L’Amour En Afrique – Scandalous West African Bucket Showers

Bucket showers are probably the showers of the majority world,  I would think. Water simply does not come from a pressurized tap for most of the planets rural families. Even if it does for town folks, to economize on water, buckets are still filled by taps for washing, no steady stream showers like we are accustomed to using.  During the mid to late 1990’s we certainly grew accustomed to outside bucket showers in the rainforest villages of Cote D’Ivoire. Unfortunately, we were also no strangers to bucket showers in town either, since water faucets did not always run, which was the case often enough. Our personal record was eighteen days in a row without water. Barrels were always kept filled for such times. To keep us going we began to truck water from a well in a village just outside of town.

After sleeping in sweaty, stifling village mud huts for a day or two, there is nothing as exhilarating as a hot shower. Nothing is quite as disappointing as arriving back to a quasi developed town, exhausted, hot, sweaty (always), sticky, and dirty, only to discover the water has been cut, again. All international workers can atteste that upon returing from the village the very first thing one does is quickly strip off the dirty cloths and immediately scour in a shower. Nothing is more rejuvenating, or as necessary.

I rarely write about these simple realities of living in rural West Africa. Why is this? Because we have been working in French West Africa long enough (20 years off and on) that we have accepted life for what it is here, so we no longer think anything of these common practices. This is simply part of life for everyone here. You get past it after your first month in Africa.  Bucket showers are not really much of an adjustment anyway.

Therefore, I am hesitant to venture down this path too far. This is the stuff newbies, short-termers, tourists or newly arrived younger Peace Corps workers write about, not a person involved in life here for this long. 

However, here we are, two decades later, still working in French West Africa, now in Mali, and the bucket shower thing is still part of our lives. For the first few years (2011-2013) in Mali our accommodations were very basic, even for a town, since we lived in a section of town without any establisted sewer, power, or water infrastructure. 

This was our shower/outhouse

Our shower was a multi purpose outside toilet/shower stall, with a small water drain hole in one corner,  and an open hole for your “business” (that we kept covered from flies), without a roof.  Yep, for three years in Mali, both in town and in the village, this was still our daily life. 

To facilitate these bucket showers we used plastic cups to scoop cups of water over our head, the cup handle was used to hang it on the side of the bucket.

To make amusement of the shower situation it almost became a competition between my wife and me. You know, to see who could use the least amount of water while still getting squeaky clean. With a bucket of water you can easily shower three times. We soon settled into a very luxurious cleaning rutine using a generous half bucket of water each. Sometimes I use a whole bucket, simply to get relief from the heat. 

My wife hates the cockroaches that are part of life in such accommodations, but they are generally absent if there is enough light.

Therefore, Lynn usually made a habit of showering before sunset, though I still had too many hours of sweating ahead of me before bed time, so I preferred to wait until later, when it cooled down at night. Out i’d go with my strap on head lamp, the stars overhead, that is how to get the job done.

Not many places you can shit or shower while watch shooting stars at the same time. So this story does have it’s upside.

Despite her best efforts, my wife could not always avoid showers in the dark.  After more than a few screaming matches with the evening roaches, early on in Mali she solicited my help to stand guard in the shower stall with my head lamp to drive the little devils away. The things we must do for L’Amour En Afrique! I am quite certain we became the most scandalous couple in that part of Sikasso town, since all intimate interaction between the sexes are to be TOTALLY hidden, no holding hands with a woman, but with a man it is fine.

However, at night, when our neighbors were not around, or when we thought they would not easily see us, we would sneak out to the shower together. Sometimes, if neighbours were still milling around I would go first with the bucket, which drew no attention, Lynn following a few minutes latter. Exiting in the same manner. After a while we just didn’t care anymore, going together when we though the coast was clear.  We tried not to talk or laugh while in the shower together at night, to prevent getting caught, though I am sure it failed, because at times we would end up chatting and giggling over something. So we were probably known for our scandalous habits. You still have to say, “Could you pass the soap sweetie”, or,  “There is a roach over here, can you scare it back down the drain for me please?”  We had showering down to such an art that we would share one bucket of water during these escapades.

I did my manly duty of standing guard with my head lamp, watching ………….  ummmm  ……..  for cockroaches. 🙂   In West Africa, I can think of worse situations to be in than a dark shower, with a beautiful woman, with a strap on head lamp none the less.   😉

Oh, the stories I can not put in print.

Save water! Shower Together!

“Bucket showers are kind of fun, although the first pouring is the most tricky as the bucket weighs so much when full. I tend, nevertheless, to lift the entire thing above my head and then pour about a third of its contents carefully over me. In some places, the bucket comes equipped with a large plastic cup to make things easier, but not here. This is the most basic accommodation I’ve stayed in, probably ever. It’s also the cheapest, so I’m not complaining!”  (Rob Baker. Adventures in Music and Culture : Travels of an Ethnomusicologist in West Africa)

This video, “You Are Going To Poop In A Hole” went viral among the Peace Corps workers in 2011. It is a great laugh, because it is true. We may as well resign ourselves to the fact, and lighten up. The video’s frankness will probably offend the sensibilities of you wholesome western folk.. so might skip it.

We send it to all our interns before arrival.

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