Fridays in Congo

December 12, 2006 | 22 comments
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I was still single when I was sent to Central Africa as an international aid worker, to work as a teacher in a slum suburb of Kinshasa, capital of Congo. I got a room in a frail school building, part of a convent of Catholic nuns. The space had a bed, a table, a toilet, and a sink. Only cold water. A small corroded fridge, throbbing against the heat, was more helpful in keeping the cockroaches out of the cheese than in guaranteeing its freshness.

Upon my arrival, Sister Claire, the cheerful Physical Facilities Nun, had shown me my quarters:
– You’ll be fine here, monsieur Decoo! This room was Father Joseph’s, who died last year in this very bed. See the lizard there, crawling on the ceiling? Be good friends with him: he catches mosquitoes. Still, take your nivaquine every day. Here is the fridge, but don’t count on always having electricity. Every Friday morning Sister Veronique will pick up your linen. We have a warm meal for the teachers in the refectory, daily at one o’clock. Any questions?

It was only the following Friday that I realized the quandary. Garments.

For those who do not know what Mormon garments are, it’s white underwear, but with sacral significance for us. A few small marks in the garment remind us of obedience, dedication, and commitment to Christ. Nearly all faiths have forms of religious vestment, for their clergy, and sometimes for all members. So do we, but we keep this feature discrete and treat these clothes with due deference. Outsiders’ respect for this aspect of our belief is appreciated.

My first Friday in the Congo. The linen! No, I just couldn’t add my garments to the bundle. I felt a prime reticence to hand them over to Sister Veronique, the Laundry Nun. Moreover, this happened in the early seventies, when our garments were still the one-piece model from hemline to knee. I did not want those displayed on a clothes line in the sight of the whole Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy Divine.

And so, in the spirit of pioneer bravery, I made up my mind: I would wash my garments myself in my room.

A sink for about three gallons. An erratic tap tied to a system that spewed as much hesitation as dubious water. Parched soap flakes, bought from a Portuguese merchant, a retired mercenary with ties to colonial stockpiles looted years before. To raise the temperature I placed a bucket of water in the rays beaming through my window. I adapted the laundry schedule to the sun’s position. Helped by the heat of Kinshasa’s climate, becoming skilled in squeezing and tweaking textile, I managed to wash. Next rinsing, rinsing, one piece at a time, in the dripping sink.

I stretched a wire through my room. Under the intrusive eye of my lizard, watching from the ceiling, I hung the laundry to dry. Water dripped over the floor tiles. What I dreaded most, was an unexpected visitor knocking on my door. I would then shout:
– One moment please, coming!
Like greased lightning I would pull off the garments, hid the stack under my bed, yank away the wire, grab a mop and open the door:
– Hi, sorry, I was just wiping the floor.

Meanwhile, each Friday evening, I was getting my shirts, sheets and socks back from the convent’s laundry. Dry, soft, fresh, fragrant, folded.

As weeks went by, the condition of my garments worsened. No need to explain the details to experienced laundresses.

I finally surrendered.

Sister Veronique asked no questions, made no remarks.

And since that day, on Friday afternoons, in a convent’s garden hedged by lush shrubbery, on lines stretched between palm trees, in the scent of flowering bougainvilleas, playfully blowing in the tropical breeze, Mormon garments shared the sun with the granny panties of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy Divine.

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22 Responses to Fridays in Congo

  1. John Scherer on December 12, 2006 at 9:04 am

    I’ve had similar anxieties when I began my current position. My work requires that I wear company issued clothes at all times that are maintained through a company laundry. This includes under clothing. I was prepared to have an awkward conversation with the hiring manager regarding garments, but it turned out that another lds man started working there a year before I did and the company has a facility in Utah. There is a standard procedure for handling of temple garments and they even reimbursed me for the work garments that I purchased. This situation became a blessing to me as I was new to the area and I probably would not have known that I had an LDS colleague for some time. He was a good source of information on the area and the church when were moving and is still a good friend. Another example of our peculiarities being a strength.

  2. Jeremy on December 12, 2006 at 10:23 am

    Wilfried,

    Thanks, as always. Your closing image is burned into my mind as the epitome of ecumenicism — and the sun shining brightly down on everyone’s undies bears a delightful and profound symbolism.

    (P.S. Somebody want to send this link to Andrew Sullivan? I think he’d appreciate it.)

  3. John Mansfield on December 12, 2006 at 11:45 am

    This story calls to mind Conrad’s novel set in the Belgian Congo. When Marlow meets the company’s chief accountant, he admires that the accountant, in keeping his clothes properly laundered as he would at home, had “verily accomplished something.” The sort of co-operation that brought that about the accountant’s accomplishment contrasts greatly with Brother Decoo’s uplifting experience: “‘I’ve been teaching one of the native women about the station. It was difficult. She had a distaste for the work.'”

  4. Eric Nielson on December 12, 2006 at 12:45 pm

    Wilfried: Did Sister Veronique wonder if you ever wore any underwear? Just curious.
    Very well written as always.

  5. Wilfried on December 12, 2006 at 12:59 pm

    Jeremy (2), yes, I believe you interpreted that well. Thank you. The convent’s garden also had something of paradise …

    John (3), it is indeed amazing how many novels and memories have been written about Africa and countries like Congo and how much they teach us about human relations in intercultural contexts. The most fascinating are those written by Africans themselves, as they look upon us and upon their own marvelous but also dramatic continent.

    Eric (4), I was not privy to a nun’s thoughts … But of course she knew I was doing that part of the laundry myself. When you walk around in a light tropical shirt, the linings of garments show.

  6. Keryn on December 12, 2006 at 6:09 pm

    This story made me think of my father’s mission in Brazil in the early 70s. He and his companions always sent their laundry to a (almost always non-member) laundress–until I read this story I didn’t give this any thought beyond “You didn’t have to do your laundry? Cool!”

    Now I wish I could ask him what he thought about the garment question. It’s always interesting the myriad types of things can make you miss your dad.

    Thanks for sharing this story with us, Wilfried. I too am entranced by the image of all the white laundry dancing in the breeze together…

  7. Costanza on December 12, 2006 at 7:33 pm

    The prose in this is so fine that I think I might have to keep this post permanently in my files. Thanks Wilfried

  8. Jim F. on December 12, 2006 at 8:36 pm

    Costanza, you’re right. But that’s been my experience with everthing Wilfried has written–this is nothing new in that regard.

  9. Jeremy on December 12, 2006 at 10:09 pm

    I suppose it’s time for one of us, as nearly always happens in the comments to any of Wilfried’s posts, to clamor for him to put all these in a book already for crying out loud. So consider it done.

  10. Russell Arben Fox on December 12, 2006 at 10:56 pm

    Jeremy, did you send a link to Wilfried’s story into Andrew Sullivan, as you suggested someone do earlier today? Because Sullivan linked to the story here. His comment: “Here’s a great story involving Mormon sacred undergarments, and granny panties from the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy Divine. In the end, it seems, whatever God we worship, we all do laundry.”

  11. Edje on December 12, 2006 at 11:27 pm

    re 6: I had a similar experience in Brazil in the mid-90s. Once I overcame my reticence about turning loose of garments I quickly acclimated to the far cleaner clothing. Further, local lore held that ironing killed “the microbes.” Thus, every week I received a stack of carefully pressed cotton: socks, garments, everything–stiff and perfectly smooth.

  12. Jeremy on December 13, 2006 at 12:28 am

    RAF:

    Ha! Yes, I did. Originally I was just being snarky in my comment this morning, but as the story stuck with me throughout the day I decided to send it to him this afternoon. My expectations, however, weren’t such that I had thought to go back to see if he’d posted about it. What a pleasant surprise!

  13. Left Field on December 13, 2006 at 2:01 am

    Wilfried,

    As is often the case, your story struck a chord with me. A few years ago, I spent a month in very similar accomodations in central Africa. I was at a remote Shell Oil facility in the rainforest in Gabon. I still normally wear the one-piece garment (personal choice, for comfort). I would leave my laundry on the bed and find it returned clean and neatly folded the next day. I’m sure the laundry personnel had not seen garments before, but I like to imagine they simply did their job in a professional manner without giving too much thought to clothing styles. I suppose Sister Veronique followed the same policy.

    Being uptight and anxious about protecting our vestments from ridicule presupposes that they are fit subjects for mockery and that they will be held in scorn by all who see them. Is it any wonder then, when people respond with the very derision we imagined was inevitable? Perhaps we show and invite more respect by being forthright and open, and assuming that others will follow our lead.

  14. Wilfried on December 13, 2006 at 3:23 am

    I’m pleasantly surprised to see all these comments this morning (I’m in West-European time zone). Thanks! When I posted about the topic I wasn’t sure which direction comments would go. I agree with the main thrust: our vestments are not a secret (anymore, if they ever were) and some openness may actually prevent derision. If certain outsiders notice that the topic can irritate Mormons and trigger scandalized reactions, they will be eager to continue. Some dedramatization might be helpful. That’s what I also aimed for with my post.

    And, after reading my story, Andrew Sullivan himself provided us with what could be an appeasing phrase for all: “In the end, it seems, whatever God we worship, we all do laundry.”

  15. claire on December 13, 2006 at 11:49 am

    This summer we stayed in an apartment complex that offered FREE laundry service (I suppose to make up for the fact that the 40’s architecture didn’t accomodate washers and dryers in the units). We were renovating our house and living out of suitcases so, like Wilfried, I quickly succumbed to sending our underwear along with the rest. Hard to imagine what the laundry ladies thought of my NURSING garments! Hardly a stranger looking piece of (under) clothing exists.

  16. Costanza on December 13, 2006 at 2:31 pm

    My experience is that people tend to think much less frequently about us (including what funny things we send to the laundry) than we imagine they do.

  17. Paul R. on December 13, 2006 at 3:00 pm

    “Mormon garments shared the sun with the granny panties of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy Divine.”

    Thanks Wilfried. I love this image. It is a wonderful metaphor for openness and acceptance. If only we could hang our prejudices alongside each other to dry in similar fashion.

  18. tyler on December 13, 2006 at 3:12 pm

    Thanks, Wilfried. Well-done, as always.

  19. maria on December 14, 2006 at 1:34 pm

    Thanks for a great post, Wilfried. As already mentioned, the granny-panty imagery is fabulous. I can just picture them flapping in the soft wind.

    Living in NYC the past 5 years (where practically no one has access to private washing machines/dryers), I have sat through a least a half-dozen debates over the issue of sending out your garments to the laundry service or not. Faithful members (including leaders) fall onto both sides of the argument. In this busy city, where your time is more valuable to you than your money, having the immigrants who own the laundromat down the street come to your house to pick up your Gs, wash them, dry them, fold them, and deliver them back to you in a few hours (along with the rest of your laundry), might not only sound enticing, but be necessary (in order to survive!).

    I haven’t yet succumbed…but fully plan to next fall when I start my 60+ hour/weeks at the law firm.

  20. Wilfried on December 14, 2006 at 2:49 pm

    Thank you all for the latest comments. Maria, I’m not sure if there is a current “rule” that obliges to wash our garments ourselves. I can understand it would be recommended if circumstances allow for it. But like you explained, there is also the matter of practicality. And as Costanza (16) mentioned: “My experience is that people tend to think much less frequently about us (including what funny things we send to the laundry) than we imagine they do.”

  21. Left Field on December 14, 2006 at 9:06 pm

    When I lived in Detroit a number of years ago, the nearest temple was in Toronto. Border crossings were usually quite perfunctory. Usually they just asked my citizenship. Sometimes they would ask the purpose of my trip, and occasionally they would ask about prohibited items. One day, after I stated that I was attending the Mormon Temple in Toronto, the customs agent asked, “Probably not; but are you bringing any tobacco or alcohol into Canada?” I never was subjected to any kind of an inspection going in either direction. However, I did hear a secondhand story about someone who purchased garments at the temple and utterly refused to allow the US customs agent to inspect the garments. The story is probably apocryphal. Unless they were searching for drugs or something, I can’t imagine why customs would have any interest in garments beyond noting that you had new clothing still in the packages.

    I’m not aware of any rule prohibiting viewing of the garment under appropriate circumstances. Doctors, nurses, police officers, morticians, customs agents, launderers, airport security agents, and others will ocassionally see garments in the course of their duties. I agree that they probably don’t pay much attention to anyone’s styles of undergarments. I think the best approach is for us to assume they will carry out their duties in a professional manner. Though they may be unusual, there’s nothing about garments that should promote derision except among the juvenile and boorish. Polite society does not generally engage in ridicule of others’ clothing choices. And (until experience demonstrates otherwise) it is likewise courteous for us to assume that anyone who encounters garments on the job will respond in an appropriate manner.

  22. Wilfried on December 15, 2006 at 2:10 am

    Again well said, Left Field. Merci! Your previous remark was also well stated:

    “Being uptight and anxious about protecting our vestments from ridicule presupposes that they are fit subjects for mockery and that they will be held in scorn by all who see them. Is it any wonder then, when people respond with the very derision we imagined was inevitable? Perhaps we show and invite more respect by being forthright and open, and assuming that others will follow our lead.”