After I was born, my mother took a bath; pouring cups of cool water over her body that had worked so hard to bring me into the world. I saw the drops of water on her dark brown skin and when at last she joined me in bed she smelled still of sweat and soap and new milk. I was bathed in her sweetness; her skin was my skin and we were one.
I promise the children I will take them to swim in the waterfall that merges from the rocks high up in the mountains. It is warm and by the time church is over and we have enjoyed a lunch of Rose’s delicious pumpkin soup, it is the hottest time of the day. Islor shares a yard and a large, unfinished concrete house with her many aunts and cousins. Her mother died when she was young and her father has abandoned her. Still, in this year, at thirteen, she holds on to her life with joy and skill. Her girl cousin is also thirteen and they share this growing up time with the love of two close friends.
There remains a large tree with a homemade swing and a small wall that makes a good place for sitting. When I arrive, they decide its best for everyone to bathe before walking up the mountainside. The water comes form a pump some distance down the road but this does not seem to deter the bathing as it might have for me as a child. They begin with me. They pour water into containers and pour it over my head. They use a bar of soap for shampoo and then rinse. The left over water is caught in a pan and use for my feet. My bath finished, they proceed with their own. I suspect it is an act of great hospitability to offer a guest some clean water on a hot day or perhaps I just needed a good washing.
They are no longer the children they were a year ago, but young girls reaching reluctantly into womanhood. The two girls bathe in the yard with no worry about exposing their emerging breasts. I want to tell them that perhaps public bathing with older, male cousins and neighbors is not such a good idea but there is not really anywhere else to bathe and the men most also bathe naked in front of them. I am both envious and worried. I see Islor give dagger looks to the young men who look at her as we walk by; young men who would not have commented a year ago. Her cousin is oblivious to anything but the joy of cool water on a warm afternoon. Islor is not oblivious. She wants all the men, cousins or not, to keep their distance. She is not willing to meet their gaze in the hopes of a bob-bon or some other treat. She feels vulnerable, both as a young girl, and as an orphan.
When they bathe, they wash their underwear at the same time. In this way water is conserved and everything is washed at one time. The underpants can serve as a washcloth and then are hung on a bush to dry. They lather and rinse not once, not twice but three times. No wonder they seem 100% cleaner than anyone else I ever knew.
They emerge from the house with skirts, purses and shoes that neither fit nor are good for walking. It seems we are going to town more than to the mountain. In this way they show me they are young ladies. They have put on poorly fitting bras which when we come to the pools they discard. The shoes are shed even sooner as they mange rocks and dirt with skill and ease; the golden shoes offered by some volunteer in their hands and not on their feet.
In the cool shade of the waterfalls, they dive and swim with their carefully picked out clothes tossed on the banks of the stream. I breathe in the afternoon with its butterflies and frogs and children diving into crystal clear pools. I too had once swum naked in the streams of my childhood but when the first signs of change began I cried and did not swim naked anymore. I made up excuses and in the end our little gang dispersed, never to swim again; naked and free in the pools of our childhood. My emerging breasts seemed more a betrayal than promise but I had never seen a woman breastfeed a baby or swim naked or take a shower in the yard.
And so like so many things in Haiti, I stand at the crossroads, seeing the beauty and freedom of a young girl’s uninhibited ability to bathe outside in her yard amongst family and friends of all ages and genders. But watching the young men, watching them. I feel protective. I worry about the late night trips to use the “bathroom” in a corner of the yard, the one time they are alone and unprotected. I worry about the innocent smile that is seen as an invitation.
The matrones say that when a baby girl is first bathed you must put sugar and salt in the bath water so the girl will grow up to taste good. The cord is left long on a baby boys so he will have along penis. I can see that sexuality is woven into life in ways both natural and desirable and yet I know women are deserted to raise children alone, are beaten and have few ways to support themselves without the care of a man. Many of these things are true all over the world. In my country, the young girls I watched growing up, pay thousands of dollars and do themselves great harm with breast implants and lifts and tucks; giving up breastfeeding to keep the breasts they believe will give them the advantage in the struggle for survival.
Later we collapse on the wall and an auntie sings the only church songs she knows in English. Soon we are singing. “Jesus is our friend” as loud as we can. Romanoff is swinging and the baby is clapping. We sing it over and over again and people come out of the house to laugh or join in. They get a Kreyol song book out and I try to sing along. She repeats the words slowly for me so I can pronounce them before we begin to sing. I am bathed in their joy , even as earlier I was bathed in the water they offered so generously.
The baby who is born, later that night is named Bien Amie or “Blessed”. The midwives have helped with five births today. The students who I brought to Cap Hatien for an internship at MamaBaby Haiti are asleep but Maudlene removes her scrubs slowly and sings a song of praise before slipping into the shower and pouring buckets of water over her deserving body. The city electric is on so I know there is water in the shower but she pours the water slowly, with a cup, as she did as a child in her own yard surrounded by cousins and sisters; the sun light creating crystals of promise on their warm, naturally sweet and salty skin.
The women, who sleep now beside their babies, will return to the yards of their childhoods where their sisters and cousins and grandmothers will bathe them with herbs and warm water as they welcome each one into this new motherhood. They will bring water from the pump with laughter and generosity; their voices singing as one as they pour cool water over her skin as the ancestors of Haiti have done for postpartum mothers for thousands of years.