I plunge my dirty rag into the bucket of soapy water in front of me, holding back a wince as the soap suds and lye find their way into all my cuts and scratches. My hands are raw from scrubbing, and my left eye is red and weepy from my unwise attempt to rub it while I still had cleaner on my hands. My muscles ache, and my whole body is covered in a fine layer of brown grit. Who knew cleaning could be such a dirty buisness?
I was excited when I found out we’d be sprucing up the garderie (preschool) where I’ll be working for the next six months. A summer’s worth of disuse has made the three, once-cheery classrooms somewhat gloomy and inhospitable – certainly not an ideal place for 140 three-to-five-year-olds to spend their days. The prospect of dusting and decorating in preparation for les enfants seemed like a fun and satisfying way to spend a morning. Little did I know I was about to wage a nearly week-long battle against three rooms worth of serious dirt.
I met my boss, Mademoiselle NDiaye, at 8 o’clock sharp in front of the cinder block schoolhouse. I should have been alerted to the fact that this was not going to be a typical day by Mademoiselle’s attire; her usual chiffon skirt and fistful of gold rings had been replaced by a plain cotton paigne (wrap skirt) and an old t-shirt advertising the Sebikotane Fete des
Sports 2010. She appraised my ensemble, a light blue yoga top, a long, pleated skirt, and a dark blue leather belt, and raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“Do you want me to get you an extra t-shirt?” she asked in French. “I’m good!” I replied confidently. After all, how hard could a little mopping be?
Very, very hard is the answer.
I’ve always considered myself a relatively strong, athletic individual, but I was not prepared for the total-body workout supplied by three days of cleaning, Senegal-style. Brooms with handles? Unnecessary. The first morning, we began by vigourously attacking the floor with large bundles of stiff grass, held together at one end with tightly wound black plastic, bending over double so the bristles could reach the floor. My back ached slightly, and I was beginning to regret my outfit choice, but it wasn’t too bad – the grass brooms are extremely effective, and there was something grimly satifying about consolidating all the trampled grit into one large, neat pile.
Mopping came next, where I was confronted for the first time by the aformentioned stinging bucket of suds. I learned that here, “mopping” means putting your sodden rag on the ground, both hands firmly pressing down, and swaying your whole torso side to side like a clock pendulum in order to facilitate maximum cleanliness. We continued with our nettoyage, hefting tables, wiping blackboards, and patching over holes in the flower-patterned linoleum floor. I was sent outside to methodically beat the tiny blue desks and chairs free of cobwebs and the bundles of terrifyingly unidentafiable, cottony white balls that might have been animal, vegetable, or mineral – or some lethal combination of the three.
As each day passed, our intrepid, two-woman team made more and more progress in our crusade for cleanliness. We finally succeeded in evicting all the animals that had made their summer homes in the walls of the school, from the nests of ants and fist-sized spiders in the corners to a skittish, orange-bellied lizard that did not appreciate our enthusiastic demolition of his lair behind the bookshelf.
We had cleaned for 3 days straight, and I was exhausted. The commonplace, domestic nature of our accomplishment was belied by all the hard labor that went into it; I couldn’t help but think of les bonnes, the young, female maids employed by nearly every Senegalese family above the poverty line, who do this sort of work every single day. I also realized that despite the fact that the majority of teachers at the school are male, not a single one deigned to help with our cleaning spree. This was unequivocally considered to be “women’s work.”
My back was throbbing from our toils, and my mind was reeling from the unexpected hardships and inequality I had just identified. But then I looked around, and my self-pity and incredulousness evaporated as soon as I saw this:
And I realized that in a few short days, every one of those seats would be filled with a child receiving an education, a building block for a happy, successful life. I couldn’t fathom any better justification for our hard days of work.
“Aminata?” Mademoiselle NDiaye calls my Senegalese name, breaking through my reverie. “Du courage – tomorrow, we do les toilettes.”
Bring it on.