A Lesson from Laundry

Yesterday I was in Blantyre, staying the weekend with my colleague Megan. As Sunday is ostensibly my day off, I spent a bit of the morning catching up on some of my chores, namely handwashing my laundry.

After spending over 12 months in southern Africa, handwashing laundry is becoming old news to me. A bit of time invested, some soap, and some effort, and everything was finished pretty painlessly.

However, when it came time to dry it, I hit a snag. Looking outside, I saw that every single clothesline in the yard was covered in clothes – it seems I wans’t the only one with laundry on the mind that Sunday.

Ever resourceful, Megan suggested I take a clothes rack from her room and set that up outside. “Sure,” I thought, “makes sense.” So I did it – I put my clothes on the rack and set it up outside in the sun.

SDC15061Figure 1: The Aforementioned Clothes Rack 

Those who’ve been to Malawi, however, will know that something so unorthodox will never be tolerated here. Within 5 minutes Megan’s neighbour, Peter, came over.

Owen, your clothes will not dry well unless they are spread out.”

But there’s no room on the line.”

Let me move some things for you.”

Please, don’t worry. I don’t have any pegs anyways. My clothes will dry fine on this rack I think.”

I’ll give you pegs. Your clothes will not dry well unless they are spread out.”

Sigh, ok Peter.”

Here’s the thing: Peter was probably right. Clothes will dry faster on a line, where sun and breeze can get to them all easily. The thing was though, I didn’t care. My clothes would also dry on the rack. And I’d already put them on the rack – I felt the problem was solved, I didn’t care about optimizing. Besides, I’m an adult (kind of), I can dry my clothes where I want to.

Think for a second how you would feel in the same situation? Do you like being told how to do things? For a lot of foreigners here, it’s super frustrating. It’s the neighbour telling me how to hang my laundry. It’s a woman correcting me on how I sweep my yard. It’s a kid telling me I’m putting too many onions in the dinner I’m cooking. It happens a lot, and it gets old pretty quick.

If you’re nodding along with me though, if you’re feeling my frustration, then think how people feel when the situation is reversed. Think how people here feel when development workers come and tell them how to grow their crops. When volunteers promote new technologies and new ways of doing things. When foreigners tell them to use condoms, or to wash their hands before eating. Is it really that different?

In the end, people are people. When you have a way of doing something, you don’t want to change. Even if Peter did have a better laundry drying solution for me, my pride and effort was already invested in my laundry drying solution. Changing for him was the same thing as admitting I’d made a mistake.

This kind of thing has huge implications for development work. There are changes people here need to make. In Malawi, with HIV/AIDS prevalence at 20%, and high infant mortality from diarrheal diseases, condom use and handwashing need to take off. But we’re not going to get there without a little empathy on the part of the development community. How do you feel when someone tells you to change the way you do things? When they tell you that your way is wrong. Well, it’s no different for anyone else.

The good news is that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. My 12 months in southern Africa have resulted in dramatically improved laundry washing skills. When I was in Zambia, women and children were correcting me all the time – to my immense frustration. Since coming to Malawi though, the criticism has dried up – I’ve learned. It wasn’t pleasant, but I’ve learned. I can wash my own clothes. Now I just have to learn to dry them…

With a little empathy, with a lot less criticism and a little more understanding, behaviour change like this can be possible – and it can be much more pleasant. In the same way that many foreigners like me have learned to do laundry the “right way”, more people can be convinced to start using condoms, or start washing their hands before meals.

However, it won’t happen unless we realize that frustration with being lectured at, pride in your normal way of doing things, and natural resistance for change is the same for villagers in Malawi as it is for you and me. No one likes to be told that what they’re doing is wrong. No one likes to feel pressured to make a change. No one likes to take their laundry off the rack. But with a little more empathy, and a little more understanding, change is possible. We can make it happen.



  1. Hi Owen,

    Great insight on the double-sided coin of 'helpful advice' in grassroots development. I'm the person who called you from the Montreal EWB Retreat a few weeks ago. Thanks so much for chatting with us and letting us know more about your work and life in Malawi. I spent 3 years handwashing laundry the 'wrong way' (sitting on a stool rather than standing doubled over at the waist) in The Gambia and Senegal as a Peace Corps volunteer. Now I'm a grad student at McGill. And I originally hail from the upper Ottawa Valley. After we skyped with you a few weeks ago I felt like I should have introduced myself better.

    Thanks for sharing with us. Good luck on your work!


  2. I feel your pain. Ann stole my clothes drying rack. I do a lot of creative things with coat hangers in living spaces these days -- my family really appreciates it.

  3. Wellcome to Malawi Dan. Enjoy the rainy season dont forget to move with a raincoat everly day until the rainy season is over.