Sunday, October 19, 2008

The finer points of laundry and other troubles finding a “bonne”

When we lived in Senegal, we were pretty much expected to hire someone to cook and clean for us. I was pretty uncomfortable with the proposition. Many wealthy Senegalese families had someone who would do the cooking, someone else to do the laundry, another nanny, a gardener, a guard who would watch outside the tall walls surrounding the house property all night long, and possibly a driver. As American newlyweds in our mid-20s, it was sort of hard to imagine even taking on a part of that sort of lifestyle. After all, I was going to Senegal to study francophone African literature at the Université Chiekh Anta Diop in Dakar as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. My scholarship was generous, but in my role as a goodwill ambassador of sorts, I had trouble with the idea of having "household help." But it seemed expected, so we got our first "femme de ménage" or housekeeper, who would also cook lunches for us.

She was a relative to one of the housekeepers of the Rotarian we stayed with for our first few weeks in Dakar. It was difficult. The bathroom of our rented apartment needed quite a bit of deep-down cleaning before we were anxious to have company over. Not that we had anyone to invite over, but still, you can imagine that we wanted a clean bathroom. The windows in our apartment were jalousied louvers, so they never completely closed, letting breezes as well as sand and dust drift into our place. Unlike most homes we had seen, we had a rare "commodity" of wall-to-wall carpet. What that meant though, was additional work trying to sweep it clean on a daily basis with little straw brooms.

Laundry had to be washed by hand in big plastic basins on the balcony or in the "washroom" which was a little room of sorts for hand-washing laundry. Sure, I had hand-washed delicate clothes myself back in the States. Pretty much I would swish the clothes around in some water and gentle detergent, and then I would rinse until the water ran clear. I was laughed out of the laundry room in Senegal because of my light-handed technique. There was a special "Senegalese" way of doing it, which involved getting a special squoooooshing noise with each movement. Without the squooooosh, our "bonne" (maid) didn't think I was getting the clothes clean. I imagine I seemed as unskilled as a 2-year old Senegalese girl might be, not at all like an older girl or young woman skilled in the squooshing noise technique!

Wet laundry would be hung to dry on the line on our balcony, and usually would be dry by the next day. Unfortunately, extra work was then required. All clothes had to be ironed. Why? Certainly not because we wanted all of our clothes pressed into crisp, clean lines, though we did become accustomed to the look fairly quickly. We really did it to avoid getting mango fly worms. That is, we wanted to avoid having mango fly worms burrow into our skin due to the un-killed eggs in our line-dried clothes. Ugh. This is what the guide books said. Everyone in Senegal seemed to wear neatly pressed clothes. So to iron was to avoid worms in our skin. You see, the flies would land on the wet clothes and lay their eggs. The warmth from a person's body would help them hatch, and then the little new-born flies would burrow into their new human source. Ironing would kill any eggs, and make the clothes safe to wear. As our maid was asking for the supplies she needed to do her job, she asked us for charcoal. Charcoal? We had no Weber grill; in fact we had a gas stove with a gas bottle attached, so we didn't see how we could possibly need charcoal. She told us the charcoal was for the iron. The iron? Yes, we had a cast-iron iron, heavier than an old-fashioned doorstop, and to heat up, our maid had to put hot charcoal into the opening. Every now and then we would see the results of a random spark on some delicate clothing, but that was pretty unusual. And it wasn't until years later that I worried I might have mango fly worms… Ah yes, that's a story for another blog post…

We never did get used to telling our first housekeeper what we expected of her, because she always seemed to scowl at our requests. She stuck her tongue out to point at things she was talking about. (To me, that seemed like a 2-year old thing to do.) After several uncomfortable and frustrating weeks, we fired her. It was a huge relief to be on our own. But after the need to dust the tables daily, to broom sweep the wall-to-wall carpet, clean the bathrooms, go shopping at the open air markets for food, washing the laundry by hand, and ironing, oh and making lunch, I really wouldn't have any time left to pursue my studies, the reason I was in Dakar.

American friends learned that a cousin of their housekeeper was looking for a job, and we ended up hiring a wonderful woman, Marie. She worked for us until we left Senegal, and we are still in touch today. In fact, I will be seeing her in less than a week when I go back to Senegal for work next Friday. Who would have ever guessed that our housekeeper, who was so professional, respectful, and a bit shy would be a lifelong friend? And our other close friend, Ngone, we met first when she knocked on our door, asking if we needed a housekeeper. By then, we were happy with Marie, but that's also how we started a slow friendship with the entrepreneurial woman who worked in the sandwich shop on the first floor of our building.

Back to present-day: I have to go clean the bathroom now, plan the grocery shopping list, and put more laundry in the washing machine. At least I don't have to make the squooshing noise to get my laundry done!

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