement.

"Yes, they're just full of mud...?"

Ama nodded. "You have to wash them twice," she continued. "Always."

So we threw the second load in for a second wash, with about twice as much soap, and they came out clean. Lhumdullah!

Somewhere in here, I explained to everyone - Baba, the women, the kids - the importance of experimentation with a new appliance. Of course, I don't know the word for experimentation, so what I said was, "Maybe it won't be good the first time. Try something different. Try more water, or less water. Try more soap, or less soap. Try a different brand of soap. Just try. Then, inshallah, you'll learn the best way to wash."

I was afraid that Ama would tell Baba to take it back. Why I sided so emphatically with the machine, I'm not sure. Maybe because I know how much Ama's hands and back hurt after she does all the laundry by hand. Maybe because the washing machine represented Western culture, and I wanted to defend my peeps. Maybe because I saw how proud it had made Baba to be able to give it to her.

By the fourth or fifth load, Ama had found a compromise with The Machine that made her happy. She no longer used the spin cycle or the rinse cycle, but rinsed the clothes by hand. "Just rinsing them, that's not so bad," she explained, as she squeezed and wrung the garments. "It's the scrubbing that's such a problem. Taking out the soap and water is easy."

I liked that she'd found a balance that made her happy. She still got to feel ownership over the process, and not treat the big white box as a metaphorical blackbox of mystery technology...but she also didn't have to labor over a washtub for hours each week. The machine can wash, Ama can rinse and wring, and the sun can dry. That's the plan, anyway. :)

Then, of course, Ama had to feed me - she's much like my American mom in her Need To Feed - and before I left, she told me that I should bring over my own clothes to wash in her new machine. I grinned and thanked her. I'll take her up on the offer, but I'll wait until the water comes back on. That's the compromise that makes me happy. :)

1 comment:

  1. Lhumdallah! No more hand-washing! And you get to feel like a kid again, always going home to have your parents do the laundry. :)


Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps