I Built That. Or rather, I made those clothes dirty.

Yesterday morning I spent a lot of time thinking about the ways in which, deep down, I am really an American. What got me thinking about this, you ask? My laundry. My dirty-stinky-been-out-in-the-bush-for-a-month clothes. It went a little something like this (imagine lots of hand gestures and broken Swahili on my part, with big smiles):

Zai (the woman who does cooking and cleaning here): Me!

Me: Me!

Zai: No – me!

Me: No – me!

[Exit Zai]

[Enter Zai and Iku]

Iku: I think we have a misunderstanding. Zai can do your washing for you.

Me: I know, but I’m happy to do it myself and I would feel bad if she had to do it.

Zai via Iku: She doesn’t trust me to do her washing?

Me via Iku: No that’s not it! I trust her; I just like to do my own cleaning.

Zai via Iku: Everyone else will think I’m mean and bad at my job if I don’t clean her clothes

Me (in my head): Ohhhh yeah I hadn’t thought of that

I say that, from where I come from in my culture, I will feel very bad if Zai has to wash my dirty-stinky-been-out-in-the-bush-for-a-month clothes. Zai says that, from where she comes from in her culture, she will feel very bad if she doesn’t wash my dirty-stinky-been-out-in-the-bush-for-a-month clothes. We are at an impasse.

I suggest we wash them together, which seems to go over okay. I wait while someone goes out to purchase “super-soap” for my dirty-stinky-been-out-in-the-bush-for-a-month clothes, because apparently what they normally have on hand just won’t cut it.

Zai sets up all the buckets. I call her “Mwalimu Zai” (teacher) in hopes that it will help her feel like I am trying to learn from her (which I am) and not to take over her job. I watch her technique for the first round, knowing full well that she’s much better at hand-washing than I am, even if I have done it many times before. The water in the bucket (with only half of my clothes) starts to look like hot chocolate. We laugh at how dirty it is. I still feel awkward… this poor woman not only has to see all my filth but to clean it up as well. (When viewing the image below, keep in mind that the bucket of brown water is my SECOND round of washing my clothes). Image

And THIS is where I start thinking about myself as an American. There are somecountries and cultures where it honestly doesn’t come up that much. When I’m travelling I’m more interested in adapting to the way of things wherever I am. Except, apparently, when it comes to laundry.

What I realized is that I have been deeply shaped by American individualism, by our do-it-yourself attitude, by the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” take on life. I AM CAPABLE, my spirit screams. I CAN DO ANYTHING (*Note witty reference in title. Note also that this is only witty if you happened to follow the 2012 US Presidential Election Campaign). [Side bar: trying to explain American individualism here is very difficult, particularly when it comes to why it is very common for people to not live anywhere near their families.] 

I’ll admit there’s a more personal note to this as well. In order to put me through school growing up, my parents started to clean whatever school I was at to get a break on tuition. My mother went one step further and start cleaning houses for a living, that being an easier way to make money that utilizing her B.S. in Wildlife Biology. I grew up watching her clean the messes that other people left for her, and it has left me in a place today where I feel highly uncomfortable with other people cleaning up after me. Especially my dirty-stinky-been-out-in-the-bush-for-a-month clothes.

So with those two things working together, I sit there, covered in soap, trying to ignore the fact that every person who walks by is getting a major kick out of watching me help with washing. “Pole” they tell me later – “sorry.” I try to explain that I like it, but I’m sure that makes absolutely no sense. My fingers start painfully stinging. I have rubbed the skin off my delicate academic hands.

A woman walks over with a butcher’s knife held to a chicken’s throat. She is calling for someone else, someone who will be better at killing the chicken. He comes and grabs the bird by the wings, letting gravity do the rest. The bird is absolutely calm, but quite thin for slaughtering I think (says the American in me). He takes the bird about ten feet from where we are washing, lays the bird on the ground and sharpens the knife on the concrete pathway. He is positioned right behind a palm tree, so when I look up a minute later all I see is the now decapitated bird, with its head in his hands.

Another laundry first, I’d say.

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