Friday, March 28, 2014

As I Went Down To The River

One of the main geographic features that sets Mbang Mboum apart from my old post of Mandama, besides the pervasive red clay, is the presence of two rivers, whose confluence lies just east of the village. The rivers provide necessary irrigation; farmers with motorpumps and piping grow year-round vegetable gardens, producing a bumper crop of tomatoes and peppers even in the dry season.  Banana trees shade the riverbanks, and hiking beside the cool, burbling waters, I have even found pineapples, their red-stained fruits lurking spinily in a bristle of long, serrated leaves.

The river also serves a much more prosaic function: it provides a communal place for women to come together and spend a morning washing endless loads of laundry.

Accustomed to doing laundry in a bucket-- a task I despise-- I continued to do so my first few weeks in Mbang Mboum, resigned as always to the reality that my clothes would rarely really get clean, and that the latter half of what  I washed would inevitably dry stiff from the soap residue that never washes out in the absence of gallons of clean, moving water.

It was not until last week that I mentioned laundry to my postmate, Alizabeth, and promptly got invited to come along the next morning and wash my clothes in the river, a proposition that sounded so beguilingly O Brother Where Art Thou that I could not resist accepting.

Please believe that I do not exaggerate when I say this experience was a game-changer.

We left around midmorning, balancing our buckets of dirty clothes on our heads, out of practicality rather than affectation-- try it sometime and you'll understand.  The spinal column and core muscles are much better suited to the task of balance and load-bearing, it turns out, than spindly, easily-fatigued arms.

As we picked our way across one of the many stick-and-barbed wire bridges that skitter drunkenly over the span of the river, the sound of voices and laughter floated up from the far bank.  We rounded a bend on the shore and walked suddenly into what looked like a clump of giant, brightly-plumed mushrooms: bushes over which had been draped yards of newly-washed pagne to dry.

One of the more structurally sound river crossings

Washing is women's work, and this riverbank between dawn and noon was inarguably a women's place.  Muslim mothers of all ages and sizes stripped to the waist, baring sagging breasts long ago robbed of sexual allure by years of constant breastfeeding.  In the dappled shade of obligingly leafy trees, women alternately worked and reposed, lying back to nurse children.  In formal settings, women often seem constrained and uncomfortable, silently and unquestioningly yielding to men.  Here they were relaxed and garrulous, calling across to each other in Mboum and Dii, joking, gossiping, and opining in equal measure.  The oldest boys present were perhaps seven; they played a raucous game of chicken waist-deep in the water until, chastised by their mothers for splashing too much, they meekly returned to watching a blanketful of babies laid out on the grass.

Alizabeth and I chatted with a neighbor, Doudou, until a space opened up, then tied our long skirts to above the knees, waded into the water, and began.

Here are five simple steps for washing laundry in a river, in case you ever become Amish, or get stuck in in a Gauguin painting:

1. Find a spot where the riverbank is rock, but the riverbed is sand.  This provides you with a work surface while allowing you to sink your toes in for better balance and traction against the swiftly-moving water.  Avoid mud at all costs.

2. Pre-soak your clothes in a bucket of soapy water.

3. Taking an article at a time, rub briskly with a block of soap all over the cloth, beat it several times against the rock (reference importance of step 1), and begin to knead it, like bread dough.  If you have chosen your placement well, the porous stone will act as a washing board, and soap will foam up through the garment.

4. Turning, submerge your clothing in the cold, clear current.  Marvel at how the soapsuds and scum simply fly away!  Try not to think too much about downstream environmental impact.

5. Rinse and repeat.

I was amazed at the effectiveness of washing al fresco, even given my clumsy, unpracticed technique.  Cloth that hadn't been truly white in months suddenly came clean, as though I were in the rural African version of a Snuggle commercial.  Doing laundry is generally only tolerable because I put on a playlist of Radiolab and Planet Money podcasts.  This time the hours flew past, as I was alternately engaged in conversation and people-watching.  The sun beat down hot on my bare shoulders, while cold water flowed around my calves; the juxtaposition was an awakening.

Finally both Alizabeth and I were done washing our clothes and ourselves.  We scrambled up the riverbank, gathering our things and mounting our now much-heavier buckets, the tops of our heads padded with a protective layer of folded cloth.  My hands were red and my knuckles raw, as though I were a big-boned Irish washerwoman in a 1920s musical comedy.  I was sunburnt, but gloriously clean.  As we wound our way home through fields of manioc, I felt a sense of victory.  This was practical integration of the best kind.

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