The Art of Cleaning

written 12/14

I am not ashamed to say that I rank high among the most incompetent twenty-somethings living in Tabora. In college, I lived off campus for three years and always had the sense this gave me more “life experience” than other students living in dorms. I cooked and cleaned and dealt with rent and crazy landlords and apartment neighbors. I felt grown-up before my time; given early access to a world of lease agreements, broken dish-washers, and the price of heat.
Then I came to Tanzania. Putting aside the multitude of cultural differences, every day I see six-year-olds who are more competent than I was at the same age. They have learned to wash dishes, sweep the floors, wash clothes, fetch water, and cook the basics. Obviously, they are not practiced at all these skills yet, but they have watched enough and have done enough to know what they are doing. And they give me advice and offer their help. And I am now 23.

I have only appreciation for the help they give me—and admiration at what they are capable of at such a young age—but once a day it makes me stop and chuckle and think to myself, “I am such a white girl,” and occasionally, “what a crazy place!” Sometimes I get frustrated because I actually am—surprise!—a fairly competent person and can wash my clothes and clean dishes and cook. But their protests and their laughter and their endless patience in teaching me over and over again are not for nothing. They have something that it would take me years to get. It is a certain way of movement, a flick of the wrist and fingers moving without the observance of the eyes that comes with the years and years of practice: day in and day out, performing the same tasks. It’s the fluidity and competence that any person can accomplish with practice in any endeavor. It is the art of cleaning.

I assert, perhaps boldly, that these skills appear more beautiful to me because they are done day in and day out. Because these people—these women—are not practicing to perfect them. There is no trade; it is their life.
I have a good friend who has taught me many of these skills, some on multiple occasions, and I love watching her work. Her movements have grace and ease without appearing to require thought or concentration. Part of this must come from the firm assurance that that is the way things are done and no decision must be made. I, who have not inherited these cultural practices, approach washing dishes like a battle. I need to strategize—do I put the clean water in the basin or the bucket? Should I use two basins or just one? Do I wash in a pot or not? Because this is done outside, presentation and confidence make all the difference (or I risk having another lesson in how to wash and end up sitting there awkwardly while another woman washes my dishes—although, to be honest, despite how confident I seem, this lesson usually happens anyway). None of these considerations are necessary for her and the process of cleaning is a series of one seamless motion after the other. There is a certain way that she moves the pot as she cleans; she rotates the pot to clean all the way around but it looks like one motion. I have tried to imitate her every time I clean.

Washing clothes is another very involved process and the habits will vary with the woman. Some use a single basin and bucket; others use a whole row of buckets, filled with water with varying ratios of clean water to suds. The motion is characteristic and just as fluid as the technique of cleaning pots. It’s a swish into the water, a scrubbing together for a few beats, another swish, and the cloth has mysteriously inched through the hands and now a new section is being scrubbed. So it passes like an inchworm through this process, and then the whole is wrung together and squeezed in a giant arc of water pouring out and the woman bending up to hold her arms straight out. This is repeated—how many times? Sometimes it is too many to count. All the while, the woman sits, or stands, or squats, and sings, or gazes absentmindedly, or chats. It is more like a reflex than an activity.

After four months here, I like to think I am beginning to acquire some of the gracefulness I see in my friend. As of yet, I still cannot seem to manage my kitenge, which bunches up and gaps open and causes me all sorts of trouble as I sit and squat and move about. I know that, if I ask, I will get plenty of help from my six-year-old friends.

crossposted at

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