“Are you training people in that skill?”
“Yes sirree. I’m very excited.”
“But are you doing training-of-trainers so other people can train people in that skill?”
“They should be able to do that, yeah. I make sure everyone understands the processes.”
“But are your trainers-of-trainers able to train trainers-of-trainers, or just trainers?”
“Uh … the first one, I think.”
“What about training trainers who can train trainers of trainers who ALSO train trainers of training trainers?”
“… I have no idea what you just said.”

PCV Louis Vayo, Grand Inquisitor of Sustainable Development, talking to me during IST in 2010


The troublesome thing about development work is that you can never dust off your hands and say, “FABU-TASTIC. JOB DONE. I’M OUT.” Take, for example, what happens when little girls become little women and begin their monthly cycles. Traditional culture would dictate any number of response behaviors depending on your tribe and homeland – some girls were given what amounts to an enormous diaper and told to stay in the house until they’re “clean” again. Others go “into the bushlands,” build a little shelter, and basically kneel over a secluded hole in the ground until there’s nothing left to dispose of. Some were permitted to remain in society, but with greater restrictions on the way they can interact or behave. Now, many girls are no longer subject to these sorts of restrictions. Does that mean all their problems are solved? No. Of course not.

Let’s set aside for the moment the fact that a disheartening number of young women aren’t entirely clear on what’s going on with their body when it starts to develop in this way (for example, some don’t realize this now means they can get pregnant, whether or not they’re legally betrothed/married.) If you’re not a woman, you may not realize, but sanitary products are expensive. Here, they’re all imported, so that makes them doubly so: in my area, you can expect to pay 150 shillings ($2) or so for a pack of 8 or 10 pads. (Using 2-3 per day, do the math.) By contrast, recall that 46% of families in Kenya live below the poverty line – $790 a year, or about 175 shillings per day. While disposable sanitary towels themselves may be expensive, so are school uniforms, or fancy dresses, or any of the sorts of clothes you’re expected to wear in polite society. So if you can’t afford to replace a dress if you “ruin” it, and you can’t afford any of the standard hygiene products to protect yourself, what’s a girl to do?

The answer is simple: stay home.

You would be shocked at the number of young women who routinely miss up to a week of school each month because they’re on their periods but can’t afford pads or disposable panty-liners. Truly. Virtually every girl/woman I’ve asked about this has missed at least a few days. It’s no wonder there is an achievement gap. With only about 20% of the students in my district passing the national exams given at the end of year 8 (eighth grade in America) and thus being allowed to attend high school, every day counts, and every little strike against girls puts them further and further behind.

Remember last year when I went West for a couple weeks? Part of what I did was help my colleague, Brianne, to facilitate a lesson about reusable sanitary pads and the hygiene needs of girls in the throes of puberty. (If you think that sounds like a living hell, you underestimate the joy and cleverness of her students.) I’m not the sort of homeopathic moon mother who thinks menstruation is a “monthly gift from The Goddess.” It’s a great nuisance that you cope with, like flossing, or paying your water bill. But there’s definitely a measure of pride that comes with teaching girls about their bodies and how to keep their normal growth cycles from interfering with their education. It’s something girls in my area could definitely use as well.

So I’m teaching them.

I’ve given half a dozen small seminars to community women, starting with the ladies who work in my clinic, then expanding to others who expressed interest following word-of-mouth referral. They’re taking this basic skill to community meetings, mosques, Bible study groups, youth clubs, after-school programs, and the quiet gatherings of all the women in their extended families during holidays. In the next few weeks, I’ll be taking it to health and Life Skills classes at several of the schools I work with. I’ll be putting “Make Your Own” kits in the hands of 50 girls (enough to make 2 pads each) and providing hands-on instruction. I’ll also give them info sheets, so they can teach their friends, mothers, and sisters.

Above: Three-layer leak-proof pad, pre-assembly. 10 minutes of sewing, one button or metal snap (which costs a penny), and you’re done.

I also hosted a Pad-a-thon, where I taught the process to several other Peace Corps volunteers from Coast Province, all of whom work with girls and/or in the school system. They, too, can now go out and teach others. Knowledge spreads.

Women here face innumerable social, political, economic, and cultural obstacles to things like education and career achievement. The simple biological act of being one shouldn’t have to be one more thing on top of the pile.

(NOTE: If you are a Peace Corps volunteer, VSO, or whatever, and YOU would like an easy-to-understand [five pages, with illustrations] instruction sheet on how to make your own sanitary pads from locally available products, e-mail me at mhumphreys10[at]gmail[dot]com. I have it in both English and Kiswahili, .doc file or .pdf.)