Re-worked from an older post for this week’s Daily Post Weekender edition. ed.
Ever since I arrived in Vanuatu almost five years ago, I’ve woken every morning to the rhythmic shushing of the scrub brush as the women in the neighbourhood do the morning wash. It’s often the last thing I hear before sundown as well.
Anyone who’s ever washed their clothes by hand knows just how arduous the process is. Most women in Vanuatu have extremely well-defined arm muscles, and many of the older women on the islands are built like wrestlers. Laundry is one of the reasons why.
When my tawian Marie-Anne approached me some time ago with the news that she’d begun participating in a micro-finance scheme, I encouraged her to do so, and immediately began wracking my brains for an activity that would allow her to earn money and still take care of her little girl full-time. I tossed out an idea or two, but nothing I suggested seemed very compelling. Marie-Anne was patient with me, and waited for me to wind down before telling me that she already knew what she wanted to do. She wanted to buy a washing machine, and charge the local women to use it.
How very stupid of me not to have thought of it before.
There were some steps that needed to be taken first. The initial money invested by the micro-finance group is about 10,000 vatu (about US $100), with amounts increasing as the borrowers demonstrate their ability to ‘remain faithful’, as Marie-Anne put it. We worked through a couple of months of buying biscuits and such and selling them at a small profit – enough to cover the principal and interest. But this was just a stopgap until we could borrow enough to get within striking range of our goal.
We held a fund-raising to move things along, but it rained on the day. I made sure they didn’t lose money, and was a little humbled by the number of our (soaking wet) friends who arrived regardless of the downpour, but it was – forgive me – a complete wash-out.
Marie-Anne and I went window-shopping and identified the best machine, balancing efficiency, load size, quality and price. But Vanuatu prices being what they are, the only decent option was about 20,000 vatu more than we had budgeted. That’s about a month’s salary here in Vila, if you have work.
Last week, I got a little money that I’d given up on ever seeing, so we were able to move the schedule up a bit. On Friday, I arrived home to find a brand-new Simpson washer sitting in my tiny house. (We had decided to store it there because I have an actual building to secure it in, and because I’ll be paying the electrical bill to start with.) I was surprised at how good it felt to see it there.
Yesterday, we put it through its paces.
Before I go on, I need to be clear about something: Most women in Vanuatu are perfectly aware that washing machines exist, but the majority have never seen one except through a window or in a store, and a very few have actually ever used one. Those that have used one rarely use it to wash their own clothes.
I showed Marie-Anne and her rather nervous husband James how to get the machine outside, hook it up to the tap, get the exhaust organised, set the settings that needed setting, and then how to distribute the clothes to balance them properly.
Then I pressed the button.
The machine chugged quietly along, gurgling like a contented child. Marie-Anne looked at me askance.
“That’s it,” I replied.
“Oh, right. We have to wait until this part’s done.”
“No, that’s everything.”
“Wash, rinse, squeeze, everything?”
“Yep. Just take the clothes out and hang them, and you’re done.”
I never realised just how revolutionary automation actually is, until I started dealing with practical examples like this. (Another scheme of ours is to buy a horse for the family in Lalwari, central Pentecost, but that’s a story for another day.) More to the point, though: automation is widely accepted and used in areas of transport, construction, even entertainment. But it’s still almost non-existent for cooking, washing, gardening, collection of firewood, etc.
We discussed this today at Port Vila’s version of the Algonquin Hotel, the Café au Péché Mignon. I found it interesting to watch how people reacted to the observation that automating chores was more revolutionary than women wearing trousers or even having jobs.
Women here face so many challenges that it’s sometimes hard to see where to start. Wan Smolbag Theatre Company’s heart-breaking play Las Kad (Last Card) summed up the situation for most women in Vanuatu when an angry husband responds to accusations of abuse with a simple, brutal assertion: ‘Mi pem hem finis!’ (“I’ve paid for her!” – a reference to the Vanuatu custom of paying a bride price, implying that women are chattels.)
Faced with this level of understanding, it’s sometimes hard to remember that the road to equality for women the world over is achieved as much through the reduction of housework as it is through human rights legislation and adequate prosecution of rape and spousal abuse.
Consider the prospects of a woman abused by her husband, worried about the future of her children and what the community will think about them if she leaves. Now keep her busy from before sunrise until late at night, and it’s no wonder at all that she is more prone to remain silent than to protest. She simply doesn’t have time for that.
Late in the afternoon yesterday, Marie-Anne’s husband watched her complete another load. Still bemused, he came inside, plunked himself down in front of the DVD player (Ocean’s 12) and whistled softly.
“White people….” he said, shaking his head.