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.