For approximately four months of my life, I washed my laundry by hand.
I could have paid one of the local women who offered laundering services in Legon, but my self-consciousness was mortified by the idea of a stranger washing my underwear. So, my first real language barrier in Ghana was at the Night Market, asking Mary if she knew anyone who might sell clothespins.
(She did. She sold picks.)
On the fourth floor of the University of Ghana’s Hilla Limann Hall, there was a laundry room just a few steps from my own. As far as laundry rooms go, it was lovely—spacious and airy, windows lining the wall, large basin sinks, and plenty of lines strung from the ceiling to hang clothes.
I never used it.
My white skin already attracted enough attention; I could only imagine the jokes about the oburoni washing her underwear. So, I washed my laundry while crouching over a small bucket in the cramped shower of my bathroom instead.
The process was simple. Whenever I found running water in my room and noticed my stock of clean underwear running low (because really, it always came down to the underwear), I would pour a packet of laundry detergent into the rose-pink plastic bucket I used to store water and throw in a few sweat-encrusted shirts. Instead of pushing a button and walking away to leave the spin and rinse cycle to do my dirty work, however, I stuck my hands in the grimy water. And with my hands, I wrung, rinsed, and hoped the water would stay on for as long as it took to finish the chore. Then, I grabbed the picks I bought from Mary and hung my clothes on a line between the two walls of my balcony.
There, my underwear dried in the sunshine and humid air.
I went to Ghana to study development. Nearly six years later, I’m writing about underwear because, while I may have left the country a little more informed, I was mostly confused and overwhelmed about how to live life in a broken world with eight billion people who all needed food, clean water, shelter, education, and community.
Properly caring for one another seems like a complicated task full of a number of complicated processes. The only process I remember is how to wash my laundry by hand—which doesn’t take skill or knowledge so much as patience and mindfulness. Even then, I never had the diligence to get all the suds out, so my clothes always had this stiff, waxy feel to them.
Somehow, I think it was an important process for me to learn.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to a sermon by Bill Johnson.
“The life of Jesus is not complicated,” he said. “If there’s anything simple in the Bible, it’s the life of Jesus. He prayed a lot. He served everywhere he went. He hated anything that wasn’t in heaven. He lived to change it.”
Jesus changed water into wine, fed thousands with a few loaves of bread, healed the blind, raised the dead, and gave con men a calling. I have a dirty laundry. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about laundry and that sermon, and it reminds me of a poem by Luci Shaw:
He who would be great among you
You whose birth broke all the
social & biological rules —
son of the poor who accepted
the worship due a king —
child prodigy debating with
the Temple Th.D.s — you
were the kind who used
a new math
to multiply bread, fish, faith.
You practiced a
rehabilitated con men &
call girls. You valued women
& other minority groups.
A G.P., you specialized in
seeker, seer, motive-sifter,
you were always beyond,
above us. Ahead
of your time & ours.
And we would like
to be like you. Bold
as Boanerges, we hear ourselves
demand: “Admit us
to your avant-garde.
Grant us a degree
in all the liberal arts
Why our belligerence?
Why does this whiff of fame
and greatness smell so sweet?
Why must we compete
to be first? Have we forgotten
how you took, simply, cool water
and a towel for our feet?
Cassie Westrate (’14) graduated with a double major in writing and international development studies. She currently lives in West Michigan, where she works as a writer, hangs out with her pet bird, and fights crime by night. Just kidding about the crime.