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It All Comes Out in the Wash

November 5, 2011

Laundry is completed more quickly and easily when done by someone else.


Laundry day.

Hauling water by the five-gallon bucketful.  Heating it in a big chodyè, the traditional Haitian cooking pot.  (There’s just as much steam coming off of me as from the water.)   Grating a bar of lemon-scented laundry soap. Soaking everything for an hour.  “Agitating” in one of the big plastic basins everyone here seems to use for laundry.  (I can’t wait to get a Rapid Washer.)  Scrubbing my clothes with a soap bar and my knuckles.   (I wish I had a scrub board.) Rinsing them again and again until the rinse-water runs clear.  (I hope I won’t run out of water.)  Wringing out the water until my wrists are sore.  (Why does a hand-cranked wringer cost $150?)  Hanging them on a line to dry and hoping it will not rain.  (Oh, for some wooden clothespins instead of crappy plastic ones that break the first time I use them.)  The whole scenario harkens back to what is for most people in Canada a faded distant past, but what is for most people in Haiti a present reality.

This is how I have come to see Haiti, at least in part.  It is life rooted in the past in many ways, doing things in ways that were fast disappearing in Canada even in my early childhood.  Most people here still draw their water from a well in a bucket, have no indoor plumbing if they have any sanitary facilities at all, light their homes with oil lamps and candles if at all, cook in their yards over charcoal fires.  And they do their laundry by hand in their homes, in their yards, in a nearby river or in an irrigation canal.  But juxtaposed upon this past are the present technologies of the world, scaled down considerably by the realities of Haiti’s economics, but still very present.  While doing the family laundry a woman chats on her cell phone.

Life here is labour intensive and time intensive.  People have much less need for countless entertainment options to fill their free time.  Just surviving fills their day.  Entertainment is found in interaction with one’s neighbours while going about the necessary tasks of day-to-day life.

In this country there is the sharp division of labour along gender lines that is in many ways a throwback to Canada’s culture of the past.  (Some would dispute this, holding the division still exists in large part even in Canada.)  My Haitian friends find it amusing that I am a nurse, that I cook, shop in the market, clean my house, and do my own laundry.  Here, these things are still considered almost exclusively women’s work.

There are many reasons why Haiti lags behind much of the world.  There are differing opinions as to what those reasons are.  There are those who would blame the victims, but I am not among them.  To me, the historical account of this country tells a very dark story of purposeful oppression.  But airing that dirty laundry is perhaps for another post, one I hesitate to write.

As I labour, in my weird sense of the appropriate I choose for accompaniment Joni Mitchell’s disturbing The Magdalene Laundries from her Grammy award winning album Turbulent Indigo.  There lies another whole story.  (For anyone interested in what this song is about, google Magdalene Asylum and read the Wikipedia article.)


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