Today I participated in the Baby Wash program for the first time. Once a week, a group of English-speaking ladies meets at the Community Services Association (CSA) in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo, Egypt. From there, the group takes a trip over to Giza, just across the Nile and north a little, to volunteer at a community center type of ministry. This center houses a medical clinic, a program to educate street children in a trade so they can earn a living, and the baby wash. Although the English speakers only go once a week, the ministry is not neglected. Each day of the week has a different group at the baby wash—I know an Italian group goes one day, but I’m not sure who fills in the other three days.
The baby wash is the fundraiser for this ministry. The mothers who bring their children pay a very nominal fee, I think just LE1 or 2. The groups who go provide the bulk of the financial support. We pay roughly 2000USD per year. The money, at least for our group, is donated by a church back in the United States whose congregation wants to help these babies, their mothers, and the others who benefit from the center.
At the baby wash, mothers bring in their babies to be weighed, washed, and screened for obvious medical difficulties. It’s a four-week program with weekly visits, and the children receive a gift each time. During the first visit, they receive a pair of pants, a t-shirt, and a cloth diaper that the volunteers never actually put on the baby because we don't know how--we use disposable diapers on them. A photograph also is taken of the baby and mother during this first visit; it is given to the mothers during the second visit. For many of these women, this will be the only picture they ever have of themselves with their beloved child—some women participate in the program exclusively because they want this picture. During the second visit, participants also receive an adorable little gallabeya, another pair of pants, and a pair of socks. During the third visit, they receive a thick sweater, matching pants, and a hat. During the fourth and final visit, they receive a baby blanket. All of the items are purchased from local women who make the items out of soft Egyptian cotton. In this way, the ministry helps the working poor of the community, not just those who benefit directly from the center’s services.
While the babies are bathed, a couple of things happen simultaneously. New mothers who may not know how to bathe their babies learn by observation, and the babies are given a good once-over to make certain that any obvious medical problems are addressed. Babies can be sent over to the clinic if necessary, but it's more common for the women to be given supplies, such as diaper rash cream or a moisturizing lotion or oil, and to be told how to use them to care for their babies' routine needs.
This morning, six expat women met at CSA to take the trip over. Two of us were "in training" to bathe the babies. Neither of us had ever bathed a baby! Two were regular volunteers--one actually is in charge of coordinating the program for our group. One had been to the baby wash once before and is a mother herself. The final volunteer was a baby wash regular, but she was going this time to be trained in the administrative role of weighing the babies and keeping the records, which would be her responsibility while the usual coordinator was traveling over the next month.
At the clinic, we set up in a good-sized room that obviously was designed for the program. There were three sinks, each with a baby tub and ample counter space, and a couple of tables. Cushy pads rested on the counters, to lay the babies on while drying them. Baby wash, shampoo, lotion, and oil were stored in a locked cabinet and were distributed quickly to each station. A baby scale was on one table, and the second quickly became filled with the baby garments and diapers that were taken from the storage room next door.
Before any mothers or babies came in, my trainer showed me how to clean the tub in between each baby. Then we filled the tub with warm water--constantly adjusting the water flow, because the hot water kept cutting in and out--and set up the towels and washcloth that we'd need for our first "client." One of the other more experienced women did the same with our other newbie in training at the sink beside us. The remaining two women made sure all the supplies were ready, set up the scale, and got out the records that they keep on each child.
When the first baby came in, she was stripped off and weighed, then handed off to the pair beside us. The second one was ours. My mentor and I had agreed that I would watch her take care of the first one, then she would supervise me taking care of the second, and then I'd be ready to be on my own. So I watched as my trainer bathed the baby and washed her hair, explaining all the while what she was doing. Then she pulled the baby out of the tub and wrapped her up in a towel, dried her off, checked for diaper rash, and put her diaper and new clothes on. Easy enough. While she brushed the baby's hair and helped with the picture, I cleaned out and refilled the tub for the next one.
The next one also was a little girl. After she was weighed, she was placed in my arms. I have to admit, I took my time getting over to the tub. It was so nice just to hold such a tiny, precious baby! But then we were at the tub, and I had to put her down (of course while continuing to support her little head and keep it out of the water). It was easier than expected to bathe her. I've been in the room before when my sister or sister-in-law were bathing their little ones, but until today, I was never the one who actually bathed the child. I always assumed it would take a master of coordination to support the baby's head while also bathing the baby, washing her hair, and rinsing everything off. Nope. It was easy. I bet it would have been different had she decided to fight me, but all my babies today were easy. When I was finished, I pulled her out of the tub and laid her down on a clean towel spread out over the cushion. Her mother, who had been standing beside me the whole time, started drying her off before I even got my hands off her. So I had help from then on out. Apparently this is normal. Some mothers stand back and let you do your thing; others want to help.
When we were finished with that baby, I was pronounced ready to do it on my own. However, our other newbie also was ready to do it on her own, and there were only three sinks. So the two experienced ladies each had a sink to themselves, and we novices shared. My companion washed the first one, then I dried and clothed her. We swapped roles for the second baby, then swapped again for the third and final baby of the day. I noticed while my partner bathed Ramadan that he had severe diaper rash. When she pulled him out of the tub, I tried to be very gentle as I dried him off. Luckily, he was a happy baby, just lying there grinning up at me. One of the other ladies brought me some diaper rash cream, which I smeared on everywhere he seemed red and irritated. The poor baby--his rash was extensive. Everywhere his diaper covered, even halfway up his back and down his little legs where the diaper didn't even go, was red. I learned later that the rash was so bad because his mother didn't realize how often his diaper needed to be changed; she was a first-time mother, and even the more experienced mothers here often don't change the diapers enough because diapers are expensive, and there isn't enough money to buy more than absolutely required. Ramadan was in the same diaper for a whole day and night. We gave the mom some diaper rash cream, and the woman who works at the clinic full-time—the only one of us who speaks fluent Arabic—told her how and when to apply it.
I think we bathed eleven or so babies total this morning. There were the two while I was training, the two that the other training pair did during the same time, three that we novices bathed, and then I'm assuming another two each for the other volunteers. There may have been more, though; we novices probably were slower than the others.
I've been told that I'll be able to go to the Baby Wash around once a month. They can use only a limited number of volunteers, because there are only three sinks, so not everyone goes each time. But I'm looking forward to going again.
One of the other women also told me about the volunteering that she does a few times a week at Mother Teresa's in Mokkatum. The nuns run an orphanage and a daycare so that impoverished parents can work, and volunteers come in to help care for the babies. There also is a special needs room, where handicapped children are cared for. I'm going to see about going up there at least once or twice to see if that's a place where I can get involved in helping out.
It's really heartbreaking, when you think about all the needs. You don't really see a lot of it in Maadi, other than a few beggars and street children selling tissue paper for a pound a pack, but there is immense need in Egypt. In a previous post, I talked a little about Garbage City, or Mokkatum. And then there are the street children. It makes me want to get involved wherever I can. Updates as events warrant.
9 February 2009 Update:
Since I originally wrote this post, I have been back to the baby wash three or four times. I have seen many babies who are well cared for and a few others whose mothers do the best they can. In each case where more appropriate care is needed, the mothers have been very receptive to instruction, and the results are apparent on the baby’s next visit.
Unfortunately, little Ramadan’s case of diaper rash is not the worst I have seen. Just last week, I saw a little boy whose diaper rash was so severe that his skin looked raw and wrinkled, as if he had been burned. He also had sores on his face. His mother was very concerned about his condition and had been doing all she knew to alleviate his discomfort. This child went from the baby wash directly to the doctor’s office in the same building, where the mother was given instructions about his care and a medical ointment to use on his sores. I look forward to hearing that he is much better on future visits, although I can’t be sure that I’ll see him again. Each baby comes in only for four visits, and I do not always get to see them more than once.
I also had the opportunity to visit Mother Teresa’s recently. I intend to begin going there regularly. You can read about my first visit here.