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):

Awa

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.

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Daladalas, Gelegeles, And How Learning Really Takes Place, Part I

I will warn you now that I have a fascination with public transportation. As such, blog entries about it will be way too long and drawn out, so bear with me… this comes from a girl who was fine with a two-hour commute each way when living in Montreal; oh the people-watching, the pages of writing and the books I read!

Mass in Eastern Senegal

Mass, driva of the most epic - and terrifying - gelegele ever

My first daladala trip in the regions happened today (check Peter & Debra’s and Ishwar’s blogs for accounts of the daladalas in Dar). I left the house later than I’d intended and walked to the roundabout to wait for a vehicle. I had wanted to get one starting in Kamachumu, in order to get a seat, but when a full vehicle arrived, I crowded up to the door… how could I resist! One man, tapping on the passenger seat window, said “mzungu!” (mazoong-goo = white person) and I thought he might be indicating that I could get the front seat. My first mistake, hesitation. Then the conducta tapped my bag as I attempted to climb in, so I took it off, and he grabbed it to take it in the back. A second loss of ground. Now, I almost waited to climb in, wanting to see my bag safely in the back.

In Senegal and the Gambia, there is an unwritten code that in a garas (anywhere you catch public transport), bags are not stolen. It’s worth the aparenti’s (the man who deals with money etc.) and driver’s reputation to keep the baggage in their charge safe. So while you wait for a vehicle to fill (and they do not leave until full!), you can leave your luggage on the roof and go off for hours to eat or shop, knowing it will be there when you get back. It is your responsibility not to be swayed by the aparenti’s constant jabbering that you will be leaving in five minutes, which he will do even when there are only three people waiting for a 15-passenger van. He does this in order to keep people from wandering away, because once you’ve claimed a seat and your luggage has gone on the roof, he really can’t leave without you. So he wants to scare his charges into staying close-by. If you are late, the aparenti gets really angry at you, as do all the other passengers. This rarely happens, however, because when there are just a few seats left to fill, he’ll amp it up to a fever pitch, running around yelling at people, the driver will start the engine, and idle near the gate for as long as it takes. At this point, you had better be in the vehicle, but the hurry-up-and-wait can be absolutely toxic when the exhaust is seeping in, the windows don’t open, and sweat is dripping down your legs.

Now, here I come to the main point of difference between Gambian and Senegalese gelegeles (gellygelly) and the Tanzanian daladalas. In terms of development, Tanzania seems to be mostly ahead of the game. Rules of the road do not fall in this category. In West Africa, when driving on a main road (i.e., with police checks), every passenger must have a seat, and it is strictly enforced. In Tanzania, this sort of safety regulation is ignored. My hesitation today caused me to have to stand, bent sideways, half sitting on an old man’s lap. The conducta carefully arranged my feet before squeezing himself in and slamming the door. As we set off, leaning wildly around steep curves, my proximity to the ceiling made me feel pretty sick. I was even forced to stop texting!

During the trip, people leaned on me, sat on me (a large woman, nonetheless, while I was propped sideways on a seat with metal digging into my hip), groped my boob (I don’t think it was intentional, his hand had nowhere else to go), and talked about me. “Mzungu, unaweza kusimama”. The literal translation is “white person, you are able to stop”, but I have no idea what he meant by that, since I was doing exactly what everyone else in the vehicle was doing. I was reminded of Leanne, in the Gambia, realizing that not every mention of “toubab” in her presence was about her. Rather, people could be talking about a “toubab car” or “toubab music video”; referring to anything Western. In this case, the man could well have been talking about the crowded vehicle and the stubborn refusal of Tanzanians to behave normally on the road. Once, sitting in a gelegele back to Njawara after a long day of travel, I got frustrated by a man going on and on about me. I turned around and made a snarky comment in Wolof, to which he threw his head back, laughing heartily, and said “toubab ku nuul, nga am”; “you are a black toubab”. It completely made my day.

In today’s daladala, having driven off the road onto something resembling a goat path, we all got out in to push through a mud-hole. When the men were pushing, I wanted to join but I knew it would be an exercise in futility, plus I’d be covered in mud. One man didn’t join in and sure enough, the conducta said, in Kiswahili, what are you, a woman?! Come push! Brilliant; an inkling of comprehension…!

When we finally rejoined the road, it was heaven. My nausea began to subside with the breeze coming in the window, and my hunch was confirmed: we had gone off the road to avoid a police checkpoint, because apparently, it is illegal to overstuff vehicles! We were stopped by a police piki, and they immediately forced about five people to get out of the car. They were left sitting on the side of the road, and I was finally sitting (with half my ass, anyway!) on a seat! When we picked up five more in the next village, my seat priority status just meant that someone had to sit on me rather than me sit on them. But that’s fine. I’ll take a bruised hip and being sat on by a fat lady in a white dress over nausea any day.