Open-air launderette

6th July 2001 at 01:00
(Photograph) - As soon as there were clothes, people had to wash them. But how? Here, in a creek near the city of Abidjan, in the Cote d'Ivoire, West Africa, we see one version of an early solution. You wet the fabric, smash the dirt out with friction, refresh the material with soap, rinse in flowing water. Much the same as with a washing machine, really.

But although these professional launderers, the fanicos, take about the same time, an hour or so, as a washing machine, and between them clean as many thousands of articles of clothing as a huge industrial laundry, they have broken the process down into more basic steps. Instead of electricity and piped water, neither of which is locally available, they use elbow grease and the river.

Instead of the fast, rotating drum banging garments against each other, practised hands scrub the clothes against sand packed in old tyres. The river washes away the dirty water, a small bar of soap is used to finish off, and the sun will bleach out any grimy residue as clothes dry on the banks.

The invention of soap has been attributed to the ancient Egyptians, to Mexicans, to Sumerians and to the Cretans. But the discovery that alkali-loaded ash or soda crystals could extract fat-dissolving substances from animal and vegetable grease is more likely to have happened in many places at many times. Saponification, the making of soap, is one of the bedrocks of civilised life. But soap needed boiling and purifying and skill.

Take the soap out of laundry and what do you have? A scrubbing board and water. As long as you do not mind wearing your clothes out pretty fast - or, the medieval option, you do not wash them very often - and as long as someone can spend a long time down by the river, you can have clean clothes without soap. You just smash the dirty fibres again and again against rocks or sand, which penetrates deep into the weft of the cloth. If you hang the clothes out to dry in a scented meadow they will even smell nice.

Now that in the West we have mechanical servants to do the wash, we have forgotten the age-old camaraderie of communal laundry. Historically, women have done the washing. Go back to the Bible or classical myth, and find the women down by the riverbank scrubbing away. But in Africa today, the river by Adjame, known to tourists as Africa's largest outdoor launderette, is full of hundreds of men washing for trade.

Abidjan is not the official capital of the Cote d'Ivoire (that honour goes to Yamoussoukro, the birthplace of the former president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny). Yet the "Paris of West Africa" attracts the ambitious and enterprising from across the region. Since 1951, when the French-built Vridi Canal linked Abidjan's lagoon with the sea, the city's population has rocketed from under 50,000 to about 3 million. Some live in post-colonial splendour, many more in shanty towns. Jobs are scarce, crime is high. But everyone needs laundry - and hardly anyone has a washing machine. Grab that tyre, young man.

Victoria Neumark. Photograph by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Weblinks History of washing: deterghistory.htmwww.historychannel.comexhibitsmodernwash.html Facts about soap: www.mdle.comdana6.htm Guide to Cote d'Ivoire: www.lonelyplanet.comdestinationsafricacote_divoire attractions.htm

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