On Being Lazy

by zunguzungu

In Zanzibar, Liz and I met a researcher who was studying seaweed farming, which has become a major industry there in the last five years or so (now the island’s number two industry, after tourism). She said that one of the things she’s been struck by is the way companies will talk about the laziness of the workers, the way that its necessary to train them to harvest seaweed correctly; on viewing the backbreaking labor of actually harvesting the wretched stuff, she said she was amazed anyone would be willing to do it at all, much less all day, every day, and in the hot sun to boot.

What anthropologists call “The Lazy Native” myth has a long history in Africa, starting in the old days when Europeans wanted to grow cash crops like cotton and sugar that wouldn’t grow outside the tropics and faced the problem of how to get enough hands to do the work. Strangely, Africans didn’t want to grow crops they couldn’t eat or use, particularly after they discovered that market fluctuations meant that a bad harvest could lose you your farm and leave your family to starve. And it took not only great efforts of persuasion to make them do so, but it was never very successful. People kept running away to where they could grow corn or whatever rather than stay on their land and grow the cotton that the looms of Manchester needed. It was strange, the Europeans concluded; these natives must be lazy.

In contrast, I offer you a short meditation on a different beast, the lazy wazungu:

On the last day of school before the break, it just so happened that Anton and I had both done laundry the day before, and so we received an inordinate number of comments on our sharp appearance. Comments like “Anton! You’ve tucked in your shirt today!” or “Aaron, you look quite pleasing today!” might sound like compliments, but both of us recognized this as backhanded recognition of the general slovenliness which is our normal condition.

In my defense, let me say this: it is hard to be clean. I shower every day, but when one is washing out of a bucket, the amount of work required to do a proper job is such that it is easy to get lazy. And this is the way in general. Keeping the floor clean in the rainy season requires washing the entire with a cloth every day. Are you up to it? When the nearest trash receptacle (that doesn’t involve the backyard incineration method) is a mile away, a wazungu tends to leave trash lying around. When there’s mud everywhere, you get muddy. A lot. When brushing my teeth has required the daredevil choice between venturing out into the dark street to buy clean water or risking a bit of unboiled tap water to rinse with, I’ll admit to going to bed a few times with chafuka teeth. It’s not that I’m lazy, I want to argue: it’s just hard to be clean!

I’m wrong, of course. I am lazy. And so are you, I want to speculate, not because you’re not willing to work, but because the amount of work required to be clean would hardly seem worth it to you. For example, washing ones clothes by hand is an art (there’s something in the way you grip the clothes, in the wrist as you rub the shirt or sock against itself), but its also just plain old hard work and time consuming. How clean do you want to be? Is it worth the minute of your time that it will rquire to get a tiny little stain out of the collar? How about the fifteen stains? A washing machine would have cleaned them without your ever knowing about them, but do you have the time? Is cleanliness worth spending the entire afternoon bent over the washing bucket? I find myself making tradeoffs: collars get cleaned, but stains in my socks get short shrift, since they will not be seen. And once you’ve started down that road, well, you’re pretty much doomed.

And so, once you’ve discovered the depths of your own laziness, you start to look on everyone else’s cleanlinesss with a newfound respect. Because, even in the depths of the rainy season, you will struggle to find a single person on the street who is as muddy as you are. Not only do they take the time to clean their clothes but they take the time not to get dirty in the first place. When you know you’ll have to scrub the stain yourself, you learn not to get stained.

Another anecdote: one morning not long ago, I started in to washing some of my more disgusting clothes, but could not do so stealthily enough to escape the eagle eyes of Mr. Busi. A tour guide at Tarangire during the tourist season and a friend of the family, he is living here until his services are needed again. And, once before, I was washing a pair of pants to take on a trip and he made it quite clear that I was not doing an adequate job. After commandeering the process, he was not satisfied until he had not only washed, but (later) insisted on ironing and folding them. So he was already watching me out of the corner of my eye when I checked first the one then the other backyard spigot. Neither had any water, so I had no choice but to ask him where I could get a bucket of water from. “For washing?” he asked, like a judge taking a confession. And when I started in at washing the clothes, the way he sidled over to my side was like nothing so much as a highway patrolman walking from his car to someone who just hit 76 in a 65 mph zone. I was busted, and my only consolation was that I had only brought out three shirts, otherwise he probably would have been washing all day.

The next time, I waited until he wasn’t around, but guilt forced me to penitently wash my clothes a bit more carefully (and maybe that brought on the compliments). But I don’t trust myself to stay on the wagon. My name is Aaron. I’m an mzungu, and I’m lazy.