24 November 2011

Laundry Haitian Style

Last week the washing machine flooded the laundry room and kitchen… 
So again I found myself standing in the kitchen using old towels to sop up the excess water and ring it out in the sink. I wasn't really upset, just a little annoyed and slightly bemused at the ridiculousness of life at the moment. 

I stood there struggling to ring out the heavy soaked towels. It was taking a long time and I was getting impatient. And then I had a thought: 

I couldn't help but smile.  
Struggling to ring out the towel snapped me back to a blistering hot day in Haiti, bent over a plastic bin, "helping" Ruth with her laundry. 

Ruth is another story of her own. I met her in a tent community a couple of months after the earthquake. A young Haitian woman, 22 back then, who knew the Truth but had been so hardened by life in the "nation of NGOs" that it hadn't penetrated her heart. She was one of the few in that community who spoke very good French, and so we could talk without needing a translator. She was selfish and shockingly bitter and cared only about what I could do for her financially. Ruth had shelter, clothes, and food. It was a meager life, to be sure, but basic needs were met. What she wanted was money. Money to go "follow her dreams" as she put it. "Everyone here is either a child and still young, or an adult and already set in their life. I should be the one who gets to leave. I shouldn't be stuck here. I have to look out for me." I told her I had no money to give her, that we were only here to share the love of Jesus and hopefully meet some basic needs for the community as a whole. She glared at me through squinted eyes, pursed her lips and snapped, 

"Alors, tu ne m'aimes pas!" 

 The one benefit of using translatosr was that beyond translating, they also served as mediators and diplomats. I understood enough Creole to know when they were "rephrasing" something that had been said. It's not that they lied, but they would convey the general sentiment of the statement instead of the exact words. For example: "He is upset." Instead of repeating the string of slurs and hurtful comments. And then they would rebuke their own people for their attitudes and language without ever telling the Americans what had really been said. 
The problem was I didn't need a translator. I understood Ruth fine. I just wished someone could have softened the blow when she said: 

"So, you don't love me!"

Her words wounded me profoundly. I DID love her. But how do you show real love to someone whose idea of "love" has been so warped? That afternoon I felt defeated. And I cried. Cried for the devastation of Haiti, for the loss of life, for the bitterness and entitlement that had gripped so many people, but mostly for Ruth: a sad girl who claimed to know Jesus but was missing out on His love. 

I was burdened that evening and next morning. How could I do it? I didn't have the strength, or the wisdom to know how to reach Ruth. And then God reminded me:

 "MY strength, Lyndsey. MY wisdom, Lyndsey. 
MY love, Lyndsey." 

For someone who really likes to be competent and able to handle anything, it's always humbling when God reminds me that that's not true. There was nothing I could do to change Ruth's heart. It wasn't my responsibility. I was just supposed to love on her and share Jesus. And it was a freeing realization. 
So we went back to the tent community, determined to find a way to show that we were serious about loving them without feeding the serious issue of dependency. It wasn't long before Ruth disappeared for a while. She came back carrying a bucket of clothes. The conversation went something like this:

Me: "Can I help you with your laundry?"
Ruth: "The laundry?"
Me: "Yes."
Ruth: "You want to help with the laundry?"
Me: "Yes, if you don't mind."
Ruth (very confused look on her face): "...Why?"

It was a fair question. I told her I loved her and I wanted to help. She agreed. And so she began the process of doing laundry Haitian style and giving me instructions. We got water from the well, she got her soap, and crouched down around two bins, one for washing one for rinsing. She handed me a shirt, took one herself, and we set to work washing. I dabbed some soap and started scrubbing...for about 10 seconds. Suddenly she stopped, raised one eyebrow and asked me what in the world I was doing. 
"I'm washing this shirt," I said. 
"No, no, no," she said, shaking her head. "That's not right... Like THIS!" She unfolded the shirt she was washing and regripped it so I could see just how she was holding it. I mimicked her motions and started scrubbing again. She watched for a brief moment before shaking her head and grabbing the shirt from my hands. 
"No, no. Not like that, Lyndsey. You're not doing it right." She took my hands and guided them to hold the shirt like she did and told me to try again. Again, my scrubbing was deemed unsatisfactory. But as she corrected me with an  exasperated headshake, I could see her starting to smile.

 We were sitting in a public area by the well, and by this point a small group of women had gathered around to watch the American wash clothes like a Haitian. And apparently, it was quite the show. Every time I set to work, doing what looked to me to be identical to what Ruth did, they would all start giggling. Ruth would stop and show me for the umpteenth time the "right" way to wash the shirt, I would try again, fail, and the group would burst into laughter. I listened to the group of women talking about me amongst themselves. 

"What's going on?"
"The American is washing clothes!"
"Really? Why?"
"I don't know. But she doesn't know what she's doing!"
"What?! She doesn't know how to wash clothes?!"
"NO! She's doing it all wrong. HAHAHA!"
"How can she not know how to wash clothes!?"
"In America they don't wash clothes. They have MACHINES that do it."

The group was steadily growing and my friend Tiffany had joined in for laundry lesson. Bored bystanders were excited to see the white girls fail at a simple task, and all of my actions elicited raucous laughter. The thing was, I was really trying! I did everything just as Ruth demonstrated but I never could perfectly replicate the powerful consistent motions she used to quickly scrub her clothes. One man leaned down and said, "You've never washed clothes by hand before, have you." Somewhat indignant that he thought Americans never got their hands dirty I assured him I had washed clothes by hand many a time. "Well did you actually get them clean?!" I confirmed that I had. "No you didn't! Not if you washed them like that!" he said, chuckling as he wandered off. 

Eventually we were done scrubbing, time to rinse and ring. Simple enough, right? Wrong. There is also a specific "correct" Haitian way to ring water out...and I can't do it. I picked a shirt up to begin ringing it out. I was laboring over it, twisting and squeezing, while Ruth picked up another piece of clothing and had it completely drained of water in two swift moves. She looked at me with pity, both of us laughing with the crowd, took the shirt out of my hands and...put it back in the water. 
"No, no. Here. Watch me. Try again." 
I did. I failed. 
Back into the water she dunked the shirt. 
"No. Like this. It's easy." 
It was not. Her practiced hands could get all the water out of a shirt in a matter of seconds. I rang the same shirt out over and over again as she rewetted it for me to practice. Finally, she took pity on me and told me I had done a good job. We could go hang the clothes in the sun now. 
And that's how I came to do laundry in Haiti. In all honesty, it wasn't what I had expected. I had wanted to be useful and actually help with a chore. Instead I discovered that I couldn't even do that simple task right. I had probably caused Ruth twice as much work with her laundry as she would have had alone. But we had a good time. All of us. I wish I could tell you that I saw a big change in her, that she stopped being bitter and selfish and became a joyful woman, but that wasn't the case. We only worked in that community for the span of one week, and Ruth continued to ask for material goods and special favors just for her. But after allowing myself to look very foolish in front of a whole lot of people just to wash some clothes, Ruth never again told me I didn't love her.

So that's what I was thinking of while I struggled to ring out those towels in the sink last week. I had no clue that a year and a half after that day I'd be living in Peru and requiring those skills. And apparently my Haitian laundry technique still needs a lot of practice. 

I still pray for Ruth whenever I think of her. I pray that she will grow to be a strong woman of God like her namesake in the Bible and let go of the bitterness she carries. And I try to remember that I don't have to do everything well. Sometimes it's the things we have no talent in at all that God uses the most for His glory. And it's okay to allow yourself to look stupid. :-)  
Washing clothes with our audience.

Ruth and me in her tent. 

No comments:

Post a Comment