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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Pole Sana – So Sorry

Pole (po-lay) – sorry; sana  (sah-nah) – so

They stole all the planks from your bridge? Pole!

You’d think that as a Canadian, people saying “’sorry” all the time wouldn’t bother me.  It would seem normal.

In Canada, it’s normal for us to apologize if we get too close to someone in a line, or if someone steps on our foot.  The slightest space infringement inspires an orgy of sorries.  Avoiding confrontation is the name of the game.

Here in Tanzania, sorry is used in a completely different way.  For me it’s like the British always asking “you okay?”  It never ceases to startle me; I interpret it as “oh my goodness, you look awful, are you alright?!” when in fact they are merely asking “how are you?”

Socket can't handle a cooker? Pole!

To me, “sorry” is an apology, an admission of guilt, no matter how misplaced!  Here it’s an expression of sympathy: I feel sorry for you.  It’s used in the most obnoxious way, usually when you’re just about ready to explode with frustration, your face is turning red, and you’re about to a) cry or b) start swearing violently.

Let me take a moment to go back to the Gambia.  A person hard at work in the fields is always greeted with a hearty “Jerejef!”, roughly equivalent to “thank you!” or “congrats!” In Canada we would say good work, good job, keep it up.  Here in Tanzania?  Pole sana.  So sorry about the work.

Jeregenjef! (the plural form) - Threshing peanut in the afternoon sun

What? Why are you sorry? Yes, indeed, Tanzanians feel sorry for people working, exercising, studying, traveling, and basically anything that requires effort*.

At least pole sana is also used to console people.  This is the case when anything is sad, annoying, frustrating or painful.  Stub your toe or hit your funny bone?  Pole sana.  Your dog died?  Pole sana.  Got fired?  Pole sana.  Perhaps it’s culture shock, but pole sana quickly becomes one of the most annoying phrases around.

Unfortunately, the only way to beat em is to join em.  It’s culturally acceptable to apologize when you see someone doing a good job, as if it’s an awful shame that they’re weeding their garden.  It’s also a great opportunity to be seriously sarcastic when someone’s whining, or when you just don’t care!

It’s the government’s fault we can’t get enough grass for our cows.  Pole sana.  It’s raining so I couldn’t answer my phone.  Pole sana.  The town didn’t pay its power bill, so we don’t have water for two weeks.  Pole #^$%ing sana!!!

That, my friends, is why VSO Volunteers in Tanzania use the phrase “pole sana”, possibly more than the average Tanzanian.

Boat sank? Pole sana.

*I have recently decided that since Tanzanian children work so incredibly hard, they are pretty much done with it by the age of 20, at which point many people simply relax – the solution is to have many children, the best way to get the work done! [I realize this sounds awfully judgemental. It’s a mostly sarcastic response to people’s constant cries of “Tanzanians are lazy”! This usually comes from Tanzanians. I always vehemently disagree. “We are inherently lazy” – now that is the worst, and most untrue, excuse I’ve ever heard.]

Run For The World

February 26th, I will be running a half marathon at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, out of the town of Moshi. I have been training hard (with a break for the month of December – oops). Support me by donating to VSO here!

Flocks of children have been entertained by my daily runs around Kamachumu (elevation: 1400m with steep hills galore), and I have found them useful for motivation, whether it’s racing boys up a hill, kicking a soccer ball on the way by, or clapping my hands along to their songs as I pass. Who needs an iPod when you’re the Pied Piper?!*

This won’t be my first race in Africa. Something like the third week I was in the Gambia, I took part in the annual Njawara Marathon, which raises money for the Health Centre. We were still in language training, and in the morning I’d head out and try to run a few kilometres in my long linen pants and t-shirt. The shirt was a gift from Crystal out of a Molson box but I took it for granted that the locals wouldn’t understand “Party Animal”.  In a country that’s 95% Muslim, you tend to keep covered as a matter of course. Running in long pants in sand is hard enough as it is, then add greeting every single person you see. It would go like this: How are you? I am here! How’s the farm? It’s here! The family? They’re there! I hope there’s nothing wrong with them? Nope! Good job for doing that farm work! Thanks, you are running! Yes, I’m running! At that point you would have to start the same conversation with the next person. Even if you saw someone far across a field, you would be expected to yell out to them, clasp your hands in an air-handshake and say “Jerejef!”, expressing how impressed you are at the work they’re doing.

At first the endless greetings seem at best, a waste of time, at worst, paralyzing, when you just can’t remember the proper responses. After a while it becomes a safety net. You know you’re safe, even with white skin, when you’ve greeted every person with a smile on your face. They will come looking for you if you don’t turn up. They’ll come looking for you either way, actually. Here in Tanzania that understanding has served me so well. It even has the ability to turn the tide on a bad day; walking down the street and being cajoled into smiling at everyone and yelling mpao! (mm-pa-OH – goodbye in the local Kihaya language) at the little children is an unbeatable mood lifter.

What with my mostly useless “training”, race day in Njawara crept up rather quickly. I don’t think I mentioned: the “marathon” is not. Men run 11km and women run 5km. Kids run 3km. All the participants got into the manure spreader on the tractor to be driven out to the start points. Prophetically, the village that the girls’ race started from was called Dares Salaam. I’m convinced it was closer to 7km back to Njawara. All along the way, the villagers lined the road and yelled “Toubab! Hurry! Don’t give up!”

I felt pretty awful as I crossed the finish line; thank goodness Leanne was there to take care of me for the next hour. I think I would have kept running straight through the crowds and tents if someone (Sambas, I think, who became a good friend) hadn’t caught me and directed me over to the table to sign my name. The sand and the midday sun were vicious rivals, but I managed third out of seven girls! For the rest of my stay, I was known as the girl who ran in the marathon. Apparently it was even on TV! Way to become popular, albeit while looking completely ridiculous:

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This time around I have stepped up the training to match the intensity (a real half marathon of 21km) and importance of the race. Last time I ran it to build relationships and to prove that a not-so-tiny white girl could run. It worked. This time, I’m joining the VSO Tanzania team to raise money for Education programming and I have even made a fundraising page. Education is certainly the most important cause in Tanzania and VSO has traditionally made a huge difference in the area. Many successful Tanzanians recall VSO teachers from their school days. The school system in Tanzania is a mess of high fees, underqualified, underpaid teachers, and the preposterous system that Kiswahili is taught in Primary school, switching spontaneously to English in Secondary. The system flat-out doesn’t work. VSO Tanzania is working in a multiple-pronged approach, addressing policy, training teachers, and some actual in-classroom teaching. It’s an initiative that will help this country to step out of corruption and poverty if the players coordinate well.

I have set a modest goal of $500 but I hope to surpass it! Please donate a few dollars to support VSO Tanzania’s Education programming by clicking here. In exchange… I promise to only pass out after the finish line! I will need Venessa and Tijana to catch me (I don’t mind if it’s with one hand and a Serengeti in the other), but experience goes to show that some Tanzanians yelling mzungu! would be helpful as well!

*Instead I use my iPod to drown out the endless thumping bass from the local bars when I’m trying to sleep.

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.

Why Roommates Are My Best Friends

What do the Tuki English-Swahili Dictionary and a mosquito net have in common?

Tuki dictionaryBed net

They are both in my first line of defence against scary insects. FYI, I do not consider mosquitoes scary. Scary is the massive (nearly 3 inches), flying cricket-thing that invaded my study session at 11:30 pm tonight. Normally I have my roommates deal with any pest problems; Leanne captured the roaches in Njawara, I called Elliot in tears over an ant invasion, and Bryce and Kent used to take care of any birds and bats in the basement. I have also resorted to neighbours (earwigs in the lawnmower) and guests (earwig in the chives I was chopping). Bonus points if I was standing on a chair or jumping up and down with a disgusted expression on my face, flapping my hands like a chicken.

Our first week in Njawara, Leanne and I were convinced there was a scorpion in our room. It had enlarged front leg-pincer things, and moved very, very fast. The first night we saw it, I ended up standing on the head of my bed laughing hysterically and screaming, when I lost my footing and fell, onto my already-tucked in mosquito net, ripping it out of the ceiling. Luckily our room was so small that Leanne could step directly from her bed (where she was hiding under her net) to mine and help me re-attach the fallen soldier. We slept soundly knowing that the “scorpion” couldn’t get into our beds. The following night when we called the boys to help dispose of our unwanted guest, we were told that it was “not a scorpion, …but somehow similar”. Read: “silly white girls, it looks nothing like a scorpion!”

Tonight I went carefully over my options: 1. use my strainer to capture the insect against the wall, slide to the floor and then somehow kill it 2. spray it with insecticide 3. sneak past it into my room and deal with it in the morning. In the end, I sprayed it, while cringing excessively (I really hate killing things!), then threw not only the big Tuki, but the smaller Kiswahili-English one as well, at the dying bug. Count: two crickets and a fly for the Tuki.

Now, safely inside my bed net, I am still twitching at any potential insect-movement, and contemplating my ability to live alone in the tropics (or anywhere!). Thankfully I have internet and texting capability: the cricket arrived in the middle of a chat with Eileen, in which I was describing my sweet new digs;

Eileen: Are you in your village???

And you have internet?????

me: yes, internet in my HOUSE!

my house is super super cute

i’m going to post pics soon on my blog

i am really really OH GOD

FLYING INSECT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

BIG ONE

eeek!

So, watch out everyone. Even if we’re not roommates anymore, you still have to support me when it comes to scary insects. But I’m not concerned, I know you will. And that’s part of why I love you guys so much.

Jack enjoys cooking

Just because Jack is a pest doesn't mean I should try and squish him with a book

Jamaa Rek: The Art of Acceptance

Yesterday, I was supposed to start pikipiki lessons. Instead, I practiced what I like to call “Africa mode”. In the Gambia, I learned to sink into it at essentially any time, but mostly when traveling. We would have to leave our village (Njawara) on the gele-gele at 6am or earlier in order to get out to the main road. At sunrise, shivering in the rain, sitting in Kerewan waiting for the next vehicle, I would doze under a scarf, chat aimlessly with the girls waiting for school, and only when the shopkeepers emerged, enjoy a sugary milky coffee, beans and tapalapa (local French loaf). I came to enjoy those mornings watching the citizens of the North Bank come to life. I would, however, still walk the two hours home in the evening, to avoid waiting for the vehicle going back to Njawara, and to catch some alone time.

Goats on the road

Goats sleeping peacefully on the road during my pre-dawn sit in Kerewan

Here in Tanzania we haven’t had too much hurry-up-and-wait time… yet. We’ve also had so many fellow volunteers around at any given time that there’s always someone interesting to chat with.

Yesterday two things happened: people started leaving for their placements, and our In Country Training schedule came to an end. I spent the morning saying goodbyes and exchanging pictures at the VSO office, then took the daladala back to the hotel to wait for someone to pick me up to go to pikipiki lessons, “wait” being the optimum word. I put my jeans and sneakers on, grabbed my shiny white helmet, and trucked downstairs.

After a two-hour nap on the lobby couch, reading a magazine for kids, and watching the news on TV, I decided to give up and go back upstairs. A nice afternoon of pumzika (rest)! My phone calls had yielded little information.

Midday rest

Alagie, Leanne and Mike waiting for the midday sun to fade on our Gambia-Senegal bike tour

It’s a state of torpor, of suspended animation. You see people on the streets in this state; people in shops, in their offices. What’s the source? Is it the red tape, the wading through quicksand to get things done? Maybe the heat, the empty calories, or, to put it in a positive light, a cultural ease of acceptance, free of fifteen-minute time slots and eating lunch at our desks. Perhaps our Western mindset could use a shot of Africa mode. Not too much though, because I would hate to have to wait for the late-night buses in Montreal to fill up before they leave the first stop.

NATC meeting

This is why I like Africa; sleeping in meetings is okay