The following appeared in the Capital Journal in 2012.
Once every couple of weeks, Margret comes to my house and I hand her two buckets, one full of my dirty laundry, a large bag of soap and clothespins. For the next few hours, she rubs out the dirt, rinses the garments and then hangs them so that by the end of the day I have clean clothes. When she is finished, I hand her 30 Maluti, about $4.
Margret, not her real name, is one of my students in the ninth grade and my neighbor. She is also my washing girl.
There are no washing machines or dryers in my village. All laundry is done by hand, with large buckets, water from a tap, powdered soap and a long wire for drying. It is really tough work and hands are often sore and dotted in calluses from the squeezing and rubbing. It can take half a day, depending on the number of piece.
I am awful at washing. My clothes usually come out with the same stains from before or covered in soap residue. They never look up to Basotho standards – the Basotho are very clean people who take pride in dressing nicely – so I stopped doing it, except for the unmentionables.
Some volunteers wash their own clothes, while others, like me, pay a village person to do it. When I first moved to the community, my host mother did it but I eventually hired Margret.
On occasion, I sit with Margret as she does the work. I ask her about her mother and father and she inquires about mine. We trade stories, giggle at our differences and she offers up a hymn or two.
As a an educated woman from the First World, it may seem pretentious or like an exploitation, the exact opposite values of a stereotypical Peace Corps Volunteer, to have a village girl do my work. In the United States, especially the Midwest, cleaning ladies are considered a luxury to some or just work we could do ourselves. Here, though, paying for my laundry is a way of helping someone.
Margret comes from a poor household. She lives with her grandmother and several other extended relatives. Her school uniform is tattered and, if it wasn’t for a special scholarship funded by former Lesotho volunteers, she may not be in school this semester. The little bit of money I give her is not a lot, but it’s enough for to help her family by flour or treat herself to a pair of earrings to feel special.
I know that I could do my own laundry. Or I could pay someone else to do it, and do a much better job than I ever could, and give them a bit of money that could go much further than if in my own pocket. To me, it’s the same as buying hand-made products or from the local shops.
But, for Margret and I, it’s more than money. She knows she is helping me and I know that I am helping her. It’s our little special arrangement, which makes both of us happy.