Sunday, May 20, 2012

Keeping Things Clean(ish)

With not much in the way of water, sewer, electric, trash pick up, etc. one may wonder how things are kept clean in Liberia.  Sometimes they are not and this leads to health problems as sewage and refuse in the streets provide breeding grounds for all kinds of unpleasant microbes.  However, most Liberians are very clean and hygienic people (for example, the Bassa people we lived with ritualistically take two "baths" a day, one in the morning and one at night).  We could learn a lesson from Liberians who are expert on staying clean in that climate under those conditions.  

My Dad and his improvised bucket bath.  This worked because we had electric and put an electric donut heater in the bucket
if you do this "Remember to unplug the donut before turning it on or you'll get shocked!"
On my last trip to Liberia I found that whether I was in Grand Bassa, Montserrado, or Cape Mount that there was a standard ritual for keeping clean.  (If you are the type staying in the luxury hotels in Monrovia this won't necessarily apply, but you might want to be aware in case you get stuck without electric as has been known to happen.)  Water is either drawn or pumped from a well or in some cases through "tap".  It is then heated and because of the lack of electricity in Liberia it is usually heated over a charcoal stove in a metal bucket.  After reaching a boiling hot temp a portion is poured into another bucket filling it 1/4 to 1/3 full of extremely HOT water.

A typical charcoal stove on which water is heated and food is cooked.

Next, you would take your partially filled bucket to a bathroom which will have some privacy if you're lucky.  If you're back in the bush you will probably have to go behind a wall woven together with palm branches that leaves a lot of gaps in between the weaving.  I usually throw a lappa or my towel over the wall to cover these gaps.  Usually people won't watch, but a lot of times kids are interested in what white people look like without clothes.  Whatever your bathing facility may be there is usually a community barrel of lukewarm water there that is kept covered from rats and mosquitoes.  It might just be rainwater if you're in the bush.  In the barrel is usually kept a cup just floating on the water.  You use this cup to add lukewarm water to the scalding water until your bucket water reaches the desired temperature.

This is actually a classroom space for bush school, but the palm branch wall construction is typical of bathrooms as well
After you have your bucket ready you drop your washrag in the water to get it wet.  I used a chamois rag because it was easier to dry.  Next you lather it up with your preferred soap and wash as usual.  I liked Dr. Bronner's liquid soap and picked up the Eucalyptus scent as it seemed to help a bit in keeping mosquitoes away and it also worked well as my shampoo.  Speaking of shampooing, that is done by taking your cup and filling it with water from your bucket and dumping it on your head.  Once your hair is wet you just shampoo like usual.  

Now that you are all soapy you begin to take the cup and repeatedly fill it up from the bucket and dump it all over yourself.  I liked to save a 1/4 of the bucket so that after I was rinsed off I could just lift up the bucket and dump the whole thing on me at once and at least get the feeling like I was taking a shower.  I recommend doing this "bucket bathing" at least once a day and if you only do it once I'd do it in the evening as it seemed to help me relax.

If you're lucky you can get a ringer washer to help
Lookout for your fingers!
What about clothes?  Usually these are dumped in a large washtub with what is called "iron soap".  You'll hear ladies with tubs full of iron soap walking about selling these little balls of hard, white soap.  It might sound to you like they are calling "Eye yuh so!  Geh yuh eye yuh so!" and if they have bigger balls of soap it will sound they are calling "Baby eye yuh so" or "big, big iron soap".  The clothes are lathered up and wrung out just like you would clean a shirt in the sink.  It takes strong hands to do a whole load and usually a whole day is devoted to getting the laundry done.  The clothes are left to dry in the sun, so rain and potential thieves can determine how and when you do this. 

Laundry Day at the Vogel's.  If it rains they don't dry and if someone steals them their gone!
Teeth are cared for by whatever you bring and your main concern will be the water that you use to brush your teeth.  I used filtered water through the water filter I brought or bottled water I bought at market in Liberia.  You'll just have to dump water from your bottle over the bristles when your done to rinse them off.  I have used Dr. Bronner's as toothpaste before as well, which cuts down on baggage space, but tastes kind of strange.  If you get a chance you can try a Liberian "toothbrush", which is actually just a root like stick that they chew on and it seems to keep their teeth strong and healthy.

The beard on week 6
As far as shaving goes I just didn't shave.  I grew out my beard which was pretty fun.  Beards are usually for older men so it kind of made me look like a wannabe chief.  Just like in the US, most women didn't like it and most men did, what matters is if you like it.  If you're a woman you can do what you like, but I would call it a shaving optional culture for women (sort of like Lollapalooza).  Most men do shave over there but if you can grow a nice one, go for it!

After doing a 6 week trip to Liberia last summer I really enjoyed just standing under the hot shower.  O, the little things!  Liberia will help you appreciate them :-)

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