Tuesday, February 10, 2009
One Sunday afternoon we helped wash babies in Cochabamba: round, stoic, black-haired beauties from North of Potosi. They had travelled the 350km from there to here slung on the backs of their mothers who had walked, hitched rides, bumped in the backs of trucks over hours of dusty winding roads. The mothers had come for a few months to beg a living, sleep on the streets, and then make the trek back home again. But the streets are short on baths, and so, on Sunday afternoons these women bring their children to a tall tent that is pitched in the city square for a few hours and run by a local man and some volunteers. They are given milk and bread outside, and when they are done they bring their babies to be cleaned.
I washed the littlest ones - took off their layers and layers of homemade clothes and poured warm water over their black hair and chubby arms and legs. Mostly, the babies only blinked up at me. They were silent even with the soap and shampoo and the washcloth that scrubbed at the layers of dirt and grime under their noses, behind their ears, and in their deep and secret bellybuttons. Some of the mothers handed their babies off to me and then waited outside, and some of them helped quietly in the washing, calm and matter-of-fact as we striped, washed, rinsed and dressed their babies in clean donated clothing. There was hardly more than a word that passed between us.
Later, some of the women undid their long black braids and washed their hair in the square, necks bent, water streaming. They worked out the knots with small plastic combs while their children watched, teased and tugged at the mystery of those hanging black curtains, of their tired mothers made beautiful on a Sunday afternoon. The sun was setting as they lifted their heads and re-braided their hair: tight, smooth, cleanly parted and shining, glory around them, resting on their shoulders.
Photo credit: Colin Puchala