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Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Life Unplumbed

Life in my rural village in Lesotho is entirely unplumbed. I know of only one home in the entire 500+ family community that has indoor plumbing. Their toilet, sinks, and bathtub are fed by their own well.

For the rest of us, drawing and conserving water is a regular part of our daily life. When nature provides it for us, we collect as much as we can in whatever we can; 200L metal drums, fancy plastic rain barrels significantly larger than what people in America have, basins, buckets, etc. Given the drought this so-called “rainy” season, that has not been happening much. We recently had two weeks with great rain. Within twenty-four hours of it stopping, I spoke with a friend who was gather muddy water from puddles to save for her gardens in case the rains do not return.

Me at the tap with 10L of water on my head,
if I walk slowly enough, my sweatshirt
might even stay dry!
So, what is it like to live life entirely unplumbed? I will share the nuances of living without plumbing; however, today I will ignore the lack of a toilet as I wrote about that in Outs. I encourage you to click through and read that post as well.

I was lucky in that I had a few dry runs (pun intended) before I joined Peace Corps. When I sailed, some vessels only plumbed the heads (toilets) and galley (kitchen) sink. When we wanted water to drink, we used the igloo that was regularly refilled in the galley. When we wanted water to clean the ship or ourselves, we filled a bucket with seawater. When I worked at AMC’s Three Mile Island, only the kitchen was plumbed, so we used Lake Winnepesaukee water for bathing. In both cases, however, I regularly engaged with the outside world-taking traditional showers and using machines for laundry.

In the last twenty months, however, I have averaged less than one traditional shower a month and have used machines to do my laundry only a handful of times. Every drop of water that I engage with for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and even watering my garden has been carried in a bucket before being put into use.

My 3 20L buckets living in the corner
My water lives in three 20L buckets gifted to me by villagers upon my arrival. Each originally held some sort of construction item, but I choose to ignore whatever carcinogens may live in them as I am sure the plastic itself is equally bad for me. I draw water at a spring-fed water tap a ten minute walk from my hut. When males draw water, they used a wheelbarrow and get 40-75 liters at a time. Women, however, typically carry 20L at a time on their heads. Younger girls will carry only 10L on their heads as they build up their neck strength. In this way, I am like a young girl, working to build up the strength and balance to carry my 10L bucket without using my hand or wearing some of the water by the time I arrive at home.

When it comes to cooking and dishes, I only notice the lack of plumbing when I want to wash bread dough off my hands. It is hard to pour water and scrub at the same time, particularly when both hands are covered in sticky. Inevitably, I also end up needing to wash the measuring cup or “water jack” I use to pour water.

There are entertaining memes that float around the internet and have even been turned into tee-shirts celebrating the ability of the PCV to bathe in limited water. While entertaining, they are reality for not just Peace Corps Volunteers, but people around the world living without plumbing. The Basotho put a high priority on cleanliness. A fellow PCV laughed a year ago when her area was dealing with a water shortage as the principal addressed her entire school, reminding them that a lack of water was not an acceptable reason for not bathing.

Most Basotho bathe at least once a day, using a basin and a small amount of water. I too, bathe regularly using about two cups of water each time. I do not, however, wash my hair very often. Well before moving to Africa, I had transitioned to using what is referred to as the “no-poo” method; using a baking soda and water mixture followed by a cider vinegar and water mixture. When I do wash my hair, currently every two to three weeks, I typically indulge by using around three liters of water. I justify this indulgence because it happens so infrequently.

Ready for a bath: towel, basin, 2 cups of water, washcloth,
pumice, nail brush (dust is brutal), and Dr. Bronner's. :-) 
Some PCVs find themselves craving showers, even going so far as to visit friendly hotels to pay for just a shower. I find that except for the dirtiest of days, I feel surprisingly clean after my bucket bathing. This lasts until a workshop puts me in a hotel with a shower and I see the amount of dirt that comes off my body when I use forty times the amount of water and time to clean myself. Then, I am temporarily embarrassed. It never lasts though, as I happily return to my bucket baths in my hut.

Laundry is a huge undertaking without plumbing. When our natural water delivery system, aka rain, is present, my family and I use the water that collects from their metal roof. We collect it in three 200L metal drums. As the water sits in the drums, it becomes a bit reddish tinted, but is still preferable to hauling the laundry downhill to the natural spring. I head out to the back yard with three or more basins, a bucket, and at least two hours. The first basin is the soapy wash, both the second and third rinses. The bucket I use to fill the basins then to collect finished items so that I am not jumping up to hang things on the clothesline one at a time. I have developed a specific order to washing my clothes based upon personal analysis of how dirty something may be combined with how close to my skin it sits. Before I am halfway through, the color of the water in the wash basin matches the dirt that the basin sits upon and the first rinse water is well on its way to being equally dirty and soapy. By the time I finish, all three basins have a layer of dirt on the bottom and soap suds in them, hence my desire to rinse the soap out of the items that sit closest to the skin first.

Flat Stanley and I do laundry at the natural spring. 
When we do not have rain, we go to a natural spring a ten minute walk downhill from the house, carrying our laundry, soap, bucket, and basins. I use water less sparingly when I wash at the spring, often doing an extra rinse in the natural basin formed by the spring. I also change the washing water out more often as the spring runs constantly so it does not feel wasteful. At the spring, my primary goal is obviously clean clothing. My secondary goal and perhaps more pressing focus is to make my wet load as light as possible before hiking back up to the house. As a result, the order of washing changes dramatically from when I wash at home. I wash the heaviest items first, laying them out on the rocks that surround the spring. There is a science to choosing the right rocks as the reddish toned ones will leech onto your cloths, staining them. Additionally, the rocks must be easily rinsed of dirt and just steep enough to let the water drip out quickly without the clothes falling off the rock. Lastly, some rocks are popular walking paths for the goats, sheep, and cows that come to the spring for drinks and there is nothing worse than a goat walking all over your freshly laundered items.

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