Guest Post: My Birthday, My Period and Paying it forward

Menstruation: The menstrual cycle of a woman.

The experience of starting my period was generally a fairly pleasant one. I remember my mom mentioning in a few sentences about what was going to happen but not detail. The onset happened when I was in 8th grade, as a student at Oshigambo High School – which was run by Finish missionaries. Although the pep talking from my mom lacked detail, the missionaries (who on the whole were females) and older girls did a great job of opening up some conversation on the subject, thereby assisting in preparing the younger ones. The environment was thus very nurturing and supportive for a teen-aged young lady. In a nutshell, I was fortunate to come from a very supportive family – from parents who were committed to ensure our basic needs were met to my two elder brothers who started  working at the time who would often send me care packages and money to buy the items that I needed. I felt prepared for this new phase of womanhood in life.

Unfortunately this experience is the exception to a typical rural girl and disadvantage girl and woman, not just in Namibia but around the world. Many do not have access to sanitary pads. They either cannot afford them or such essential items are simply not accessible where they live.

It is hard enough that these young girls have to deal with not having a basic need as a woman but are also now dealing with the social stigma and the cultural attitudes that menstruation is dirty and shameful.  The experience around a young lady’s period should not be one that brings fear, worry, shame and anxiety. This should be a time to celebrate womanhood. The onset of a menstrual cycle is supposed to be a sense of pride to every woman, dare I say human being as it constitutes the whole conception of life from the ovary. Our period is a reminder that we are uniquely responsible for being the vessel which brings life into this world.  This is therefore  a confidence and Self-love issue.

I read an article in the Confidente which was utterly heart-breaking. The article vividly painted a bleak picture of the situation where girls stay at home for days for lack of provision of pads. In other cases others use materials that are not only dangerous but equally misfitting for this day and age – the 21st century. As per such article, they use old clothes and sew them together in an attempt to come up with something that they perceive to be some resemblance of a sanitary pad. These improvisations become difficult to use especially during the rainy season and bring an onset of infections. This is not only a women’s health issue but one of general public health.

When I read that heart-wrenching article I knew I had to do something. I wondered aloud: “Why are we not talking about this issue on a national scale? A world wide scale even?” decided at the same time to send the same to my family, friends and acquaintances.

In my reflections I realized that it is not only rural or disadvantaged women who are faced with the issue of menstruation and shame. My daughter Nelao, shared with me how she carried shame about her period during her early high school years. She expressed feeling anxious about forgetting an extra pad or feeling like the others would find out she was on her period and make fun of her. I thought I had prepared my daughter well but because of society she too fell prey to social and cultural stigma that need urgent eradication. If you take a look at television and media in general, the period is still not something of celebration. We still tip toe around the subject. Just take a look commercial advertisements for pads. They are always flowery, delicate and meek. There is usually nothing powerful or proud about them.

Visiting my daughter in Chicago. She introduced me to this little thing called the Diva Cup. I was slightly skeptical at first. I warmed up to the idea then quickly saw its brilliance. So many women could benefit from having one of these cups which are safe and reusable. Even more exciting are the growing companies of African made products, like Afripads (they make re-useable menstrual kits) and Makapads who make disposal pads out of paper waste. These are still relatively expensive and beyond the reach of most Namibian women apart from the fact that they are difficult to find especially for rural areas. But we have to start somewhere and this is going to be the GREAT BEGINNING. WHY, you would surely ask!

It is my birthday today. I turned 50 years old today. Old? I turned 50 years young today. Every year I ask myself: How can I make a difference? This year is significantly special. Half a century is a watershed. Less inhibiting and opens up the courage to think and talk about that oh so taboo subject. Menopause!  I haven’t started menopause yet but I know that it is near. For me menopause signifies an ending but also a beginning. The end of my, in science terms, “child bearing” years. I may not be able to bear children but I am now a mother on an entirely different playing field. I am mother to generations of children that have come after me.  I feel called upon to do something about this issue of menstruation.  And it is a responsibility I cannot shirk!

I have been very blessed in my life. The greatest way to show gratitude for ones blessings is to pay it forward.

On my fiftieth birthday, I have decided to plead to your consciences. I beg you not to give any gifts or cards. Instead, I am beginning A PADS PROJECT. It was conceived some time back and started as a family undertaking. We have been putting money aside and procured some supplies.  We want to start with rural and disadvantaged areas in the urban areas. For my birthday, I want you to donate to the thousands of young girls and women who don’t have access to this basic need. It’s not only a gift to the young lady but a gift to yourself and global community as well.

My brother Kondjeni always says “Onghalamwenyo oshinima hashi tambulafanwa” Life and growing is about passing it on / paying it forward. I am extremely optimistic and excited about being a woman at this specific time in history. We live in a time where we are starting to return to a sense of community. We are realizing that it truly does take a village to raise a child. As I reach this phase in my life where I began the process of passing my torch, I want to start with the very essence of womanhood.

Written in collaboration with Namupa Nengola and Nelao Nengola and Michael Kafidi

[If you feel moved to, I invite you to donate HERE. The donation link will have Nelao’s (me, its Nelao here) name on the link but she will make sure that it is delivered to Namupa]

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