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Sunday, June 7

Soap Opera

April 1984

"How much soap did you use, dearie?"

I told the laundrette owner I'd used less than half the recommended amount.

"What kind is it?"

"Surf laundry detergent," I answered. "Made in India."

Surf. India's version of Tide.

She got a mop and pail and began mopping the bubbles that had flooded out the washing machine onto the floor.

On a whim I'd decided to wash a small load of clothes in a London laundromat although I could have had them done by the hotel or waited until I returned to the USA to wash them.  I had a little Surf powder in a plastic baggie I'd forgotten to throw away before I left India and decided to use it instead of purchasing detergent from the laundromat.

I had hand-washed clothes with Surf in India and Sri Lanka and there had never been masses of bubbles in the water.  I hadn't used a washing machine, just a plastic bucket or washing in a sink.  But the water had rinsed clear with one rinse.  The water in London might be very soft, I reasoned, and maybe the machine was out detergent buildup from my hand washings.  But the amount of soap suds flooding from the machine was unreal.

We then spent maybe 90 minutes to 2 hours watching bubbles through the glass of the front-loading washer, as the laundrette owner plugged coins into the machine out of curiosity to learn how many cycles it would take before the suds subsided.  


May 2015

[Reading Wikipedia's article on Surf and muttering to herself]

I'll be darned.  Surf isn't an Indian product after all.  Made by Unilever.  "Surf Excel, launched in 1948 under the brand name ‘Surf’ in Pakistan and in 1959 launched in India as a first detergent powder. ... Surf Excel products include Surf Excel, a detergent powder designed specially for washing machines as it has a low lather formula. ... Surf Excel Matic Top Load with special ‘Multi Active System’ molecules is specially designed to work in large quantities of water ..." 

How many washing machines were in Pakistan in 1948 outside the Western enclaves?  Ten? How many washing machines were in India in 1959? A hundred?   The dhobis did the laundry; same in Pakistan. although they're called something else there.  They took the clothing to the rivers to be washed. So, damn straight Surf was designed to work in large quantities of water.  River water. Lake water.  Water that people drank and bathed in.

"In Pakistan, Surf has been so popular for decades that the word used for any detergent in Urdu is 'Surf.' "

No wonder I saw so many mentally slow poor people in that part of the world.  It wasn't just from malnutrition. 

This could be the mother of all class action suits.  All right, calm down.  I don't think a cause-and-effect connection could be proved.  And Unilever probably had warning labels on the packages since the product's earliest days. They could also point the finger at the Pak and Indian governments: Why did you import a product you knew people were going to drink when we specifically say on the label our detergent is not to be drunk?  

But Unilever must have known the 'washing machines' in South Asian countries were the rivers, and that people drank directly from those rivers and bathed in them. And it's still going on.

[Reading from Wikipedia's article on Unilever]  "Unilever owns over 400 brands, but focuses on 14 brands with sales of over 1 billion euros ..."  One of the 14 is Surf; another is Omo.     

Omo is what they call Surf in Brazil.  When was Omo introduced there?  Wiki doesn't say -- wait; what's this?
1. Unilever in Brazil (1997-2007) Marketing Strategies for Low-Income Consumers
  • 2. Agenda International Marketing Case - Unilever in Brazil Introduction to the Brazilian Market Why the Low-Income Segment Should be Targeted Implications of Targeting the Low-Income Segment Brand Portfolio and Positioning xxx xxx
  • 3. Agenda International Marketing Case - Unilever in Brazil Introduction to the Brazilian Market Why the Low-Income Segment Should be Targeted Implications of Targeting the Low-Income Segment Brand Portfolio and Positioning xxx xxx
  • 4. High Success in the Overall Brazilian Detergent Powder and Laundry Soap Market
  • Brand Portfolio
  • Omo (powder premium brand)
  • Minerva (sold as powder & laundry soap)
  • Campeiro (cheapest powder brand)
  • International Marketing Case - Unilever in Brazil 81% market share in detergent powder category Vs. 15% market share of P&G, the next biggest competitor
  • 5. Low- Income Consumers in Northeastern Brazil Constitute a Large but very Specific Customer Segment International Marketing Case - Unilever in Brazil
  • Demographic Background
  • 48 million low-income consumers
  • 28% of Brazil‘s total population
  • 40% illiterate
  • Per capita income of $ 2,250
  • 53% live on less than two minimum wages
  • Laundry and Detergent Use Patterns
  • Clothes washed frequently due to few clothes and more time
  • Pleasurable activity (washing in a public laundry, river, or pond; meeting and chatting with friends) 
  • 6. Agenda International Marketing Case - Unilever in Brazil Introduction to the Brazilian Market Why the Low-Income Segment Should be Targeted Implications of Targeting the Low-Income Segment Brand Portfolio and Positioning xxx xxx  [...]
So they absolutely know Omo is used in rivers and ponds.  The question is whether those low-income Brazilians also drink from the same rivers and ponds.

Let's see -- still can't find when it was introduced in Brazil but Omo was launched in Kenya in 1953. I wonder how many washing machines were in Kenya's countryside in 1953?  Six?

Also sold under that brand name in South Africa and Chile.  More bastions of modern appliances in the countrysides.

[Reading Wikipedia] Oh God.  Where wasn't the stuff launched under one brand name or another in the poorer countries?

Only villages that used wells for drinking water would have been safe. But not if the villagers bathed in the same rivers they laundered clothes in with detergent. And not if they watered their food crops with from the same rivers they used detergent in.

Let's see -- in Vietnam and Indonesia the detergent is called Viso. Oh I'm sure the rural areas were stuffed with washing machines when Unilever introduced the product there.  A washing machine in every hut.  Rural electrification.  Running monkeys on a treadmill to make electricity every time they had to use the washing machine for a laundry load.

They were doing the laundry in the rivers, as they'd been doing ever since they were wearing clothes, but they were using soapy tree leaves or tree bark and slapping the wet clothes on rocks to clean them.  That's the way it was done, that's the way it was always done across Asia and Africa, until Unilever showed up.

Heck, it was once done that way even in modern Europe. I remember Lee telling me that when she went to rural Italy in the early 1960s to stay with relatives for a summer, she helped wash clothes in a creek. They wet the clothes then rubbed them with leaves that made a little soap when wet, then they slapped the clothes on rocks to get them clean.  She said it was backbreaking labor but her aunt was used to it although she couldn't get over the washing machine when she went to visit Lee in the 1970s.


"There's nothing funny about this," I snapped. "Teach him how to stack the dishes."

The two Tibetan monks -- both high ranking Lamas -- had broken into titters as the Nepali waiter removed our used dishes one by one, carrying each all the way back to the restaurant kitchen before returning to remove another dish.  

One of the monks tapped his temple with a finger.  "They can't be taught. These hill people are very slow."

I replied, "You're a teacher. Teach."

Seeing I was genuinely angry, he called the waiter and demonstrated how to stack plates.  The waiter watched him, then picked a plate off the stack and made to carry it to the kitchen.

I leaned toward the monk and snarled, "Call him back and don't just show him; teach him the concept of stacking."

It took a while. The monk stacked and unstacked repeatedly, sent the Nepali away with a couple stacked dishes, then called him back and had him stack a few more dishes.

Finally the light dawned.

"Now you try," the monk told the Nepali, who proudly stacked a pile of dishes and carried the load back to the kitchen.

The next day I was still fuming but it was our last conversation before the Lama was to leave for a visit to Tibet, which he hadn't seen since his childhood when he and his family went on foot across the Himalayas to Nepal to escape the Chinese.  I bid him goodbye as politely as I could and didn't mention the incident in the restaurant..

But as we were parting he said quietly, "It's the water. Something is very wrong with their water. It's bad for drinking."

Water, my foot, I thought.  He hadn't seen what I'd seen.

I had arrived in  Kathmandu to the sound of gunfire.  Even then Maoists were trying to stage an uprising against the government, still ruled by a monarchy.  Conditions for the poor in Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, were so awful it was easy to see how the Maoists had gained a following there.

I had seen the worst of the conditions firsthand. Later I was told I was the first foreigner to be given a police-escorted tour of the city's slums.  An American who sneaked into the slums to document the conditions had her camera taken away by a policeman who materialized out of nowhere.  He told her if she was ever caught again she would be immediately taken to the airport and permanently barred from reentering Nepal.  

The government hadn't wanted outsiders to see how bad living conditions were for the poor.  They were so bad the slums were labeled the worst in the world after international aid and development agencies got inside to look at them.


I soon had things to think about other than the mental condition of Kathmandu's poorest residents. Little more than a week after the monk left for Tibet I came down with hepatitis, probably contracted from eating undercooked shrimp at a lunch in my honor in New Delhi a few weeks earlier.  

"I cured you but I can't guarantee I can do it again," the Nepali doctor told me sternly when I tried to thank him for curing me of the hepatitis in record time.

"There are diseases here that the West has never heard of.  You are no longer young.  If you value your life you will leave now and never return to this part of the world."

For once I planned to take a doctor's advice. I had given the Nepali doctor only a fraction of my medical history since I'd started making trips to South Asian countries.  The hepatitis, and my carelessness in eating shrimp, told me I'd pushed the envelope far enough.


"They're dying like flies," the German aid worker told me about the Nepalis he'd ministered to.  We'd fallen into conversation at the international airport as we waited for an outbound flight.

But what about the mental slowness of these people? In spite of myself I recounted what the Tibetan had told me about the water.

"The water is toxic. They're shitting upstream and drinking downstream," the German replied.

Humans had been shitting upstream and drinking downstream ever since our time began.  That alone shouldn't have been enough to cause so much disease or mental slowness -- or would it?

I wished I'd thought to question the Nepali doctor about his opinion on the matter. He'd combined his medical training in West Germany with an encyclopedic knowledge of infectious diseases in the region to create a hepatitis miracle cure.  I recalled the posters covering the walls in his office waiting room, exhorting in picture form to practice good toilet and hand-washing hygiene.

I thought back to several months earlier.


I'd arrived in Srinigar to the sound of gunfire. Indian security forces were battling a separatist insurgency. I'd shouted a warning when the Americans I was with had arrived at Dal Lake for a stay on a houseboat. Two teens in the group had raced out of the car and dived in the lake before anyone could stop them.  They'd seen Indian children swimming in the lake and thought it was okay.

It wasn't okay.  The houseboats on Dal Lake emptied raw sewage into the lake.  The Indian children who swam in the lake had built up some immunity but their bodies were as thin as rails from battling the bacteria and they couldn't expect to a live a long life.

At first it seemed my alarm had been unwarranted. The boys had been in the lake only a minute before they climbed out in response to my shouts. They seemed no worse for wear.  A few days after leaving Srinigar the boys were the only ones in the group to become seriously ill and from the same symptoms. They were taken to a hospital and injected with massive doses of the most powerful antibiotics available to the hospital after they recounted their dip in Dal Lake.  The antibiotics probably saved their lives.

February 2015
Going to the laundrette - Delhi style: Hundreds of men wash clothes in one of the world's most polluted rivers
By Julian Robinson for [U.K.] DAILY MAIL ONLINE
24 February 2015
These stunning images show how hundreds of men wash clothes by turning one of the world's most polluted rivers into a giant laundrette.

The men, known as dhobis, visit homes to collect thousands of soiled garments before washing them in the Yamuna river, which is one of the tributaries of the Ganges in Delhi, India.
They work in the industrial neighbourhood of Okhla, on the outskirts of the city, where the river is overflowing with sewage, industrial waste and chemicals.
Up to 600 washermen clean the vibrant clothes in the murky water and dry them in bulk on the muddy banks. A shirt can be washed and ironed for as little as 10p and workers earn just £4 a day.
But work along the riverbank is beginning to dry up as washing machines become more prevalent. Many washermen switch to other jobs after they are done washing in the morning.

Worker Mohammad Yunus said: 'We know the water here in the river isn't clean. But we believe that washing in it isn't too harmful. We use soap and other detergents.'
Scroll down for video [...]
Two images from the Mail's photo essay: 

Man bathing in Yamuna River amidst detergent suds from river laundries

A boy dives through the soapy surface of the water to pick up coins from the river bed


From Wikipedia's article on Unilever:
Unilever was founded in 1929 by the merger of the Dutch margarine producer Margarine Unie and the British soap maker Lever Brothers... Unilever is a British–Dutch multinational consumer goods company co-headquartered in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and London, United Kingdom.
Its products include food, beverages, cleaning agents and personal care products. It is the world's third-largest consumer goods company measured by 2012 revenue, after Procter and Gamble [maker of Tide detergent] and Nestlé.
Unilever is the world's largest producer of food spreads, such as margarine. One of the oldest multinational companies, its products are available in around 190 countries. ...
It is a dual-listed company consisting of Unilever N.V., based in Rotterdam, and Unilever plc, based in London. The two companies operate as a single business, with a common board of directors. Unilever is organised into four main divisions - Foods, Refreshment (beverages and ice cream), Home Care, and Personal Care. It has research and development facilities in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, China, India and the United States..
   Unilever HQ, Rotterdam  

Unilever HQ, London

As the jet soared over the mountains I glanced at their beauty then turned my eyes from the window. I would never see Nepal again, never see that part of the world again.

I didn't leave Heathrow during the brief stopover enroute to Washington, DC. But I recalled the last time I'd been in England and reflected I might never see that country again, either. If so, I thought wryly, my last clear memory of England would be detergent bubbles in a London laundrette.

Soap Opera 2

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