It took less than twelve days for my soft, manicured hands to chap, crack and scar.
Twelve days of washing dishes by hand after every meal (and snack) — trying to keep the crumbs at minimum and the bugs away as long as possible.
Twelve days of mosquitos leaving whelps on my wrists and hands as I slept at night, despite every spray, candle, and essential oil we tried. Bite report: 39 whelps in twelve days.
Twelve days of soaking, washing and prepping the kilos upon kilos of fruits and vegetables we ate, trying to protect us from food borne diseases.
Twelve days of scrubbing clothes by hand in large tubs before hanging them out to dry. (Although I can't take credit for washing all of the clothes, Gabriel did his fair share too!).
That’s why, when the soft-spoken girl with the sweet smile appeared at our doorstep, ready to clean my home, there was much rejoicing in the Sams’s family.
I knew she was coming, prior her arrival. The school interviewed and hired three women, like herself, to help clean staff homes. Other than that, I knew nothing about her.
Yes, yes… we’re living in Africa. Aren’t we supposed to be suffering? Having house help doesn’t sound like we’re suffering.
But she was not hired to protect my soft hands. She was not hired to mop my floors because I do not know how to (I do). And she was not hired to help with the laundry because I do not like washing it by hand (although I do truly detest it).
She was hired because, despite downsizing to 700 square feet, cleaning house here is a full-time job. And in order for us to be effective in our jobs (the ones that brought us to Uganda in the first place), we needed help.
Household Items I Miss by Percentage
Most importantly, she was hired because women’s work opportunities here are few, and respectable jobs are even fewer. Cleaning houses is desirable employment for a woman in Jinja-town. Because while the average Ugandan makes less than USD 2 per day, house helpers can make enough to properly feed their families and pay for their children’s school fees.
And we can help them do that by contributing to their monthly salary — a number less than what I used to make in a couple hours’ pay in America.
Her name is Lenah.
On her first day, we sat down to discuss her contract and job expectations. I tried to not appear too excited, scared I would send her running with my enthusiasm. Then I left with Gabriel for training.
When we returned for lunch, all of our laundry was clean and line drying, the floors were swept and mopped, the beds remade with clean sheets and a bowl of fruit was cut for the midday meal. I looked at Gabriel, wide-eyed and amazed at what she had accomplished, unable to calculate how long it would have taken me to do the same amount of work.
“At this rate, I’m going to run out of things for her to do by tomorrow!”
And I did. The next morning, all I had left was a small basket of laundry, comprised of towels. Lenah started at another family’s home (we share her time with two other families on campus). But by mid-afternoon, I noticed our towels were still not washed. Slightly annoyed that the one thing on my list was incomplete, I tried to be patient. Maybe she hadn't understood what I wanted?
She found me by late afternoon on another part of campus.
“I am sorry. I cannot do towels today.”
“OK, I see. Did you run out of time?”
“What is the problem?”
I stared down at her extended hands and saw chapped, cracked and raw spots marring her beautiful, chocolate skin. It took less than twelve days for my soft, manicured hands to chap, crack and scar. It took Lenah's less than two.
She suggested we try some different detergents that might be more gentle on our skin? I suggested gloves, but she said no one uses them here and it would make doing the laundry more difficult. I sent her home early, but only after I was sure she had medicine.
The next week came around. While the new detergent didn’t rub our skin raw, our hands were still dry and cracking. Unsure what else to do, I contemplated buying stock in hand lotion.
But Gabriel does not give up so easily. He’s a fixer, and a doer. And he doesn’t stop until he’s found a solution that’s satisfactory.
Tired of washing his underwear by hand (it’s disrespectful to ask a Ugandan to do, so we wash our own), and trying to protect my hands and Lenah's from further pain, he started to get more quiet in the evenings. Then he started to spend more time on his iPad. Then he started staying up later.
All signs that the wheels in his head were turning with the makings of a new project.
Then, one morning he told me he was headed into town and needed to run some errands. A few hours later, he returned on his boda with a giant blue barrel.
He went inside the house to grab a sketch pad and pen. Two minutes later, with some black scratches on a piece of paper, he took the barrel and walked across campus to where construction workers sat under the trees, hiding from the midday sun.
He sat with them for a few minutes, talking. Then he showed them the sketchpad. And then, a few minutes after that (and a few thousand shillings, or USD 3), then men started welding. African-style, with no masks.
Eventually, when the light became too bright, they used sunglasses to take the edge off the glare.
Then there was more sawing. More welding. A little bit of measuring.
A structure started to take form.
Two hours later, it was complete.
Gabriel returned to the house, where Lenah was giving me a lesson in Ugandan cooking. He called us outside to see the contraption. Unsure of how it worked or what it did, we watched as he proceeded to fill the barrel up with water. He disappeared into the house momentarily and returned with an armful of clothes and some laundry detergent. Dumping all inside the barrel, he produced two handfuls of golfballs.
“Agitators,” he said with raised eyebrows and a smile on his face.
Once all of the ingredients were added to his laundry soup, he took one hand and gently pushed the barrel forward. It glided on the metal frame, back and forth, like a swing on a swing set. We stood there, amazed as the reality of what he built us sank in.
“Babe, a washing machine?! You’re amazing!”
“Ssebo, I think you are a genius!”
“This is incredible.”
“I am so happy.”
He called us closer to peer inside the barrel where the golfballs had truly agitated the water and created sudsy bubbles. After only a few pushes, the foam was already taking on a red hue as the soap extracted dirt from his clothes.
The three of us smiled goofily at each other, dreaming of what our laundry days might now look like. None of us have any idea how long we need to push the barrel for the clothes to be properly cleaned, but I guess it’s something we’ll find out through trial and error over the next few weeks.
For the inaugural load, Gabriel pushed for 10 minutes before revealing a final surprise: a water spigot to drain the barrel when the load is complete.
I could choose to be frustrated by the lack of cleaning supplies here, and spend my days bemoaning the non-existence of Clorox wipes in Uganda. Or that it takes five times as long to do anything in the house. Or that I don’t have a washing machine, or dishwasher, or vacuum.
Instead, I’m choosing to thank God for the things I have been blessed with. I’m so grateful for Lenah, and her wonderful company as we clean the house together. I’m grateful for Gabriel, for his creative mind and heart to help others. And I’m grateful for the daily opportunity to re-examine my perspective of needs and wants and to learn how to be happy with so much less.