We had a henna party at CURE today.
Henna is a plant that is commonly used to make a dye here in Niger and around the world. The leaves are crushed into a powder and mixed with water to make a kind of paste, which can then be applied to the skin, leaving a long-term (but temporary) tattoo. Here in Niger, women get henna tattoos for every possible celebration: a wedding, a baptism, a holiday, or for any kind of party, and sometimes I suspect for no real reason at all, other than the fact that it is beautiful.
I’ve wanted to get a henna tattoo for a while now and I happened to comment on one of our patient’s hennafied hands. Her name is Rashida, and she had an operation on her leg, which is now in an external fixator. She is already up on her feet and walking around with a walker, and seems to be on a quick road to recovery.
It was Rashida’s first session with me in the art therapy room, and she was very reserved and quiet. I told her I thought her hands looked pretty and she suddenly changed. She was very excited and said, “I do henna! Do you want me to do it for you one day?” I said yes. Rashida lives in Niamey and so she isn’t staying at the hospital, but comes in a couple times a week for dressing changes. She said, “I’ll come sometime and bring the supplies!”
This week Rashida came with a small plastic bag of henna, and got to work on my hands right away. Beth Van Hall, our new Executive Director’s wife, has been coming to the hospital to spend time with the kids. She came by the art therapy room and Rashida did her feet when she was done with my hands. Then Aramatou, another patient came and Rashida did her hands as well. We all had a lot of fun in the couple hours it took to finish all the decorating, and by the end Rashida was totally transformed. She was in her element, and was having a great time. It was really funny because she told us that she had never tried putting henna on a white person’s skin before, and she said that it was more difficult than usual because of the hair on my arms. I told her that she was lucky she wasn’t trying to do it on Josh’s arm!
It was obvious that the whole process was empowering for Rashida. I paint our patient’s hands and feet all the time when they are wearing casts. Now she was working on my hands and Beth’s feet. In a way, the tables had turned. And not only that, she was showing us a part of her heritage and tradition, and you could tell she was proud. It was a great way of expressing her creativity and her culture, and she was able to share something beautiful, and leave a part of herself on me, marking me by our encounter. That is what therapeutic exchange is all about, and in that way it was healing.