Africa · Congo

clean is not an absolute

I will say this, I cannot adapt to relative cleanliness, and that is the most “American” comment I am embarrassed to make on this blog, a quasi-admission of guilt, ridden with shame.

I’ve lived outside of Congo for the better part of the last 15 years, and well…cleanliness is a few things.

Cleanliness is something you get used  to. And you not only get used to it, but it’s something you learn to revel in, and enjoy with delectable pleasure. I get intense satisfaction out of vacuuming my apartment, walking into a spotless room with bare feet that will remain clean all day. I love washing dishes and then scrubbing the sink so that it gleams, taking a shower in a clean bath-tub, folding laundry that smells clean for days.

Pasadena is entirely clean, and also, shockingly to Angelinos, so is LA, as a city. You know those parking signs that prohibit parking on street cleaning days? That’s a weirdness that you learn to love. A society so clean they sweep the streets.

Pointe-Noire has two things in common with Santa Monica:  it’s on the Ocean facing West, so you see the sunset every night, and it’s on the beach. Santa Monica has street sweeping, so it looks like a city, and the roads are free of sand. Pointe-Noire doesn’t, so all  the years of sand, blown in from the beach by constant sea-breeze and light winds, has accumulated along the streets in mounds and mounds of dirty, trash-ridden sand.

So you might leave your house clean as the day you were born, but then you walk out onto the street, and immediately, your sandal fills with dirty sand, and you’re not clean anymore. I wash my feet three, four, five times a day, and every time I do, the bathtub trails with sandy remains. That’s another thing. You know how you wash your hands in the US, and generally, the water is clear, because what you’re washing are basically invisible germs? Here, no matter what you do, when you wash your hands, the water is dirty. Like you’ve been trolling around the garden. Everything is dirty, door handles, cabs, money, and if you walk around for an hour or two, when you wash your hands, you’ll see evidence of it.

The soap melts in the soap dish, so when you lather it up, it feels sticky and wet, and that doesn’t help to feel clean. Even in the dry season the air is a little sticky from the sea breeze, so the towel you reach for is slightly damp, both from the air and from yesterday’s shower (because it doesn’t really have time to dry in 24 hours), so that’s not 100% conducive to feeling clean.

It’s so humid that the shower curtain and the tiles always have a little bit of mold even if you scrub them, and the sand is omnipresent, brought in, through the mosquito screen by enemy breezes and even if you clean every day, so when you step out of the shower, your feet will get sandy.

We don’t have a washing mashine or a dryer (with no electricity half the time,  what’s the point?) so clothes are handwashed, air-dried and then ironed to kill off potential fly eggs that can embed themselves in your skin as worms, in a nightmarish turn of events. That notion is pretty gross, but if the clothes have been laid out and waiting, when you put them on, they wont’ smell fresh or be perfectly dry, they’ll be a little damp.

Lots and lots and lots of money can help with this. If you have enough money to afford a $10,000 gasoline-powered generator, you have air-conditioning all the time, which dries out your air, and makes everything feel clean. Your windows are closed all the time, so your house stays clean, you wash and dry your clothes in machines and fold them into cupboards that are dry from the air-conditioning. But you live in a self-contained bubble, that has no contact with Africa.

If you have contact with Africa, open windows and all, you open yourself up to the relative notion of clean. Clean enough is good enough. Absolute clean is a plane ride away.

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