Rolling out big mortars from the kitchen to the yard or balcony (depending on whether we were in the village or city); bruised knuckles from repeatedly rubbing my hands against the mortar; several visits to the room with a small sample of bitter leaf to ask my elder sister ‘O chalaa?’, ‘Is it done?’ – those are the memories I have of washing bitter leaves as a child. Sometimes, my siblings and I took turns doing the cycles, which could be as many as eight. We would swirl and knead the leaves to get rid of the bitterness and then squeeze to extract excess water. We would dispose of the dirty water, add fresh water to the mortar, and repeat the process all over again. Watching the first suds appear; seeing the water turn from black to green and finally clear; and watching the suds disappear gradually all brought some relief that progress was being made. We would spread the leaves out in the sun before washing them. This helped them wilt a tad and less brittle and prevented breakage during washing. The swirling and kneading also had to be done gently to ensure the end product remained in long strands. Sometimes, we added palm kernel or oil to reduce the suds so that we could concentrate on the task of removing the bitterness in an otherwise magnificent leaf. Buying prewashed leaves from the market was out of the question. They came in shreds and still had some bitter taste. Bringing the leaves to a boil could help reduce the bitterness but that wasn’t welcomed in my house.
I always knew that sooner rather than later, someone would come up with an idea of how to make the task easier. But each time I googled for an alternative, I saw only the old-fashioned way. I wondered how the kids we have these days with their penchant for easy life and short attention span can withstand doing a mundane chore that takes more than an hour. For instance, I read of some Nigerian teenagers whose mum traveled and on a particular day their mum’s friend dropped by to see them, they hadn’t had lunch by 4pm. They were waiting for PHCN to bring power so that they could microwave their soup and boil water in the electric jug for their eba. Whatever happened to cooking on stove top?
Someone had always told me that a little modification of the washing machine would produce an invention that could wash bitter leaves. But from what I learnt few days ago, people aren’t waiting for that modification. We visited an amazing family and our hosts, after giving us some fresh bitter leaves, showed us the new way they wash ‘onugbu’ – a portable washing machine that is designed for washing clothes. The brand they showed us was from Basecamp.
When I got home, I looked through the internet to see if the idea was already popular in Nigeria. It appeared it wasn’t. The only related information was a thread on Nairaland where someone listed inventing a bitter leaf washing machine as one way one could get rich. I found however that using washing machine to wash leaves was becoming a trend among people in the western world. They use it to wash collard green, a slightly bitter vegetable. Some use the same machine they use for their clothes for their vegetables but I won’t recommend that, for hygienic reasons. Besides, there were reports that fragments of leaves were left inside the machine afterwards and that they transfer to clothes that are subsequently washed. There were suggestions that the sanitation problem can be cured by using chlorine to run an empty cycle before washing the greens and doing same afterwards to remove whatever debris and smell the green could transfer to clothes. There were also recommendations to use the machine’s delicate wash setting and only do the rinse and spin cycle to reduce shredding of the leaves. Our hosts had said the leaves don’t come out in long stands, I guess the way Nigerians like it.
Given how pricey it is ($100-$150), it is unlikely the portable machine will soon replace mortars in most household for washing bitter leaves. There’s is also the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (they sure can hold power) to worry about. Nonetheless this creative use of the washing machine will come in handy for people who sell prewashed bitter leaves for a living since they produce it in large quantities. Those of them in the US are already doing that. Middle and upper class Nigerian families, they are growing by the day, can readily afford it too. They already use electric blenders to puree coco yams for ‘ofe ede’. One more gadget that removes the other difficult task will be welcomed so that they can cook the flavorful but time-consuming soup more often.
Finally, if you are looking for a business idea, how about taking up the task of working with washing machine manufacturers to produce a simpler and more affordable device that is more suitable for washing leaves? There is a huge market for it in Nigeria. Who knows how rich you can become?
Please let me know your thoughts on this creative use of the washing machine.