Caution: This Post Is About Menstruation

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about women’s issues. Of course it’s entwined in my everyday activities, as I move around Kamachumu Division as a mzungu female, but I don’t really count; the two are mutually inclusive, no-one will ever see me as just female. For the Tanzanian, for the African woman, it’s different. I am constantly confronted with their strength.

That's right.. she IS your equal!

One woman I know was given a loan by World Vision to buy a plot of land and build a house of her own after her husband left her. Now she works tirelessly for her children and her community. Having paid back the monetary loan, she is now paying back the support she was given in her time of need.

Two inspiring ladies, Imisa, VSO Tz's Gender Rep, and the leader of a women's group in Karagwe

In Gambia, we would often hear the men muttering about “50/50”. It was a big joke to them, and an annoyance, that women were favoured by projects and funders. Here, you will hear people stress the importance of gender mainstreaming in one breath, only to turn around and grumble about having to include women all the time. People in countries like Gambia and Tanzania, donor darlings, quickly learn which words they need to say.

A quick photographic shout-out to my beloved Gambian and Senegalese ladies (these pictures bring tears to my eyes, and there are so many I’ve left out):


Haddy Faal

Me and my namesake, Alimatou Badji

My beautiful Kaur ladies

Some of the girls at my Senegalese village stay

Okay, I promised to write about menstruation. Periods are acknowledged as a barrier to girls’ education in developing countries. In Africa, sex and reproductive health are still rather taboo subjects, leading to a lack of education for girls. Combined with the lack of money to buy sanitary products, and sometimes insufficient toilet facilities at school, girls often stay home during their period. It’s unfathomable to me to be limited in such a way. Of course there are many other issues which many women worldwide deal with, like cramps and heavy or irregular periods. I think that at the very least, the average girl with the average period should be able to function during that time.

Girls and women everywhere should be able to access sanitary products, end of story.

Which sanitary products? First of all we have the pad. Makes me cringe, personally! Now that is an invitation to constantly have your friend walk behind you checking for leakage. On the flight from London to Dar es Salaam in October, I sat next to a Tanzanian woman who, unfortunately for both of us, was on her rag (a word I hate but hey, gotta mix it up!). I have no idea how many times she leapt up, grabbing an old-school 3 inch-thick pad, asked me to check her skirt, and booked it down the aisle to the bathroom. I understand, of course, having done it all before, but here’s the thing: it’s not really necessary!

Whatever brand name you choose, Keeper, Diva Cup, the menstrual cup is, if there is a God, God’s gift to women. And the environment. And, as this article seems to think, against the health risks of tampons (I’m not that convinced – tampons are pretty great too).

As much as biodegradable, organic tampons and pads may be available in hippie stores in the West, I don’t exactly think they’ll stopper the flow (pardon the pun) of plastic and chemical waste generated by our monthly requirements*. But menstrual cups? They last up to ten years (unless you lose them, more on that in a minute), and can you imagine the money you save! So convenient. Seriously, I am not ashamed to say that my Diva Cup is one of my favorite things. Pop it in, no worries for 10+ hours, and I definitely don’t notice it’s there.

I can’t believe I had never heard about them until January 2010. Pre-Africa, I was in Northern Alberta picking pinecones and my dear roomie Meriel informed me of the existence of the menstrual cup. I thought, well, that’s a bit gross! But it turns out her advice was spot on (ha..).

The seasons changed, I traveled from Manning, Alberta, to Edmonton, Jasper, hit Vancouver for the Olympics, hitched down the West Coast to Northern California, back to Vancouver and was ready to roll out for [what would have been] an epic summer tree-planting with my best friends. Fate, or something, intervened.

The day before I was to leave for Northern BC I was offered an internship under the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)’s IYIP program. It wasn’t something I could turn up. I went to be briefed by an internship coordinator in Vancouver and, chatting about Africa prep, the menstrual cup came up again! It was a perfect solution: who wants to carry 6 months worth of tampons with them to Gambia when you can pack one plastic cup instead?

The only problem with the menstrual cup: sometimes, they get lost. I was on a ten-day village stay in rural Senegal, with rudimentary Wolof, no phone credit to speak of, minimal power, no running water, no way to get back to the city until the organisation showed up (they were 3 days late). What do I do? Drop my menstrual cup down the squat toilet on Day 1 of my period.

In the scene that followed, I cursed, ran panicking out into the compound of 30+ people yelling in French that I had a serious problem (trying to find the one girl who had gone to school, thus spoke French – the 17 year old 3rd wife of the village’s 60+ year old Imam), cried openly (cultural no-no), closing by Isatou and I laughing hysterically. Thankfully, she had a stash of pads. She gave me 3.

Luckily Shelly arrived for a visit only a month later and was able to bring me another cup. Luckily Leanne had the forethought to pack tampons as backup.

The cup that Shelly brought me lasted about 5 months. I only noticed it was gone three weeks after the fact. I think it a) got eaten by the dog of the friends I was staying with or b) rolled under the bed and got forgotten. I didn’t ever mention this to said friend. If you’re reading this Laura, I’m sorry. I was too embarrassed to mention it. I hoped that the dog had eaten it. (As far as I know the dog didn’t get sick…)

Back to Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue’s gem Co-op du Grande Orme to buy my 3rd menstrual cup. This one’s lasted a year! Knock on wood! (I did pack emergency tampons for Tanzania and, like an umbrella stops it from raining, I think it has prevented me from losing the cup).

If I was ambitious I would calculate all the money, trees, energy, etc., that I have saved. I don’t need to, though, because I am already convinced.

Bringing this back to African women, I wish menstrual cups were available and acceptable. Fewer to produce, fewer to dispose of, cheaper, discrete. But in a society that may have a hard time accepting tampons, how would the menstrual cup go over?

Luckily, I’m not the first person to think of it. In Kenya and South Africa they are promoting menstrual cups for poor women.

If you have managed to make it to the end of this blog post, thank you. Popping into the store to buy a box of tampons, such a basic thing for us, is impossible for so many. So consider your options, just for a moment. Consider making the switch, for women, for the environment, mostly for yourself. Personally, I’m going to keep reading and find out how I can support initiatives to bring the menstrual cup to Africa!

[Or, as this article points out, perhaps we are again forcing our Western ideas.. duh duh duhhhh]

A women's group down in the village of Kizinga (near Kamachumu)

*These guys in Rwanda think that locally produced banana-fibre pads are the answer – COOL.

Leave a comment


  1. Lisa

     /  April 20, 2012

    Keeper changed my life, Margaret. Wish I’d had it when I was a teenager. How much money I could have saved! Great post, BTW.

    • I think this looks like a very good thing and I’m considering biyung one. I have one question, though. When you are out in public all day and need to change it do you just take it out while you’re in the stall and then go wash it in the sink and go back in the stall to insert it, or do you just empty it and re-insert it and wash it later? It seems like it would gross people out if they saw you washing it in a public sink. I’m thinking about days I have to work all day and how I would handle it. Maybe I would just have to wear a tampon on those days.

      • I have a few answers! Although they say that you should empty the cup after 10 hours, I often let it go longer without any trouble, similar to how when I used tampons I would sometimes leave them for longer than 4 hours. Now I suppose there is a small risk of TSS but from what I’ve read, the cups pose a lower risk of TSS especially once your body has become used to it.

        Ideally, what you would do is use a wheelchair bathroom (or any bathroom with a sink and toilet in one room) – it takes a bit of searching but most public areas have one of those somewhere. But I have, in emergencies, emptied the cup in the toilet, put it back in and rinsed it later. Or even give it a slosh with my water bottle into the toilet (don’t drop it…). Not ideal but it works! Also, “emergencies” happen so seldom for me that I’ve never found it a problem. Maybe once every 3 periods do I have a day that’s heavy enough to have to empty it during the day.

    • It has once or twice but that was because I had an unallusuy heavy month and it had overflowed anyway. It takes a bit of practise, but you get to know your flow and how long it takes to fill. It doesn’t spill if you’re slow and careful. take it out when sitting on the loo so if any spills thats where it will go. it really isn’t much more messy than tampons or pads imo. and its more convenient as you can leave them in longer. I empty mine when I get up and when I go to bed

  2. I LOVE MY DIVA CUP!!!! lol I tell evreyone that even mentions being on their period about it and how wonderful it is! I am an earth warrior…and being a woman and caring so damn much about the environment but then WASTING so many tampons (trees?!) each month for something that I have no control over (there is NO WAY that I trust those vaccinations that stop your period: I am not a fan of bleeding every month but it reminds me that I am not pregnant so we have a mutual understanding of it’s purpose thus far) was hard to stomach. The DIVA cup lets me have my “monthly cycle” without feeling like I’m destroying forests at the same time. Get those things over there if they can have toilet pots they must not be shy about emptying their flow twice a day! (I realise far deeper than that but if I can help in any way to get them over there or anywhere being used far more often I am IN! ❤

    • Amy

       /  April 21, 2012

      woops…toilet kettles

      • I absolutely -LOVE- my Diva Cup! I could sing psiares of it all day long. It makes it so that I don’t have to carry any menstrual supplies, it lasts 12 hours at a time, I am ‘saving the planet’, and it feels tons better than a tampon. I personally have one night of really heavy flow that the cup can’t handle, but I can prevent problems by using a pad as well. It’s not enough to make me not use it though (no tampon could handle either, so I don’t feel ‘bad’ about it)If you are skeptical, figure out how long it would take you to spend $32 in supplies, and then commit yourself to try it for that long, if after your trial period (ha, ha, get it) you don’t like it, you haven’t lost any money and you can switch back. But I don’t think you will want to. 🙂

  3. Esther

     /  May 2, 2012

    I really this post, i have known about menstrual cups for some time now, but being in a developing country here in Tanzania, i can herdly find one around, i would like to try out the cup and get done with tampons. Am not sure how i will get one but i really need it. I cant imagine all the money i will save once i get it.
    Its unfortunate that its not widely accepted in Africa, but am independent minded and what matters is myelf.

    • i’m curious about this too. i srttaed running 2 years ago. i’ve since completed 4 marathons and just recently a 50k, and am now training for an ironman, over the past 18 months or so, i’ve only had 2 or 3 periods. they lasted from a few hours to a day or two. i’ve lost about 10 lbs in that time, and i’m still on the high end of the healthy BMI range (about 25). i eat a healthy diet and my caloric intake is high enough to sustain my activity. i consider myself pretty healthy- i rarely get sick, i have an abundance of energy (i don’t take stimulant supplements or caffeine), and i don’t have any medical conditions. i’m currently 29 years old. i don’t know what to make of the loss of my periods . . . i guess i just don’t worry about it, since i’m in good shape and feel fine.

    • I have been thinking hard about your comment Esther – although it seems like there are a few manufacturers in South Africa, I can’t tell if they even distribute there, let alone anywhere else in Africa. I wish I had more time to dedicate to this issue, it’s just such a good solution… so if you find anything in Tz, let me know so I can spread the word!

  4. I have a Diva Cup and I love it. The Diva Cup is made out of silicone, whereas the Keeper is made out of latex, which I have an allergy to. I also have cloth menstrual pads, some of which I made myself in 2004 out of old towels and am still using. When I’m cramping I don’t like to have anything inside of me, so the Diva Cup is not always convenient. If much of African culture is against anything inside the vagina, like tampons or Ms. Diva Cup, then cloth menstrual pads may be a good alternative. They are also incredibly cheap, and could be made by a women’s cooperative very easily. Would just need to buy the snaps for the wings, and voila…


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