Sunday, July 29, 2012

Ghana Life: Soap in the Seventies

In most of the Western World in the 1970s, almost every household owned a washing machine or put their dirty linen into a machine at a launderette. Expatriates assigned to work in Third World countries on long-term contracts usually included their washing machine in the advanced shipment of essential household appliances. These Westerners had been assailed for decades by advertisements praising the miraculous cleaning and stain-removing properties of the latest washing powders, and many may have included copious quantities of these products in their advanced shipment. To these people who attributed the whiteness and brightness of their clothes to the wonders of modern technology it came as a shock to find that the locals were achieving equal or better results using traditional bar soap and hand washing.
One thing that impressed foreign visitors to Ghana in the 1970s was that from the meanest and most dilapidated houses people emerged every morning in clothes that were spotlessly clean and colour bright. Most expatriates employed a house-girl or boy to help with their household chores, including clothes washing, and it came as a surprise to many that their helper preferred hand washing to the use of a machine. It came as a further shock to realise that through the propaganda of the washing machine manufacturers and the detergent producers, people had been persuaded to accept a decline in quality of performance as an advance.
In Ghana in the 1970s, the popular laundry soap was made in country from locally produced palm oil and imported caustic soda and perfume. It was supplied unwrapped in bars roughly 5 cm x 7 cm in section and 35 cm long. The bar could be purchased whole or cut to a length to suit the buyer's resources, and was cheap enough to be within the reach of most people. Valued and trusted, with a long shelf life, it was used nationwide by rural streams and in urban basins and buckets.
As the 1970s progressed, soap became very scarce in the local markets, largely due to Ghana's inability to import the basic raw materials. People complained about the difficulty in obtaining soap almost as much as they complained about the shortage of beer caused by the restricted import of barley. The meagre supply of one locally-produced soap powder also dried up and expatriates who succeeded in finding some locally-made bar soap, grated it to use in their washing machines with excellent results. There were times, however, when there was no electricity and all washing machines became redundant.
As the Ghanaian economy under the Acheampong Regime continued to decline in the mid and late 1970s, many opportunities arose for local small-scale soap manufacture that has been documented elsewhere. The soap crisis only came to an end in 1985 when a deal with the IMF by the Rawlings government provided credit to flood local markets with imports. No doubt, the new middle class of Ghanaians emerging in the twenty-first century take pride in owning a washing machine, but in a country where a former Vice President proclaimed, 'We still have slaves in our houses,' the advantages of clothes washing by hand should not be lightly cast aside.

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