Bloody Knuckles

Posted Jul 09, 2009 by 10 Comments

After being in Kenya for almost a month, I’ve started to appreciate many appliances and luxuries I have in the States. I could write a list of all of them but that’s not what this article is about. This article is focused on a single appliance I’ve taken for granted my entire life: the washing machine.

Have you ever stopped to think about how people used to wash clothes before the invention of the washing machine? I hadn’t either until the day I washed my clothes the way Kenyans wash their clothes… by hand.

Almost all laundry in Kenya is done by hand.

Almost all laundry in Kenya is done by hand.

The day after going on a twelve hour, 33 mile hike through the Kenyan bush with 50 Kenyan university graduates, I saw my friend Ken bending over two buckets of water and rubbing furiously. I thought he was playing with bubbles or something until I came up to him to see what he was doing. He wasn’t playing around with bubbles, he was doing his laundry.

All of a sudden I was struck with something I had seen the day before on our hike…

We were two hours into our hike when we came upon a large river. Micho, one of my fellow Tanari Trust staff members, led the university graduates through a session of reflection on their lives since graduation. Sitting by the river, the college grads reflected deeply.

Since I haven’t graduated from college yet, I decided to take pictures of the river and the local people around it instead. There were two men pulling ferry boats across the river and a dozen boys were swimming and wrestling in the water.

The lady I saw washing her family's clothes in the river.

The lady I saw washing her family's clothes in the river.

Once the time of reflection was done, we got on the ferry boats. As we were boarding I saw a lady washing her clothes in the river. I didn’t think too much of her then but it was her image that hit me as I watched Ken wash his clothes.

Back at camp the following day, I thought about what I’d seen and asked Ken if he’d teach me to wash my laundry like a Kenyan. He laughed and started to instruct me in the fine art of washing clothes by hand.

As I watched him soak his clothes, then furiously scrub them against each other, I laughed at how easy this whole process was! He rinsed the soapy, clean clothes in the second bucket and I knew I could do this without a second thought.

Full of self-confidence, I brought my own clothes to be washed.

Ken hung his laundry on the clothesline as I fetched clean water for the two buckets. He advised me to soak my two shirts and two pairs of socks in the detergent since they were covered in dust and dirt from the hike. I didn’t of course. I mean, why wait?

My shirts and socks after washing them by hand...

My shirts and socks after washing them by hand...

I rubbed the shirts against each other for about five minutes each before the dirt came out. I looked to Ken for praise at my ability to wash my shirts and he told me to “wait for my socks” followed by a hearty laugh.

I started to rub the first sock but nothing happened. So I rubbed harder and harder until I started to see a difference. I was about to laugh at Ken’s warning when the pain hit me. I looked at my knuckles and saw they were raw from rubbing the socks and one or two were starting to bleed. The bleach in the bucket made my knuckles burn. I was not happy.

I sat in the dirt and stared at the redness and blood coming from my knuckles and wondered how anybody could consider doing this! I had only washed two shirts and a tenth of a sock and I wanted nothing more than to never have to wash any clothes ever again!

It was then that I made the connection to the Kenyan woman from the day before. I looked at the pictures I had taken of her and I was baffled at the amount of clothes she had to wash! Why do people do this to themselves?

As I thought about this image of this bush woman, the answer slowly came to me: she does this because there is no other way to wash those clothes. She spends countless hours bent over that same river, scrubbing every inch of every piece of clothing because she doesn’t have some fancy washing machine to do it for her. She endures the pain of raw and bleeding knuckles on a continual basis so her family can have clean clothes.

As you can see, I’m not a pro at washing my clothes by hand…yet.

As you can see, I’m not a pro at washing my clothes by hand…yet.

I took Ken’s advice and let my socks soak for an hour in a bucket of water and detergent before making another go at them. As my knuckles dripped blood into the bucket, I thought of the lady from the river.

I finished that first sock after twenty minutes of painful scrubbing. An hour later, I had finished the other three.

Washing my bloody knuckles under a water spout, I couldn’t help but smile at the feeble kinship I felt with the woman from the river. I had caught a brief glimpse into the pain and misery she felt every time she goes down to the river to wash her family’s clothes.

After all the pain I endured to be like Ken and the bush lady, I was proud of my small accomplishment and more appreciative of something so simple as a washing machine. Under the harsh sun, I hung-up my clean clothes on the drying line and prayed for a day when the bush lady could give her bloody knuckles a rest.

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Next Steps
    • Try washing one piece of clothing by hand to see how the majority of the world washes their clothes.
    • Go a day or week without an appliance you use often such as a stove, vacuum cleaner, or cell phone.
    • Write about your experiences with washing a piece of clothing by hand or going without an appliance in the comments section!
    Next Steps

About the Author: Scott Quigley was a summer intern with World Next Door in 2009. He is a Junior at American University majoring in Anthropology. Scott loves studying international cultures and has a mortal fear of vending machines.

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  1. Bharat said... 


    July 9th, 2009 at 12:02 pm  

    Yeah dude, my aunt used to make me wash my clothes by hand in India. We even had a washing machine – she just said it would build character!

  2. rob said... 


    July 9th, 2009 at 12:15 pm  

    wow. we have it soooooo good. thanks Scott.

  3. Aaron Elliott said... 


    July 9th, 2009 at 2:31 pm  

    Way to go Scott. Great stuff.

  4. Dave Rod said... 


    July 10th, 2009 at 1:41 pm  

    Yet another wake up call for us who don’t even think twice about stuff like washing clothing. Thanks Scott for feelin it for us and getting it in our faces!

  5. Gloria Hansen said... 


    July 10th, 2009 at 4:39 pm  

    I’m glad you are better and I’ll bet those clothes are clean but you will be happy to have new?

  6. Dave Quigley said... 


    July 10th, 2009 at 7:01 pm  

    Great insights amigo! I like the gradual process of change in us as we realize the brokenness of a situation “that needs to be fixed” and yet it can’t. Then there is kinship in the hardship. Keep up the great work.

  7. Denise said... 


    July 11th, 2009 at 12:47 pm  

    Wow! I’ll try to remember this and not complain the next time my washer & dryer are broke and I have to head to the local Laundromat.

  8. Rachel Tomasik said... 


    July 13th, 2009 at 11:05 pm  

    Hey Scott! This article is really great. I have never really thought about how difficult life would be without the simple luxury of a washing machine. Thanks for writing!

  9. Jessica Shewan said... 


    July 16th, 2009 at 3:09 pm  

    Scott I can totally relate! I had laundry lessons in Senegal…the women made a special squishing sound when they rubbed the fabric together, and unless I made that sound, too, they wouldn’t believe the shirt was really clean!

  10. Jordan said... 


    August 8th, 2009 at 1:54 pm  

    Scott… my friend Jen and I lived in Kenya at the HBC orphanage about 30 minutes from Thika- for the second half of my senior year (HS). We washed the clothe for the 25 kids and the house parents as well as ours too. I remember the first time we did it we just kind of swooshed the clothe and they didn’t get very clean =) But now we are professionals, as I’m sure you have become! It is a real challenge and takes awhile to do. Every morning- when we had water- we’d wash for about three hours. We used to joke with the pastor that Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead and even parted the red sea and because we have the faith he can certainly wash the clothe and hang it out to dry! We always felt though that He wanted us to help him with this miracle of washing the clothe =) Thanks for the story. God Bless

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