Every Sunday afternoon since they were little girls they had completed this ritual. Dirty clothes are gathered and tied up in chitenjes. The bundles are balanced on heads before the group slowly sets off from the dusty village — where the men sit drinking home-brewed beer and playing bowa — and head towards the sand dunes.
The women take the well-worn path between the holiday houses lining the lakeshore, where beach shacks are surrounded by rusty metal six-foot fences and topped with shattered glass and barbed wire. The women chat. One points out a scattering of hippo droppings and the group sway to the left to avoid stepping in the fresh dung.
At the water’s edge the women remove the bundles from their heads and empty the contents onto the wet sand. Their own clothes are stripped off and added to the pile. They wrap chitenjes around their bodies, knotted loosely at the front or with the corners hooked over the top edge of the fabric in a way only they know how to keep secure.
As the first woman tentatively steps into the gently lapping water, she glances around. Further down the shoreline the sand disappears out of sight and is replaced by reeds and tall grass — home to a family of hippo and the occasional crocodile. A toddler runs splashing into the shallows, trips, belly flops. The women are sprayed with drops of fresh water and a shriek erupts, followed by laughter. They sink into the shallows beside the toddler and begin to wash.
Bright greenish-blue bars of u-clean soap are used to scrub arms and legs, are lathered between calloused palms and the suds massaged into each other’s hair. They lather again and scrub the greyish foam into the folds of dirty clothes. Bits of gossip are traded between the sound of water being poured over heads to wash away the suds: Mary’s child is doing well at school; Alepha’s daughter has secured a proposal from a good family; did everyone hear about Charity from a few villages over? She had run away, leaving her husband and children behind. Younger girls from the village join the group on the lakeshore. After bathing, they help spread out the washed clothes on the dry sand closer to the dunes.
When everyone and everything is washed, the women move out of the shallows to dry in the warm afternoon sun. One starts humming, and soon two more join in singing a hymn from church that morning. The girls stay in the water and swim and play, splashing each other and throwing a ball made out of lots of pieces of plastic tied together and wrapped around each other.
Spread out among the washing on the beach, the women comb each other’s hair or massage sand against the cracked, dead skin of the soles of their feet. The toddler’s snores echo softly against the sand, rolling in time with the waves that lap at the lakeshore.
Emma Makepeace is a creative writing student at QUT. When she is not studying she works with women and children on education projects in Malawi, Africa, and daydreams about travelling the rest of the world.
Mitch Gee is a Brisbane-based freelance illustrator. Find more of his work on his website.