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The Hardworking Laundrymen of Abidjan

The Hardworking Laundrymen of Abidjan

 The Hardworking Laundrymen of Abidjan


WE WERE traveling west from Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, enjoying the sights and sounds of this bustling West African city, when our attention was suddenly captured by a dazzling scene. Over a vast area of grassland stretched thousands of pieces of brilliantly colored clothing. What was the reason for this vivid display? Our Ivorian friends were happy to enlighten us. It was the work of the fanico.

The fanico are a group of hardworking laundrymen. From dawn till dusk, hundreds of men and a few hardy women make their living washing laundry by hand in the Banco River. Their name is a combination of the Dyula, or Jula, words fani, which means “fabric” or “clothes,” and ko, which means “to wash.” Thus, the Dyula word fanico means “someone who washes clothes.”

 The Work of the Laundryman

Early one morning we visited the fanico at their workplace to find out more about their interesting livelihood. What a flurry of activity! Already the work was well under way. The somewhat murky Banco River was blanketed with huge tires in which rocks had been placed. At each tire a laundryman standing in water thigh-deep to waist-deep was busy at his task of lathering, pummeling, and scrubbing.

Well before sunrise the fanico washerman goes from door to door to collect his day’s work. Some of his clients live a good two miles [3 km] from the “laundry.” He hauls all the clothes in a wooden handcart or carries them in a huge bundle on his head. The fanico then makes his way to the Banco River. Upon arrival he is welcomed with a chorus of greetings in many languages, as the fanico who work here come from many parts of Africa. Some have been in this area for decades, such as Mr. Brama, a muscular washerman now in his 60’s. Except for three days of the year, the work continues relentlessly.

The actual washing of the clothes is an enormous task. We watched as one man put down his load of laundry, an amount that would boggle the mind of the average housewife. He untied the bundle and began by soaking each piece of clothing in the water. Next, he lathered up a huge block of palm-oil soap and one by one pummeled the pieces of clothing against a rock. Sometimes he used a scrub brush to remove a stubborn stain. How much does it cost to have clothes laundered? Seven cents (U.S.) for a shirt and perhaps 14 cents for a bedsheet. That explains why the fanico have to wash such large quantities to make a living.

If you were to see the great bulk of clothing they wash, you might ask yourself, ‘How can they possibly remember which piece of clothing belongs to whom?’ We wondered if perhaps they used a system similar to that of a group of laundrymen in India who have a secret marking code. The system that the fanico use is far different from that of their Indian counterparts but, nevertheless, just as effective.

Our well-informed guide attempted to explain the fanico technique to us. First of all, when the washerman collects the laundry, he notes the physical size of each member of the family so he can remember which piece of clothing belongs to whom. No marking or tagging takes place. Then he ties each article of clothing from the same family in the same place on the garment​—using, for instance, the left sleeve, the right sleeve, the collar, or the waistband. When he washes them, he is always careful to keep the clothes from the same family together. It still seemed a rather daunting memory challenge to us. So we asked one fanico if he had ever lost or mixed up anyone’s clothing. His shocked expression clearly conveyed his thoughts, ‘No. A fanico never loses a garment!’

Can anyone come to the Banco River and start washing clothes? Certainly not! There is a strict protocol to follow. A would-be fanico is given a three-month probationary period, during which he is trained by a veteran. It is during this time that he learns the specialized memory-training technique. If he fails in this, he will have to find work elsewhere. However, if the new fanico is proficient, he then pays a  small fee and is assigned his very own tire-rock station, which is not to be used by anyone else.

Palm-Oil Soap

Soap plays an integral part in the work of the laundryman. So the novice is also trained in the proper use of the palm-oil soap. Three different types of soap are used, which are identified by their color. The white and the yellow soaps are used for lightly soiled garments, and the black soap is used for those that are heavily soiled. The color is dark because of the palm oil, which is the main ingredient. Since each fanico uses at least ten blocks of soap every day, nearby soapmakers keep them in constant supply.

We visited the modest soapmaking facilities on the hillside adjacent to the “laundry.” The serious business of soapmaking begins at six in the morning. The workers have already bought the required materials in the local market​—coagulated palm oil, potassium, salt, soursop juice, coconut oil, and cacao butter, all biodegradable. They boil these ingredients together in a huge steel drum placed over a wood fire. After cooking the soap concoction for approximately six hours, they pour it into tin trays and bowls and wait for it to harden. Several hours later they cut the soap into large blocks.

Then, carrying a tubful of soap blocks on her head, the soapmaker goes down the hillside to the fanico. How does she deliver the soap to the laundrymen if they are busily splashing away in the river? She simply descends into the waist-deep water with the soap in a plastic tub, floats the tub on the water, and delivers the soap to whoever needs it.

The Workday Ends

When the fanico has finished all the washing, he goes to the nearby hillside and places the pieces of freshly laundered clothing in rows on the grass or drapes them on improvised lines. The result is the colorful scene that initially caught our attention. Now is also the time when the industrious laundryman can take a little respite from his day’s duties. In the late afternoon when all the clothing has dried, he carefully folds each piece, perhaps pressing some items with a charcoal iron. As the day draws to a close, he bundles up all the clean, pressed garments and delivers them to their owners.

When we first sighted the rows upon rows of clothing laid out to dry, we didn’t realize how much work went on behind the scenes. So we are very glad we visited the fanico of Abidjan, as we now have a greater understanding of and appreciation for the work of all laundrymen and laundrywomen worldwide.

[Map on page 10]

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[Picture on page 12]

A soapmaker selling blocks of soap

[Picture Credit Line on page 10]

PhotriMicroStock™/​C. Cecil