Hygiene and its moral hypocrisy

2011-10-17 00:00

I WASH my hands many times a day. In summer I bath three times a day, in winter twice. I have never been to a dentist in my life. But I do have an upsetting amount of facial hair, in the era of the metrosexual, and have nearly been mistaken for Osama bin Laden by American tourists carrying hunting gear. Hygiene fascinates me, as one of the unconscious determinants of daily behaviour. It is also more than just a health issue, but a class and racial issue.

Moses is the father of modern hygiene, with all the stringent Mosaic code, emphasising a cleanliness of heart and body, along with Hippocrates, the father of the doctoring profession. I don’t regret their input. I am glad I live today, and not in a 10th century BC Desert Peninsula, wandering around from place to place waiting for a generation of people to die and afraid of seeing the same God who set his people free, lest I be burnt by his wrath. Hygiene is easy for us today. The Greeks may have debated the meaning of life with as much tenacity as we debate sport and reality shows, yet without envy I can imagine even a relatively civilised people like them in a sweaty Mediterranean climate. I see grown men debating and growing sweaty and not using knives and forks during meal times while they babble over the primal elements, the art of government, and sophisticated metaphysics.

It is educating too to read books on etiquette from the Middle Ages. One insists that you may break wind at a courtly dinner, but you must delay the issue so as not to make too much noise, which vexes the courtiers. Also do not belch too loudly. Also do not dip your hands too frequently in the king’s gravy, and don’t always lick fingers and rather use bread to wipe your hands after dinner. Such were our aristocratic forebears in the years gone by, frequently plucked by terrible plagues of black death while rats scurried freely around homes, helped by medieval sewerage systems.

So to our modern ages. We are certainly hygienic, but probably hypocritical. If you are serving people, do not dare touch their food, even a slight bump of skin. Which is sensible, and yet you cannot turn around and refuse to take their money, which has been in all kinds of horrible places. No one ever says, don’t touch money with hands — both you and your money are dirty!

I would like one day to make a movie tracing the journey of one R100 note, from its innocent nativity in a printing press, following its journey through its first unsuspecting owner, passing then steadily through the successive hands of saints, robbers, murderers, the occasional bra of women, slowly but surely touched by hundreds of hands that carry every possible infectious disease from tuberculosis to measles to republicanism. This is the R100 note you kiss with glee on your payday as if you had found your long-lost lover.

Hygiene is a power thing. Poor people go to government hospitals and put up with appalling hygiene and care (which is spiritual hygiene), and yet if one wealthy person ends up once in a hospital by accident, and suffers, the whole government will be sued.

I like to think of the concept of hygiene being extended to include many things. I do not think it is hygienic for rich people to keep showing off their cars. I do not think it is hygienic for most politicians to make speeches on national issues, for the very air is polluted. I do not think it is hygienic for factories to pollute poorer communities. If you even dare put up a cellphone tower in a wealthy community, everything from art to ecology to property value is invoked. I do not think the diet we are fed in entertainment is hygienic. I do not think it is hygienic for people to live in lower standards of life. I do not think it is hygienic to provoke wars, or confuse Twitter wars for national debate. I do not think it is hygienic to watch TV all the time, nor to allow people who are essentially in need of psychiatric treatment to be involved in politics, or admired for their total subversion of truth.

Anyway, I have written enough, contaminated an entire page with words. I am off to wash my hands, again. In the words of the remarkable Durban poet and microbiologist Douglas Livingstone, a clinical writer of poetry (absolutely not to be confused with the hairy explorer), hamba kahle, and keep clean.

• Kyle Allan is a 24-year-old poet, writer, businessperson and festival organiser.

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