By FATIMA SUGAPONG
RABAT, Morocco- Fatima Bamu sits down very slowly, exhausted after an eleven hour workday. Her wrinkled, leathery brown hands, worn from 40 years of working in a public bath house known to the Rabat citizens as the hammam, rested on her lap. She closed her eyes as she kept her prayers close to the ring of her lips.
Everyone in the room respected her privacy. She rocked in a small back-and-forth motion in her tan djelleba, a piece of traditional Moroccan clothing, and her scarf.
“I do my job because I don’t have any other way to live,” Bamu said. “I help myself doing this job because He told me to.”
Many people in the Medina do not have showers in their own homes, so they rely on the resources the hammam provides.
A hamman is a public bath house where people go to cleanse themselves with henna, a green scrub used to remove dead skin. Men and women go to separate hammams, with the exception of small children.
Bathers bring their own shower supplies, along with a change of clothes. In Morocco, locals typically bring a fleece djelleba and hijab with fleece pants and babouche, Moroccan house slippers.
According to Bamu, Moroccan women visit the hammam once a week to cleanse themselves. Often times, women go together and scrub each other’s backs with henna and allow the steam from the hot water to open up their pores. This allows for the dirt that has collected from the week’s trials to fall away from their skin. They cover every inch and crevice and rinse thoroughly with water before applying the soap they brought from home.
For 30 years, Bamu worked in Hammam Chafra as a kasala, the woman who scrubs down female customers who request it.
She would apply the henna and roughly scrub away the dirty, dead skin while they lay down on a small, rubber mat. The command “shuya,” meaning “only a little,” would soften her touch for those who wished for a gentle experience.
“It’s hard work,” Bamu said. “My work is not easy to do. The hammam is hot and I’m in it all day, scrubbing people, giving them water and towels.”
Bamu began her work as a kasala when she was 15 years old in Ouarzazate. She grew up in poverty and had to support her family when her mother fell ill.
A tattoo on her bottom lip ties her to her place of birth. It runs down her chin, decorated with three dots on each side. This tattoo is unique to the people of Ouarzazate, Morocco. She was 11 years old when she got it.
“[It’s] for beauty,” Bamu said.
She moved to Rabat, Morocco, when she was 16 years old from Ouarzazate, a south-central Moroccan city mainly inhabited by Berbers.
On her first day, she learned how to scrub. This led to three decades of laborious work in the endless steam and hot water.
Bamu quickly realized this was all she knew how to do to earn a living. From 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., six days a week, she earns her pay.
“I love my job,” Bamu said. “The pay is good. I don’t have to [steal] to get my money.”
After her husband passed away, Bamu carried on supporting her household. She doesn’t have any family other than her daughter, Saida, 36. Her daughter doesn’t work because of her visual impairment.
“I just have my daughter and my daughter just has me,” Bamu said.
According to Bamu, she doesn’t charge a fixed price. It’s ultimately up to the patron, how much she will be given. On an average day, she earns about $10, but on a good day she might earn something closer to $50.
“I meet good people and bad people,” Bamu said. “The good people give me a lot of money. The bad people don’t.”
Ten years ago, Bamu graduated from her tiring days as the kasala. She now works in the ticket booth, where she collects the tickets and takes care of the women’s belongings while they step into the steamy bath house. According to Bamu, she likes this job better, but it entails more responsibility.
Protecting everyone’s valuables puts a lot of pressure on her. She has not had any problems keeping their belongings safe, so far. However, what happens beyond the counter is outside of her control.
Bamu leaned over and laughed before she could explain just how many crazy situations she has witnessed during her time behind the counter. She looked up at her companions and everyone started to laugh over shared memories. According to Bamu, women fight over water, places to settle down, and other supplies in the hammam all the time.
The people that she met when she was a kasala became life-long friends that continued to greet her and reconnect with her today. Once a week, Bamu sets aside her duties to go scrub down in the sauna-like bath house with friends.
“All the people come and go,” Bamu said. “But I stay all day.”