I swear, in that moment of my short and relatively unencumbered childhood life, I was sure that I was dying.
It has started on a normal morning. I woke up and got on the van to take me to school. I had English in the morning, then History with two of my favourite teachers. My English teacher was an older woman with a distinct flair for the dramatic, who made books come alive to us in class when she read to us, and we felt like the characters were right there in the classroom. She whetted our minds for the written word in a way that carried through to my adulthood. My History teacher was passionate about the past and relating it to our present. That day, we were probably learning about the five tenets of Islam, under a wider goal to understand how Islam came to be – when an indescribable pain shot through my abdomen and I doubled over, whimpering.
I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew I had never quite experienced pain like that before in my life. I went home. My mother, calmly freaking out, trying to make me feel better by asking pertinent questions – where does it hurt? Can we fix it? Do you want to go to the doctor? I’ve always been a weird child who prefers stoicism to admitting that something is literally killing her, but in this moment, in the midst of being pampered and fussed over, I said we could go to the doctor the next day. Then, mildly pleased at having missed half of a school day, I went to sleep.
I was wrong. We should have gone to the hospital when the pain started. I woke up writhing, barely able to walk and we went straight to the family doctor, a mild-mannered and funny French man with a heavy accent that was amusing to my tender age.
‘So what exaclee is ze problem?’ He asked in the way that doctors ask when they’re used to dealing with mothers who they think are overreacting. I explained. He checked my stomach, pressing down on it. I winced. He asked, ‘Have you ever had a period?’ I looked at him like he was crazy. A period? I was 11! There was no way I had had a period. That was for the girls in class 8 who had boobs and lots of homework. I shook my head no. He said he wasn’t seeing anything particularly wrong with me, and so he gave us painkillers and sent us home.
The next day, there was blood on my underwear and it still didn’t click that my period had finally arrived with a (colourful) bang. I went home for the second time in as many days, convinced that I was dying and that I had to tell my siblings goodbye before I couldn’t anymore, before this strange disease that was eating me up from the inside out took over my body and turned me to dust.
Fortunately, I didn’t die. But I did suddenly have to figure out how to belong in this new league of girls – girls who nodded at each other knowingly when someone had to leave class after an embarrassing incident, or lend each other a pad when Aunty Flo stopped by. Or the Red Dragon. Or whatever funny nickname you want to use to hide the fact that 51% of the female population – a large number of them, anyway – go through this every month.
Flying the Japanese flag. Being on a ketchup diet. Parting the Red Sea. Getting your monthly subscription in the mail. Expelling my hysteria (??!). Flying my colours. The Red Wedding (I guess Winter is Here could also work this season). My ovaries are shedding (seriously?). Little Red Riding Hood is making her way through the woods (if it is this many words…just say the word). Getting the painters in. Surfing the crimson wave…the list is endless. There’s an endless number of ways to try and hide something that pretty much everyone knows about. Odd, huh?
That’s something I’ve ever quite understood,. The funny nicknames to allude to a mystery that really isn’t a mystery at all. It doesn’t seem like it at first sight, but a period is an indication that your body is working the way it should be, for the most part, in terms of your hormones and your hypothalamus and all that other stuff that we were loath to learn and remember in high school. Why is it shrouded in some weird shame that you can’t name, a la Voldemort?
Maybe because for most girls, it’s so hard to have a period in the first place – not necessarily because of something biological, but a lot of the time because of something socio-economic. Thousands of young girls and women cannot actually afford pads to help with their menstrual bleeding, and thus it turns into a sometimes messy, sometimes embarrassing, largely debilitating affair. Which is sad for even the basic reason that your period is a reminder that your body is this gloriously powerful creation that you are able to grow and give life. Everyone who has a period is entitled to a supportive, healthy environment for menstruation, particularly because we can’t help it. Women have periods. That’s just the way it is.
When I think of how many times I hid my pads from the rest of my classmates, I cringe. I would put them into a nondescript black bag and hide them in a bush next to our toilets, so that if I had to leave class to change my pad, I wouldn’t have to carry anything with me that would raise questions about where I was going and what I was doing, especially questions from – the horror! – the boys. And I cringe at how that was my biggest problem. Now, I cringe at how the biggest problem for many women like me is not even having the pads to hide in the first place.
And this is why I am so thankful for people who make women and sexual and reproductive health a cause to champion for. Women have undergone a history of oppression, of course, in more obvious ways than one, but it doesn’t always have to be like that.
Safaricom went all over the country asking Kenyans what they need under the Ndoto Zetu initiative, trying to make people’s dreams come true. They asked Kenyans to tell them about what would change their lives. Some people said running water. Some people said electricity. Some people said mobile phones.
Lilian Oyier said pads. Lilian, an alumnus of Kondele Kudho Primary School in Kisumu, remembers that when she was younger, she would see many girls missing school because they didn’t have any pads. She still sees it to this day. So when Safaricom asked her what dream she had, she said she wanted to keep those girls in school by providing them with sanitary towels. And so, she got 3240 sanitary towels delivered to 200 girls.
She wasn’t the only one. Lameck Ochieng from Muhoroni distributes sanitary towels from well-wishers to six schools in the area to make sure girls stay in school. But because we are human, one cannot always rely on a steady flow – no pun intended – of contribution. His dream? To find a long term solution that did not necessarily involve dependence on well-wishers, in a more sustainable fashion that included training on how to use reusable pads. 3240 sanitary towels later, 152 girls happier, his dream has come true too.
Ndoto Zetu is not just about making life easier, but it is also about ensuring that human dignity is maintained, to make sure Kenyans can hold their heads up high. It isn’t easy to have a period. It isn’t easy to have no support to get through it, and it is definitely not easy to drop out of school because of something that came with your body, with this specific, wondrous model. The average Kenyan girl can’t afford simple sanitary products. What we think is simple, that isn’t actually all that simple. But it is simple enough to turn the tide. Ok…maybe the pun was intended here.
Sometimes, when I’m on my period, it still feels like I’m dying, by the way. That doesn’t change too much. But I’m grateful that in my generation, my pain can be talked about and shared, my concerns can be heard, and my sisters can be helped.