By the end of the week, I had worked closely with over 50 girls and provided kits to make reusable pads to over 200 more. They had shared the most intimate part of their lives with me and I could only empathize with a fraction of their struggle. Our focus groups looked a lot less like research and more like a group of girls sharing secrets between classes. I can’t even begin to describe the strength it took them to open up to me, a stranger, a ‘mono,’ and more than that, to treat me like one of their own. These girls are remarkable, to say the least.
As I was wrapping up the final pad making workshop, I noticed a small group of men glancing over and listening to our conversation. Before I walked away, one of the men called me over. As I approached, I noticed their sticks and hoes and figured they must be the groundskeepers. One of the men sheepishly asked if I would teach him how to make a pad as he would like to go home and show his wife and daughter. His friends couldn’t help but giggle, so I wasn’t sure if he was making some sort of a joke, but the look on his face told me he was quite serious about empowering the women in his household. And so we sat together in the grass, surrounded by a group of curious boys and men, as I taught him and then he taught me back how to make a feminine hygiene product. To take this initiative, in front of all his male colleagues, set a precedent for how men should treat the women in their lives. It took incredible courage and left an indelible mark on me.
Standing by the bus on the final day, I noticed a girl walking by, looking around for someone. I realized it was Robina, a girl I had met on the very first day of camp, and that she was looking for me. She had come in to my classroom as I was setting up my supplies and introduced herself, excited to see the games we had come up with. Only a few minutes later, a torrential rainstorm poured down on us. Kids were running all over school for shelter. The pathway between the classrooms was replaced by a rushing river of red mud that stained our pants up to our shins. When I was finally able to recruit a group of kids to come into my classroom for shelter, I noticed Robina was still there. The group of kids I gathered happened to all be primary school aged and their English skills were quite poor. Robina stepped up to the challenge, translating my exercise to the students and practically running the workshop by the end of the day. When I say I couldn’t have done it without her, I mean it.
Robina stayed by my side most of that final day. She was so excited to tell me that she had made her pad and that she was going to show her friends. Who knows how many girls I was truly able to impact that week, but if I was only going to impact one, I am so grateful it was Robina. I know she will go on and share the knowledge with her friends and demonstrate her leadership skills the way she did that day in the rain.
We celebrated our last night at a party hosted by Dr. Bob Achura, the director of GHNU. After a traditional dance performance and a bit of comedy by our in-house stand-up comedian, Dr. Bluetooth, a few people got up to give speeches. They spoke about the heart of everyone who had shared an incredible experience with the community of Oyam. We had become a family and shared a love for one another that no one was too shy to express. I feel that, I too, have a few people to thank.
To my team, you know who you are: thank you for showing me what it means to give of yourself entirely. Thanks to you, I feel revitalized and hopeful in these trying times our world faces. You have set a very high bar for what it means to be a friend and what it means to be a decent human being.
To the women who helped me run the focus groups: thank you for your patience and your openness. Thank you for sharing your personal struggles with menstrual hygiene in solidarity with the young girls we reached. You inspire me.
I could not be more grateful to Dr. Wipfli, my mentor, my friend, for believing in me and for believing in this project. She has shown me what it takes to be a champion in global health. And of course, Ray, an exceptional kid doing work that far exceeds what is expected of a boy his age.
And a final thank you to Abdul, #morethanadriver, and Christopher, our mascot. You are treasured. I think everyone can agree, the trip would not have been the same without you.
In the moments that language became a barrier and we could find no words to express ourselves, we resorted to the only local phrase we could remember: ‘apwoyo matek’, which means ‘thank you very much’. This became a greeting, a demonstration of appreciation, an expression of joy…as I struggle to find the words to express my gratitude for this experience, I will use that old trick and simply say: apwoyo, apwoyo matek.
by Simone St.Claire
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.