Tanzanian Culture: Cleanliness Obsessed
Where I come from, we’re used to conserving water. We endure droughts grudgingly and shorten our showers, stop watering our lawns and washing our cars. But here in Tanzania, where the landscape is so dry that people wear dust like cinnamon on snickerdoodles, where rain comes sparingly and the water isn’t even drinkable, people use enormous amounts of it for reasons I cannot make myself understand.
The Tanzanian women I live with clean the house and grounds constantly. Seven days a week, from sunrise until after ten at night, they clean, cook and do laundry and dishes.
Currently the volunteers staying in the house are one woman in her fifties, two in their forties, and me. We are (mostly) grown women, not slobs, and we tread carefully so as to leave very few footprints around here. By our standards the house is not at all messy but our hosts scrub it meticulously every day anyway. The two of them rarely step outside the gates of this place. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to Cinderella in real twenty-first-century life. My roommates and I like to imagine that the cook entertains secret lovers in the flour and banana deliverymen or the night guard, I think because it’s hard for us to imagine having her life and we want there to be some sparkle of romance in it. We wake up in the mornings to them shouting at each other in Swahili before dawn and although we don’t know exactly what they say to each other, we don’t think they are as happy as they could be. My roommates and I – women born and raised in the land of “working overtime” – think that these Tanzanian women work too hard.
Part of the reason their working hours are so long is that household appliances standard to the United States are nonexistent here. We Westerners are so used to dishwashers and washing machines that we don’t think twice about using them, and sometimes even mope about the small effort it takes to load and unload them. Until I came here I never realized how much time those appliances save us. Knowing the (subjectively) preferable alternative, it’s tough to watch our host family scrubbing clothes for hours in a bucket or washing the dishes in cold tap water. I never even thought to appreciate mops until I saw those two bent double with wet rags, swiping them along every inch of floor in the house and – for seemingly inexplicable reasons – outside, on the concrete under the clothesline, along the sidewalk beside the house, even in the driveway. Let’s just review that last statement for effect: they scrub the driveway by hand with a hose and cloth. Daily. In Africa.
Car washes are extremely popular here as well. I walk past three of them within five minutes of leaving the house. Granted, I can’t argue that it’s important to be able to see out the front windshield. But keeping a car clean here, where many roads aren’t paved and dirt floats thick through every particle of air, requires almost constant attention. The men who work at these facilities point their hoses indiscriminately in the general direction of the cars as they shout and stare at the passing mzungus, and the ground in the large vicinity turns to mud. I keep walking and pass women hosing down the dirt in front of their shops as though this will make it disappear.
To some extent I understand the obsession with cleanliness; outside the city is so dirty that it would be easy to fall behind and let the filth build up in the house, and certain aspects of personal appearance are very important to Tanzanians. The volunteers come home from work every day coated in a layer of dirt just from our commute. I frankly haven’t felt properly clean in two and a half months. But I still wonder whether that water – and, just as importantly, the time and energy people here spend on cleaning – could be conserved for other purposes. Perhaps they would say it’s better to clean than to sit around watching television. But I’d still pick the latter.