There was an angry looking red gash on my underwear and I was pretty convinced I was dying. My mother, however, told my panicked 11 year old self that I had started my period, and then went back to reading the paper.
It was that simple. I don’t remember ever having to be taught how to use a pad – my precocious self had been in enough classes where the teachers showed us that.
What I do remember is feeling like my period was a huge secret – only one other girl in my class had gotten hers (and we eventually got into a fight over some boy, but that’s a story for another day). I put my pads in a separate (black, how telling) bag. I would hide this bag in a thicket near the bathrooms so that when I was asking to be excused in the middle of class, I wouldn’t have to conspicuously carry a bag with me. I don’t know how that bag was never seen, or taken, but maybe the goddess who takes care of adolescent girls had my back.
I don’t know why I felt it was a secret, or why it was almost shameful. I don’t know who passed on that message to me. Even now, I’m only just getting to the point where I will talk to my male friends about cramping, or bleeding from my snatch. They get a funny look on their faces like they just ate something nasty. But surely…you came from a vagina, are in constant search of a vagina, may have children who have vaginas…and yet you want to know nothing about it?
Why is it that we embarrassed to talk about something over half the population goes through? As if back pains aren’t enough!
The shame I felt with my first period? 1 in 10 adolescent girls in Africa skip school and eventually drop out because of it – from not putting their hand up in class because they are scared that they smell like a period to just not being able to discuss the issues they face – issues like not being able to regularly access sanitary towels, which is 42% of that female population.
And sometimes, I imagine my first time differently. Going home from school, without a care in the world. Probably talking and laughing loudly, craving a mango and chilli from the old vendor on the way home, which I don’t have money for. Someone suddenly jeering behind me. Pointing at the trail of blood trickling down my leg and the patch of damp rapidly forming in its wake. I can imagine running home, vision blurred by hot humiliated tears. Silently sobbing, showing my mother my dress. I can see her shaking her head, almost crying herself, because there is no money to buy anything that can help. Then I can imagine being told to wash my dress, because since I have to stay home from school anyway, it will have time to dry.
This is the reality for 81% of girls in some parts of Kenya, who cannot afford to buy sanitary pads. In a country with a city touted as the one of the top 20 best African cities to live in by the City Momentum Index for its ‘liveability and capacity to reinvent itself.’
Always is running a campaign about this called #AlwaysStandUpKe. It seeks to create conversation, and action, on some of the things important to me; the fact that menstruation causes Kenyan adolescent girls to lose so many learning days per month, and that some communities in Africa still view a period as a curse, when that is not the case at all.
I dream of a Kenya where pads are not at risk of being charged even higher VAT than they are charged now. A Kenya where condoms are free, and so are pads; you can go to school without condoms, but you won’t, or can’t, go to school without pads. A Kenya where, when a girl has her period, it is seen as a natural and normal transition to womanhood and giving life, instead of a permanent stain on her academic record. This is something I am willing to support till it becomes a reality. A reality in which a girl is always proud to stand up and do whatever she needs to do. To be free.