Traditional Healing Baths
" ...These wise women have been supporting not just myself, but many women in their families and communities for years. They have also given immeasurable knowledge and assistance to the many American women who have come to give birth and attend pilgrimage in Meritah (Africa) with The Earth Center. Throughout this article, you will hear much of their wisdom and knowledge... "
In November of 2015 I gave birth to my first child in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, West Africa (Meritah). From the moment I arrived, I was exposed to a whole new world of knowledge of the traditional, spiritual and physical activities surrounding pregnancy, birth, and care for a newborn. While learning how to bathe my child, the more I observed, the more questions I had. As my learning increased, the more motivated I became to share some of what I’ve gained with other women–mothers in particular. This article is a collection of questions I posed and the responses I received by the elder women who supported me and taught me how to care for my newborn son. Bathing is one of the most important occurrences in the life of an infant and throughout their childhood. In the Tem culture of Sokode, Togo, bathing is done very thoroughly.
The process of bathing and knowledge surrounding the healing aspects disseminated in this article is coming from some of the elder women of the Tem tribe residing in Sokode, Togo. These wise women have been supporting not just myself, but many women in their families and communities for years. They have also given immeasurable knowledge and assistance to the many American women who have come to give birth and attend pilgrimage in Meritah (Africa) with The Earth Center. Throughout this article, you will hear much of their wisdom and knowledge.
I delivered in a hospital not far from home, and was fortunate to have such wonderful women to assist me in the delivery. Within an hour of giving birth, I was brought the traditional foods/medicines that are given postpartum to all recovering mothers in the Togolese traditions/Traditional Togo. What was most impressive to me is that moments after arriving in the room to rest, one of the women who had assisted me during labour arrived carrying a full bucket of nearly boiling water on her head. The ladies that delivered my baby were kind enough to let us bathe him right away. In most hospitals, they do not allow you to bathe your child the way you wish, but my son was very lucky. His gran-mama was there to receive the hot water and commence the bathing right away. After adding cold water she gave him a thorough and proper cleansing. As the baby makes his way out of the mother, their head, face and various features are molded/shaped by the birth canal. During and after my son’s first bath, his gran mama spent time arranging/molding his face and head with Shea butter. This continued throughout the first several weeks of his life.
Why is it important to clean the infant as soon as possible after they are born?
Contrary to modern medical theory, infants are bathed as soon as possible after birth to clean the residue from their time inside the mother. Once a baby has been born, they are introduced to very warm water and cleaned properly so that their recovery from the fatigue of birthing can begin and they can start acclimating themselves to life here on Earth. Western medical theory suggests that an infant shouldn’t bathe because of the antibacterial and moisturizing effects of the vernix, a thin film that coats the baby’s skin while in utero.
However, the interesting logic is that the world within the mother is very different from the world they are born into. While they’re inside, many things are necessary for their advancement during the stages of growth inside their mother’s womb, but on the outside they transition into a new notion of cleanliness. When he was inside his mother, some nights she is intimate with her husband. This is one of the things when you birth the infant, he comes with. During pregnancy, one of the natural adjustments that takes place in the mother is the absence of her menstrual cycle. Normally, during this time of the month, the impurities carried in her body, particularly from sexual intercourse, exit her body through her cycle.
What is a healing bath and why are they done?
In Tem culture, bathing is an intricate process combining techniques and herbs used to support the health and strength of the baby. However, among those of us who have been exposed to the process, we call them healing baths. This method of bathing isn’t solely about washing the dirt away. There are various steps involved that focus on strengthening the bones, muscles, nerves and joints. The first approach in caring for the new Ancestor that has come to join us in this world, is ensuring they develop the physical and spiritual force they need to survive and fend off sickness.
The bath incorporates various herbs the infant bathes in and drinks. As they grow older, the baths adjust. When they are infants, the bathing includes a very warm water compress all over their bodies. This is what helps to eliminate the fatigue in the muscles during the first stages of growth. Just as the mother’s body is adjusting to the phenomenon of giving birth, the baby also is adjusting to the world physically and spiritually. Properly cleaning the genitals and anus are very important parts of the process, while using the hot water to eliminate fatigue in the infant’s body.
It was ingrained very well in me that my child and all children must be bathed well. Even as adults, we can’t sit in our own filth for very long before we become uncomfortable or start itching. It’s the same thing with babies, they just can’t talk. When you’re clean your body feels free of debris and you’ll sleep well. Some adults even, may go in the bathroom, turn on the shower, use tepid water, liquid soap and wash briskly with the hand, but this doesn’t properly clean the child. All over Meritah, especially in spiritual customs, cleanliness is very important. There is a direct link between hygiene, health and basic social etiquette.
Healing baths also serve the practical purpose of ensuring that, as the child grows to become an adult, they aren’t so prone to sickness or have an unpleasant odour that stays with them.
“Some people have an odour that you can smell to the point where you can’t even stay near them long. That odour has been with them since birth because their mother never cleaned them properly with hot water. You can put perfume or cologne, but the odor is in the body and remains there.”
– Elder Woman
How are healing baths done?
When starting the bath, the temperature of the water is very important. The first step is to heat the water. In Meritah this is done in the charcoal in a large, uncovered pot. Many people will ask why that is, especially when covering the pot heats the water quicker. Simply put, If we want to bathe the cadaver, we close the lid to heat their water. Since we don’t want to express that message or energy on the baby, we keep the lid off. The hot water reaches the right temperature just before it starts to boil.
To begin the bath, 3 buckets are required: 1 bucket for the hot water, 1 bucket for the cold water and an empty bucket to mix the two waters in. It is very important throughout the bath, for the head in particular, that the water is very, very warm. It definitely shouldn’t be burning, but it should be hot enough to thoroughly heat every area focused on. If the water stings your legs, know it’s probably too hot for the baby. The bather sits on a stool with her legs straight out in front, elevated by a large basin positioned underneath her legs. The basin is there to catch the water as she bathes the baby on her lap.
When mixing the two waters, hot water is poured in the empty bucket followed by the cold. This order doesn’t just apply to bathing infants. In any instance where two temperatures are mixed to bathe, this system applies. What I learnt is that the heat of the water also transfers to our lives, our spirit, our character, etc. In life, sometimes things heat up, but we look forward to the balance of things becoming calm and cool afterwards. We finish with cold water because it cools and calms the heat in our lives and ourselves. During the bath, the baby may fuss and cry, but afterwards they sleep well. That’s what they need to grow and develop and, as mothers, we too want that for them. As the Prophet Neb Naba says, “whatever your question, you can always look to nature for the answer first”. Even after cooking our food, it’s water we use to put out the charcoal. When we prepare our tea in the morning, we have to let it cool before we can drink it, and so on. After working up a sweat, we take the time to cool down and repose. These are just some of the examples we can draw from our experience in the world and from observation of the world around us. The balance of heat and cool follows this path. After the heat of the day comes the cool of the night.
Why is hot water primarily used for bathing the baby?
As you, the mother are suffering while your child is inside, he too is suffering and working to find the proper route to exit. When he comes out, he’s tired from the work, just like you are tired from working to get your child out. Hot water is used in bathing the baby as well as post partum recovery because it helps to eliminate the fatigue and put strength in the body. The temperature of the water as well as the pressure that it’s applied with the washcloth is like a massage to the infant’s muscles. The temperature helps to induce blood flow throughout the body and promotes sound sleep and stable health.
Before the bath began, gram mama would always let my son stretch his little body. After being curled up for so many months inside of me, his body was tired and needed to extend. He would always arch his back and try to straighten his legs. Even though it seems small, it was always the prelude to the healing bath and I continued this step when I took over bathing him. Once this was done, the bath began.
Stay tuned for part two where I’ll discuss the specific parts of the body that are focused on and why.
Thanks for reading!
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