I’m Not Allowed to do My Laundry…

… and I cried about it. This is the first time I’ve actually cried since I moved here and it was about laundry..

Alright, obviously it was about a lot more than my laundry, but the laundry was the tipping point. The majority of people living in Zanzibar wash their clothes by hand and line dry them. It’s work. A few HOURS of work just to wash clothes for one person. I live with a pretty large family so every few days a woman comes to help with the laundry and there’s another one who comes everyday to help with cleaning and cooking.

Last year, I every time I asked my host mom to teach me how to wash clothes, so that I could do it on my own (we are actually required by our program to do our laundry or send it to a cleaner) I was just told to put it outside of my room and it would be cleaned. When I asked my host mom to teach me this time around, she obliged, and it was a ray of hope that things would be different this year. Ever since then I’ve been told to leave my laundry outside of my room and someone would wash it for me. Despite my attempts to vocalize and visualize my ability and desire to clean my room or wash my clothes, I’m only allowed to wash my underwear and other small things. The two times I’ve washed my underwear I always sneak in more clothes. The first time I was successful in getting everything washed, but the second time only about half of my clothes made it through undetected.

This morning I pulled myself out of bed after laying there with nothing to do for over an hour. ‘I can wash the rest of my laundry!’ I thought, ‘I have a purpose.’ The joy of having a reason to get out of bed was fleeting. My mom and her helper were in the kitchen, which I had to walk through in order to get to the courtyard. As soon as Mama Shadya saw me with laundry in tow, she said

“Shebby. Acha, acha! Nani atakuja Juma… Jumatano kufua nguo zako.”

“Shelby. Stop, stop1 What’s her name is coming on… Wednesday to wash your clothes.” I retreated to my room with my tail between my legs, curled up in my bed, and cried.

I’m not a crier. I’m a very open person, but it has to be prompted. Only the select few get the privilege (read: burden) of me unloading all the shit that angers, upsets, or frightens me. If something upsets me you’re lucky to get two tears and an explicative and then we’re on our way. I didn’t cry when I projectile vomited in the middle of a hostel (good news, no one else noticed what was going on). I didn’t cry when the nice old lady was only being nice so I would give her money. I don’t cry at the copious amount of times I’ve heard people mutter “Mzungu” despite my attempted politeness, respect, and comprehension of their language, nor do I cry when local men whistle at me and look at me like I’m a piece of white meat (pun definitely intended).

The point is that my laundry represents a lot more than a dirty pile of clothes that’s growing as I’m running out of clean options. My inability to do my own laundry first represents the inability to do anything. In my house I’m often treated and taken care of comparable to that of a toddler. I can walk and talk, but hold everything you can’t pour your own tea or put food on your plate. Shelby, don’t do that! Someone will carry your dirty plates downstairs for you. Do you really know how to put this sheet on your bed? Don’t clean your bathroom; one of the kids will do it later. Upon seeing me washing the clothes I snuck out earlier this week, my youngest brother walked over, astonished (I might be exaggerating on that), and asked

“Unajua kufua?”

“You know how to wash clothes?” I don’t think I can properly express the frustration that stems from having your most basic choices taken from you. I am thankful to live with a family that strives to take care of me, and I try to keep that in mind. I’ve been told that I’m no longer a guest; I’m a part of the family. Yet, not being able to take part in most things that the family members do shows me that I’m actually apart from the family, not a part of it. On top of it, after having lived alone for almost four years not having control over most things in your life is really, really hard.

Second, my dirty laundry represents all of those things that should have made me cry, but I was too stubborn to let it happen. Any anxieties I’ve been feeling, whether their root is here or from my ghost of a life in the States, are easily pushed aside in the day to day. Most often I don’t have a specific reason for the feelings I experience.

I’ve learned to relish and enjoy the small victories. The small things that bring me joy and happiness are actually really huge. I get really excited when the old men who sit in my neighborhood are excited to say hi to me. The most fun I’ve had in the past week was randomly swinging in a park and listening to the three year old next to be enjoy the shit out of it. In the same way I need to learn to understand that it’s okay if the small bumps in the road give me a reason to cry*.

*Or I should just learn how to not hide my emotions, like an adult?


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