In the backstreets of Nairobi, Christine, now 44, recalls the first time she got her period. “I saw all this blood on my dress at school and when I got home and told my step mother, she sent me to bed. When my father came home, she told him I’d been raped. From that day on my father looked down on me and treated me badly.
“When I got my period every month I didn’t know what to do about the blood so I tried putting leaves in my panties to soak it up, then I tried dirt and then I tried my father’s socks but nothing worked. So I would go to the maize fields and just sit there for days on my own. I was lonely and sad about missing school because I wanted to get an education.”
Eventually the monthly embarrassment and disruption forced Christine to leave school and give up her dream of becoming a lawyer. However, when she married, a talented seamstress mentored her in the art of sewing.
Now Christine runs a dressmaking business from a cheerful little room festooned with colourful fabric, next to her comfortable home.
A team of sewing ladies use two manual Singer sewing machines to produce beautiful dresses, skirts, pants, purses and embroidery. Sheila is one of Christine’s star sewers.
Sheila is 21 and when she first got her period at 13, she couldn’t tell her parents so she told her boyfriend who said he would ‘help’ her. He gave her money to buy disposable pads in exchange for sex. This is how she survived every month.
The two women are passionate about their charity project called Days for Girls, producing hundreds of re-usable cloth sanitary napkins for schoolgirls throughout Kenya.
The ingenious invention comprises a fabric shield, which clicks into panties and holds a panel of absorbent fleece, which can be removed and washed and reused. The shield and pads, panties and soap are put into a pretty fabric drawstring bag.
This snazzy kit empowers a girl to manage her period each month, hygienically and privately with dignity. Most importantly it allows her to attend school without embarrassment and ensures her education is not disrupted every month.
Christine visits schools far and wide giving talks about managing menstruation and supplying these lovely kits to adolescent girls, which transforms their lives and self-esteem.
I have joined a road trip with four warm, friendly American women who run a charity called 4 The Good Period, producing and supplying thousands of reusable cloth pads to girls in remote villages in Kenya.
In our mini van loaded to the roof with massive bags of supplies, driven by a very patient Mr Livingstone, we have made a stop to visit Christine and learn about this sister charity to explore ways to work together.
Sharon Secur, 66, has been coming to Kenya for over 20 years, as a dedicated humanitarian and fundraiser through the Presbyterian Church in Fargo, Dakota, building strong friendships and partnerships. Sharon and her husband Gary have four daughters and nine grandchildren.
In 1996 she took her daughter Molly on a trip to Kikuyu Hospital in Nairobi when she was a Sophomore in College and undecided about her future career. When Molly witnessed a baby being born she was awestruck and decided to pursue a career in midwifery and nursing.
Dr Molly Secur-Turner, 40, is now Associate Professor in Nursing and Public Health at North Dakota State University and the mom of three young children.
In 2012, Molly started conducting research and bringing groups of student nurses to rural Kenya. In interviews with schoolgirls and their mothers, she discovered a desperate lack of sanitary products, which was causing girls to miss school, and started bringing supplies of reusable pads.
Molly and Sharon founded the charity 4TGP in 2014. The dynamic duo was joined by Kayce Anderson, 39, a doctor of ecology, and her running buddy, Kate Lapides, 52, a photojournalist from Colorado, who share the passion for empowering girls in Kenya.
Kayce had a friend, Sadler Merle, who manufactures eco-friendly cloth nappies and enlisted him to produce the sanitary napkins, made from non-absorbent fabric for the shield, fitted with soft velvet washable pads.
We are crammed in the heavily laden van, chatting all the way from Nairobi along the impressive Meru Highway, Sharon and Molly, Kayce and Kate and me and Njoki, a stunningly beautiful young Kenyan woman who is returning for a visit home after studying and working in the States for 10 years.
Njoki Kinyua, 30, has just started her new position as Assistant Professor in Environmental Engineering at the University of California in Davis, near San Francisco. She is planning to research the possibility of a bio-gas latrines project.
We set out just after 8 am and it is 4 pm by the time we reach the lush hilly countryside of the Meru district, of the Tharaka-Nithi county in the eastern province where the fertile rust-red soil nurtures flourishing banana, coffee and tea plantations nestled in the foothills of Mount Kenya.
After the long journey I’m exhausted and ready for a cup of tea when we arrive at the comfortable Chogoria guesthouse, run by the nearby hospital, but my robust travelling companions, despite jetlag, suggest a “walk”.
I imagine a gentle stroll around the garden, however we head for the bustling marketplace, weaving through rows of roadside stalls bursting with assorted household goods and fresh produce and weary smiling shopkeepers; dodging vehicles and motor bikes, the air filled with traffic noise, bird song and African music.
Trudging along rocky backroads, chatting with Sharon, I am mad at myself for forgetting my water bottle and sunglasses, when suddenly we hear a faint whistle and turn to see beautiful Millicent, who has come to greet us.
This is not how I imagined our reunion, on a dusty track, Millicent in her lovely dress with her hair beautifully curled and her radiant smile, and me sweaty, dishevelled and parched! However it didn’t detract from the joy of seeing each other again after meeting in Senegal at the Tostan training course just two months earlier.
“Ah my friend! My sister!” We hug and squeeze each other. Sharon and Millicent have been close friends for 21 years so their reunion overflows with love, and tears and laughter. All the women greet Millicent with that special heartfelt connection that spans countries and cultures.
We walk on for what seems like miles, talking excitedly, until Millicent leaves us to head home and we return to the guesthouse to a meal prepared by the devoted kitchen staff and clever cooks, Douglas, Anne and Lucy.
After dinner I’m on the point of collapse, when the girls unpack the massive bags full of hundreds of pads and start folding and bagging them. My brain has turned to mush and I’m fumbling hopelessly with the fabric squares, so I excuse myself to crash in my warm double bed, promising to do my share of the huge task tomorrow when I’m fresh!
The dynamic women are off early to a Board Meeting, so I am left to contemplate and write and then sit down in the living room to tackle the task. So I clear the coffee table and set up a systematic production line, first folding the shields, then the brown velvet fabric into bundles, placing them into zip lock bags and finally into pretty drawstring bags.
I’ve loved colourful fabric since my fervent teenage attempts at sewing my own clothes so I am thoroughly enjoying handling the beautiful little bags, which have been lovingly made by countless volunteers, including quilting ladies, in Sharon and Molly’s hometown in Dakota. They introduced the novel idea of setting up sewing machines in a local brewery and having fun “Pints & Pads” nights! Even the men joined in sewing the bags while enjoying a beer!
Engrossed in the pleasant task, suddenly there’s a gentle knock at the door and young Silas appears in search of Sharon. He’s travelled on the bus to see Sharon, who is sponsoring him at Poly Tech school. I offer him a cup of tea and biscuits and chocolate and we chat about how he’s in final year of carpentry. His face lights up when he shares his dream of opening his own furniture business.
I ask Silas to help me assemble the packs and we sit together absorbed in the manual work while he tells me about his large family of six children. As the eldest boy he is responsible for caring for the young ones and helping with the cows, goats, chickens and vegetable garden. At 21, he has a girlfriend, who is training in hairdressing and they are planning their future together.
It’s 4pm before the women return and we all pile in the car, me with my huge bag full of African storybooks, colouring books and packets of pencils for the children at Millicent’s community centre. This is a sublime moment, seeing the centre that Millicent, a nurse, midwife and community health worker, and her handsome husband Josephat, a respected pastor known by his surname, Garama, have funded and built.
Vulnerable children from resource-poor families, many orphaned, some living with HIV, have come to play and have fun in this cheerful room and have a nutritious meal every Saturday since 2002.
Millicent and Garama and their daughter and two sons together with Justus, a retired teacher and other dedicated community members are devoted to caring for the children and making a difference in their young lives. Their loving “intervention” has produced many success stories of poor children who have grown up to stay in school and get good jobs.
We are all delighted by Millicent’s generous hospitality of afternoon tea and traditional pastries and we sit chatting together in the centre before seeing the sewing room where this multi-skilled lady is starting to produce soft fabric bags and clothes to raise funds for the centre. I have brought a stack of flamboyant fabrics from Senegal and special gold tailor’s scissors to support the fledgling social enterprise.
That night, Sharon shares some heart wrenching stories about the impoverished families she has supported over the years and how she has seen children’s hopeless futures transformed by sponsorship that kept them in school to gain qualifications and jobs.
Molly shares the results of her academic evaluations showing how sanitary pads ensure rural girls stay in school. We are all brimming with the creative possibilities of empowering women, men and children, through cross-cultural projects!
After my pleasurable day handling pretty fabrics and socialising, the next day brings a rude awakening. We set off in a four-wheel vehicle driven by our experienced rough road driver, Gbae, into the arid rural area. The dusty red roads are studded with rocks and we bounce along, the dry air is getting hotter as we pass thirsty, desolate fields, where sparse crops are desperate for rain.
We reach the first school, Kajiampau Primary, where the diligent students have created neat rock borders around spindly shrubs and planted thousands of gangly samplings, which will be wonderful when they grow into towering, shady trees.
The Principle is proud to introduce us to each classroom of children, immaculate in their green, blue and gold uniforms. The students are intrigued by their visitors from the U.S and U.K and especially inspired by Njoki, a Kenyan girl who is now very a successful, after studying hard and gaining a scholarship.
We leave Kate and her camera and Kayce and her notepad to interview and photograph the girls who received the pad kits in April, to follow up the effects of menstrual hygiene on their school attendance.
This model rural school of 200 students is well established compared to the next isolated school, which has only been going for a few years through support of the Presbyterian churches in the district and their sister churches in the US.
As we pull up next to the mud brick and tin latrines, my head is spinning with the sweltering heat. Principal Benson greets us, with a beaming smile and unbridled enthusiasm for the progress the school is making.
He shows us the dank, mud brick, dirt floor classrooms, his cheery office and the staff room, which doubles as a store room for sacks of millet.
I’m swept up by Benson’s optimism as he demonstrates an English lesson on a wonky blackboard about the difference between ‘two’, ‘too’ and ‘to’ with the sentence: “The boy was too sick to eat two bananas!” We laugh at our cleverness then the impact of the sad sentence hits me.
He proudly shows us the new classrooms under construction, being built from concrete bricks and concrete floor, which will be rendered in plaster; a design similar to the new houses of my former hometown on the Sunshine Coast, Australia. Our group is impressed by the vision of the future for this humble school and Sharon is deeply touched by the good work underway through the funding of her church.
Suddenly we walk behind the buildings to discover all the school children assembled under a gigantic tree, sitting quietly at their desks, waiting for the visitors to arrive. With a shortage of seating, the children carry their desks from room to room and outside, as they need them.
Community members, teachers, mothers, the pupils and us guests all participate in this important meeting, as Sharon brings greetings from their partners in United States and some of the children give a musical performance.
When the children are dismissed, Njoki talks to the adults about the possibility of bringing eco-friendly bio-gas latrines to the school and everyone is curious about how recycling waste into energy would work.
I return to the car to scoff a boiled egg and bread and swig some water. I’m fading fast; drowsy with the heat, hungry, thirsty, tired, busting to pee, and so wimp out on hiking with the children to collect water from the river. I thought I was a hardy traveller but now I’m starting to doubt if I have the stamina for this tough fieldwork. I’m feeling like a weakling dependent on creature comforts, my cups of tea and my sitting-down, indoor “work” at my laptop.
We visit another school, a Poly Tech College, where adolescents learn trades such as carpentry, mechanics, computing, tailoring and hairdressing. The teachers are proud of their simple buildings and basic equipment and the success of their students. I am filled with respect for their determination and achievements in these harsh rural conditions, compared to the luxuries we enjoy in the UK.
The bone-crunching drive home along the rocky roads feels like hours and I am exhausted and mentally and physically shaken up to the point of incoherence and tears when I fall into bed, tormented by a sense of inadequacy and self-doubt, wondering if I could ever handle working in remote communities of such desperate deprivation and poverty. The world is not fair, I cry to myself.
Sleep has restored my sanity and confidence. I am ready to face another day. I am travelling back to Nairobi, to my comfortable room in the delightful Khweza B&B. It’s a four hour pleasant drive through the fascinating countryside, sitting up the back of a jaunty 12-seater van, lost in reverie, enjoying the African gospel songs.
Back at Khweza, the staff are so sweet and kind; Carol and Daniel on the front desk, Wilson and Zedekiah on hospitality, Mary, who cleans the bathrooms beautifully, Abigail, the chef, and Grace and Victor serving meals at the rooftop restaurant that overlooks miles of high rise buildings, workmen hammering, precariously balanced on planks, amid splashes of purple jacaranda.
The friendly staff makes me feel at home and handsome young Wilson with his dazzling smile is teaching me Swahili. But that’s another story.