By Rebecca Czekalski
Humanist Service Corps Volunteer
As a daughter of an Independent Baptist household that subscribed to Quiverfull ideology, I am well-schooled in the womanly arts, as we call them. In my more rebellious moments, I often mused aloud to my rebellious sister about why it was woman’s work when nearly everyone has the physical capabilities of holding a broom or a scrub brush. I was basically every mother’s worst nightmare in my mid teens. Despite my attitude, I learned my duties well, because I cannot stand to be bad at something when I know I have the capacity to do it.
Because of this background, I am an amazing cleaner. I know laundry tricks that will make your collar shirts stand up and take notice. I can mend a tear so well that no one will suspect you ever had a hole in your skirt. I can make the dust in the corners of your home cower in terror. Drains and metal furnishings begin to gleam when they see me coming. Yes, this is hyperbole, but I know the profession I was trained in for twenty years.
My sisters and I, as well as others in our social circle, always judged the women we met by the condition of their homes, particularly their kitchens and their bathrooms. Even today, I get anxious and feel judged if I know my bathrooms and kitchen are not perfect. This can be useful, because it motivates me to handle business and clean, but it can also work against me in a situation like Ghana.
In Ghana, there is always dust flying around. No matter how often you clean, your house never looks pristine. There are always bugs flying and running around. The water sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. More importantly, the water needs to be conserved. We only have so much water, and it should not be wasted getting a drain to a high spotless shine. We also lack all of the different tools to get the scrubbing done. There is soap; there are scrub brushes, steel wool pads, and mops; there is no water pressure or fancy soap-scum busters. There isn’t even enough lemon juice to be able to effectively whip up a paste.
In the first few weeks, I was really getting frustrated with the cleaning situation. Then I sat back and started to think about the water situation. I decided to try an experiment. There are four bathrooms in our home. I had begged and pleaded to be allowed to clean them all, but Cleo, my Ghanaian colleague, insisted upon cleaning her own. I took the two bathrooms that were most similar in size and set-up and set to work. In the first bathroom, I cleaned as I normally would. I poured soap and water into my scrub bucket until it was one-quarter full. I scrubbed and rubbed and polished and scrubbed to my heart’s content, rinsing as needed, just like I normally would. I also kept track of my water usage. By the end, I had used five full buckets of water to clean one bathroom. Five buckets is a lot of water. My bathroom was truly a sight to behold.
Next, I went to the other bathroom of similar size. I decided to try to clean it using the water from one bucket. I figured there was no way that it would get clean. I wet and soaped my brush and got to work, using both my soap and my water sparingly. It was a very different cleaning technique, one which I had devised with help from Cleo. I managed to get the entire bathroom spotless with only three quarters of the water in my bucket, and was even able to soak and scrub my drain. While it was true that my bathroom might not elicit any gasps of delight or stares of wonder, it was clean. Cleanliness is truly the point of cleaning the bathroom, so I was happy.
Seeing how water availability impacts cleanliness and cleaning habits really opened my eyes to life in Ghana in a whole new way. I had never thought how frustrating it would be to not be able to clean the way you want because of the water involved. It had never before occurred to me just how much of a reflection of privilege having a sparkling white shower drain is. I am so grateful to both Ghana and my colleague Cleo for driving home again the importance of learning to see situations without judgment and with eyes of understanding.
*There was a Lorrie Morgan song from the early/mid 1990s called “Something in Red” that told the story of colored garments in a woman’s life. We were not allowed to listen to worldly music, but I later learned that the song we teen girls were taught to sing about cleaning was actually a parody of this song. The title of this post is a part of the song that we used to sing about housekeeping skills needed to attract a marital partner. The original wording said your tub must be white, but I figure drains is close enough because we don’t have tubs.