No one ever spoke too loudly about it, unless they were speaking about it in code, then they giggled about it in huddles that were too huge to be considered intimate. When referred to in those huddles, the girls referred to it as ‘starting’.
The first day I heard about starting, was on a Tuesday buried in the pits of first term. Science textbooks and an adequate teacher had prepped me, but the starting question still took me by surprise. On that Tuesday evening, the school was emptying into the field for Games and a pile of us were running to hanging lines to pick our P.E kits.
My blue house T-shirt was covering my face when Jackline asked if I she could wear my shorts and lend me her white wrap skirt for the day. I liked my shorts, they let me do somersaults in patches of dust without worrying about stains on their navy blue. I was not about to give up this freedom. So I pulled down that t-shirt and prepped to face Jackline and get an explanation. Jackline had a big head so big that we called her head, surely, there would be an explanation somewhere in there!
Jackline said she needed to wear shorts because she had just ‘started’.
She never got to answering that. By the time she was done muttering ‘started’, the rest of the clique was around her, patting, congratulating. I still had no clue what had been started and why that called for me to give up my shorts for a wrap skirt that was too big for my wasp-like waist. But the mass had voted, I was giving my shorts to Miss Head Girl, but first we would troop to the latrines so Jackline could shine in the proof of her starting.
Any fight I was preparing to put up was put aside the minute I heard she was going to show us amestart. I needed to understand this starting business as desperately as she needed my shorts.
When she came out of the latrines, the ones opposite the laundry house we called wash, her knickers were in her hands. She was smiling shyly but all I saw was the brown dry stained patch on those knickers! Why were they fussing over soiled panties? I really wanted to know. But Micere was already instructing Jackline on how to handle the soiled knickers. I stood there in my stunted body and turned into a back drop. Then a packet of Always was passed and suddenly, starting made sense.
Starting did not strike me as a business that called for exhibition. I wanted to say this, I was rubbing my tongue on the insides of my teeth fighting cowardice and prepping to speak up when Waruguru turned and asked if I too had started. The girls were now all staring at me. Was it not enough that I was giving up my shorts?! I wanted no part in this knicker exhibition business, probably out of fear, or shame for not having started…or both. I needed to save me from the exhibitionists, so I said, “Yes, I have started. Last December. Before Christmas. Before I joined this new school.” Smiles broke out, the girls faces turned into blooming sunflowers and I was the ray of sunlight that they shared.
But Glory rarely lasts long, someone is constantly looking for a parade to rain on. Sandra was that person on that Tuesday, asking if I wasn’t too young to have started. I was ten. I said out loud that I was ten and Jackline who had turned into an expert of sorts since getting her first period an hour before said it was possible, but very rare. I was ready to give her my shorts for all of eternity.
This false knowledge that I had diverged made me apart of the girls, if only when the starting topic came up. When the roster on girls that had started was read by girls that had not, my name was spoken with intervals of reverence between the syllables.
I enjoyed this status for four years then my world turned inside out.
A month after I had turned thirteen and received my KCPE results, I got a surprise. The goddess whose name I had used to give glory to my name paid me a visit- perhaps to question why I had being using her (code) name in vain.
But she did not just walk in and say “Hey there Veon Ngugi, You are Starting.” Goddesses have servants, they send servants to prepare the way for them. Instead they manifested as an unbearable pain in the pits of my stomach. Pain that just pained and pained and when I thought it was about to end, it curled upon itself and pained some more. It was not searing pain, just firm enough for me to not forget it was there. Firm enough for my sister to diagnose it as the results of over eating during Christmas. Firm enough for me to want to wake up and rejoice in dance when it disappeared, but the disappearance was merely the beginning.
I remember getting up to tell my sister that I thought the stomachache was gone only to see a dark red river snaking down my right calf. I wanted to scream, but all I did was call my sister. Good call, for on arrival all she said was “Ah, kumbe ni mashiro.”
Mashiro. That word was ugly, and I stood in the shower and scrubbed at my body like I wanted to pluck out my ovaries, I swore to never use that word. Starting was better, but I could not understand why the girls in boarding school had glorified starting yet all it felt like, in that shower, was a stream of misery.
But the stream flowed. Always. And like all things, I had to learn how to stand up through it. You know what? It hasn’t killed me. It tries, but that is all it does; try. Yet here I am, still breathing in and out, still above ground. It’s almost become, well, normal. My family are the only ones who knew the date I started starting, for real this time. Me and the goddess, thanks to her post-KCPE timing, eventually became some sort of friends. I have just used the word mashiro, but at least it is written rather than spoken.
I am reminded of the time I started because of the campaign that Always sanitary pads is running. Check out #AlwaysStandUpKe on Twitter . Here, you will see stories of women like Elizabeth Marami (@lizmarami), Kenya’s first female marine pilot, and Silalei Owuor (@silalei), Kenya’s female basketball captain. These women, just like all women, were once girls. And at some point, they also started starting. They also got a courtesy call from the goddess. Theirs are stories of confidence and standing up for dreams; tales of disappointing limits that thought could not be broken.
In our own ways, we girls have such stories. Stories of triumph. For at some point in a month we bleed, yet we never die. Instead we stand up and prosper.
By now you may be wondering whether I got my shorts back. I didn’t. Of some things, you just learn to let go. Period.