II. The Freedom to Choose

As our bus approached the school every morning, we were greeted by a crowd of kids bouncing with excitement, shouting ‘mono’ or ‘mzungu’ with big smiles on their faces. It wasn’t long before we figured out that this meant ‘white person’ in Swahili. The first person to step off the bus was usually tackled with hugs, handshakes, and curtseys, which only continued throughout the day. 

To the football coaches’ disappointment, the fields were usually never ready. Grass was way overgrown and the men in charge of setting up the event tents were nowhere in sight. Eager to help, the kids would go running out into the fields with their hoes and start hacking away at the grass. The tent guys would pull up just as tea and cakes were being served, and in no time, the tents were up and the DJ was spinning Afrobeats.

The days started the way they ended— with a massive dance party. Out in the villages, there is typically no electricity, so these two big speakers blasting out music, thanks to a generator, created a lot of excitement. We would start with about 300 camp participants in the morning, and just a few hours in, we were joined by hundreds more people from around town getting down in the mid-day heat. Everyone’s unbridled enthusiasm as they jumped and stomped and jirated was infectious. Even Abdul, who has so deservingly been given the title #morethanadriver, was out there shaking it.

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………

Our days were dictated by spontaneous dance parties and looming rain storms, but in the moments of tranquility, I managed to have meaningful conversations with girls about the barriers to menstrual hygiene management in school. Taking refuge from the sun or the rain, we sat under the trees or in an empty classroom and talked about how the absence of toilet paper and doors on the latrines pose additional challenges to managing one’s menstrual period. We discussed how difficult it can be to focus in class when pads were unaffordable that month and it becomes impossible to think about anything other than the fact that blood may leak through your uniform as you sit at your desk; and how on days where the teachers have no pads to offer a girl who has just begun her period, the only solution is to send her home.

When I asked the girls how they typically manage their menstrual periods, most explained that they use disposable pads or simply, their knicker. My fear that they would be entirely uninterested in a reusable pad began to sink in. But before I pulled the kits out and began the demonstration, I asked one final question: “If you could change one thing about your school to make menstrual hygiene management easier, what would it be?” At least one girl in every group shared that they wished for teachers in school to show them how to make reusable menstrual pads. With what was probably a look of overexcitement, I was able to answer their request right then and there with the pad making kits we had spent so much time preparing in the days prior. My fears had been misplaced.

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………

Over lunch one day, Evan shared with us a few things he learned about the community of Oyam in his time working with GHNU. He explained that, even when the people of Oyam have the financial means to live in a more advanced brick home, they often prefer to continue living in mud huts. This comment got me thinking. Had we been so ignorant to assume that they would want to live in what we had deemed a more suitable living facility? If they are more content living in their huts, why are we working so hard to provide them with the resources to move out? I felt ashamed that I had not even considered that maybe they are happy with the way things are. Dr. Wipfli responded to my dilemma quite simply: because they deserve the freedom to choose.

The freedom to choose. This simple phrase helped clarify the purpose of my project. The point wasn’t for every girl to walk away from camp and use reusable pads for the rest of their lives. The point was to empower girls, to provide them with the tools to make reusable pads if they please, to give them a new way to manage their periods, to give them the choice. And what an incredible freedom to have.

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………

Exhausted upon our nightly return to Lira, we would roam the red mud roads enveloped in clouds of smoke coming off the hot grills, occassionally jumping out of the way for passing boda-bodas (motorcycles) and chickens that had gotten loose as the vendors enjoyed the music coming out of someone’s portable speaker. We would each end up with a piping hot Rolex in hand. Like ‘roll eggs,’ a Rolex is the Ugandan version of a breakfast burrito which includes egg, tomatoes, and onion wrapped in a fresh piece of chapati. After a 14-hour day of work (and dancing), these were a welcomed treat.

 

by Simone St.Claire

Story continued here.


Simone St. Claire received her Master of Public Health degree at USC in 2017. Her project, “Menstrual Hygiene Management of Secondary School Girls in Oyam,”  was supported by the Anderson Family Global Health Immersion Fellowship

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