Go Tlhatswa Botoka

Sunday, 6 November 2011 – Mosquito larvae float in the drum where we keep water for washing. Laundry is going to be a challenge today.

As extraordinary as serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer is—extraordinary in the sense that the Peace Corps experience falls so far outside the ordinary American experience—Peace Corps Volunteers spend an inordinate time doing incredibly mundane things; adventures in the ordinary. Fetching water. Pouring out dirty bath- and dishwater on the roots of the mango tree. Waiting for kombis to arrive. Waiting for kombis to fill so the driver will hit the road already. Waiting in the kombi while the driver fills up on petrol. Drinking Coca-Cola with the neighbors. Talking about how hot it is. Talking about how late the rains are in coming.

And washing laundry. The Setswana word for Saturday, “Lamatlhatso,” roughly translates to Washing Day.

Batswana hold high standards for the way one dresses, especially those working in the schools. To wear dirty or wrinkled clothing to professional work is frowned upon. Even the electrician that came to fix my host family’s stove—wearing the bright blue, reflective overalls of the working class—sported shiny leather dress shoes. In the hot weather of the North West Province’s summer, keeping one’s clothing up to snuff ain’t easy. Even the most basic of tasks soaks your clothing through with sweat, creating a nice sticky surface for the dust kicked up from the unpaved roads by the hot, dry gusts of wind.

But, Peace Corps Volunteers gotta dress to impress and so spend a lot of time washing and pressing their clothing. Every Saturday or Sunday, I fill three basins with water: one to wash and the other two to rinse. The next three hours are then given over to scrubbing, wringing, rinsing, re-wringing, rinsing, re-wringing again, and hanging on the line each item of clothing one by one: each dress shirt, each undershirt, each pair of boxers, each sock. After I dump the water out in the grass, I must rinse each basin a couple of times to completely wash out the leftover dirt.

Sunday, 6 November 2011 – Ma Grace, my South African host mother, wrings out the white dress shirt I just spent ten minutes washing and holds it against the bright African sun. Even with my undiscerning eyes I can see that its formerly bright white color has gone, replaced by a faint reddish-khaki wash, stained by the bushveld’s dust. I scratch the back of my head self-consciously, a little embarassed.

Ma Grace frowns. “Thabo, shame, aowa,” she chides, “I cannot see one of my sons going in the village wearing this dirty shirt.” She looks at me and laughs. “I will show you to wash nicely!”

My host mother is not one to tangle with. The saying “if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” might be American, but my South African host mother proves it. If Ma Grace wants me to wash my shirt nicely, I had better sit back and learn.

Ma Grace gathers the shirt lengthwise, forming a loose, long bundle of cloth. Sprinkling a little washing powder on the shirt, she bunches the tail of the shirt and uses it to scrub down the length of the shirt. Unlike many of the gogos in the village, Ma Grace is a small woman, maybe five-foot-two and a buck-twenty, but built strong and wiry. She scrubs the shirt with the power of someone half again her size, putting her shoulders and body weight into the task. Her spirited efforts make my own look downright puny by comparison. After seven or eight strokes, she gathers the shirt into another loose bale of cloth, sprinkles a little washing powder on it, and scrubs again, a process she repeats about five times. She then grabs the collar in both of her fists, scouring the collar against itself. Afterwards she does the same with both cuffs. Closing her eyes tightly, Ma Grace grabs the shirt by the shoulders and gives it a brisk snap. The shirt now glistens pure white in the sunlight.

Ma Grace nods and throws the shirt in the rinse basin. “Now,” she says, “You will wash your shirts like this. You are going to dress nicely!” As she walks away, she hits me in the chest and laughs.

Monday, 7 November – I am sitting in the chair across from the principal’s desk, waiting to meet with him as he finishes some paperwork or other for the Department.

Without looking up, Mr. Moidi says, “Good morning Thabo, I am just coming to you.” I spend a lot of time waiting to talk to people—today appears to be no different.

He finally looks up. “Thabo,” he states in a businesslike fashion, “Let me just say, you look stunning in this white shirt today.”

“Thank, Mr. Moidi,” I say, smiling and thinking of Ma Grace.


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