My Courage Is A Bucketful of Dirty Laundry

Elise Leise - Senegal


October 12, 2017

My hands plunge into the bucket of soapy water in search of the next piece of clothing. Grabbing a corner, scrubbing vigorously, I rid the fabric of all the dust smudges, sweat, and rice I tried to eat with my hands but that decorated my shirt instead. The sun hits hot on the nape of my neck, our mango tree shielding some, but not all, of the mid-morning heat.

“Goh, goh, nohii tamin, ka naw onongcigara newo di hewi.” my nineteen-year old sister says.
Hurry up; the sun is hot; you can’t wash clothes to save your life.

My first instinct is to be somewhat offended. “Four-year old Anna can wash clothes, you can’t” is a common refrain in my daily life.
A month ago, I would have felt yet another pang of incompetence, adding it to the list of things I needed to be taught. I might have silently taken offense, being used to doing things the right way; still living in the world where I was treated as a competent and independent almost-adult member of society. Now, I roll my eyes at the comment and tease my sister back.

“Mi unen, miyu jim jutut jutut, min ka en fu soolin kanaw onongchigo.”
 I know, I’m learning, maybe you’ll have to wash the rest of my clothes for me…


There’s a certain freedom to knowing I’m wrong nearly 100% of the time. There are no fears of embarassment or failure, just an unhindered capacity for learning. Speaking my mind, daring to rebel against normalacy, acting upon audacious, personal goals, bracing myself to be vulnerable; such were occasions back home where comfort was often easier than courage. Yet in an uncomfortable world; where as a young woman, I fall short time and time again; where as a foreigner, I cannot wash dishes or cook meals or shell elak beans the way every Senegalese female can; where as a native English speaker, I find it difficult to communicate my basic wants and needs, courage is the only option available.

And as with many vague, idealistic concepts I fought to identify before my intercontinental move, courage is starting to crystallize into little moments of sensation: the ache in my throat as I walk to my room hearing my goodnight farewell repeated behind me in an imitation of my flawed pronunciation, the split second of silence gaping before I lean forward and ask for a sentence to be repeated, more slowly this time, the bombardment of color as I step into a circle of Senegalese women tapping out the beat of the drums with their bare feet, blurs of skirts spinning around unadultured celebration.

Courage, a concept I valued but never captured in clarity, is the feeling of the fabric that fails to squeak against my skin as I wash clothes the wrong way. 

I thought courage was strong nerves and the sensation of adrenaline pumping through my bloodstream and standing gracefully when my mind told me to crouch low. But I’m realizing courage is so much more about failure than success. Surrounded by teasing remarks, language barriers, and half-scrubbed t-shirts, I for the first time am able to articulate a meaning of courage unique to me. It’s not a vague concept held together by fragments of thought anymore. No, I may not know how to get that magic squeaky clean sound yet, but I do know this:

My type of courage is quantified by soapy water, raw hands, and a bucketful of laundry.

Elise Leise