Being an old bloke, I don’t often think about periods. But I have to, and during the course of my work, I have seen some fairly unsavoury methods of dealing with menstruation. However, a local charitable, non-government organisation called Project Luangwa has tackled the problem of sanitary protection in this corner of Zambia and come up with an intriguing solution.
Forget rags and bits of cloth. The absorbing power of material made from bamboo fibre is much better than cotton. Local women make the pads with three layers of bamboo and cover them in brightly patterned fabric. They have “wings” which fasten around the panty gusset and keep the pad secure. They are low profile and are virtually invisible under clothing.
They are designed to be washed and re-used. But no girl wants to advertise to the neighbourhood that she is having her period by pegging out pads on the washing line.
Instead, Project Luangwa has designed an inconspicuous cloth bag which has pockets inside to house the pads which have been washed. This can hang on the line without attracting attention. You can use the pads for two years or more, so despite the initial outlay, they end up being much cheaper than buying disposable protection every month.
How do you disseminate this brilliant idea? Project Luangwa sponsors Girls’ Clubs in the local schools, so girls who attend can hear about the pads and hear about their friends’ experience of using them. But many girls don’t go to school and their mothers haven’t heard of the new style re-usable pads. So Project Luangwa held an awareness raising session on Saturday afternoon, under a massive tree in Fwalu.
Members of SEKA, a local theatre group, dressed up in cast-off Somerset NHS Paramedic uniforms and piled into the back of a pickup truck. They drove down the main street beating drums, attracting lots of interest from the population. One man was wearing a scary mask and he terrified the local children when he jumped down from the vehicle.
The insistent drumming made me want to get up and dance, but I left this to the experts (since he passed on, I have stopped doing my Prince impression, much to the relief of casual spectators). I sat on a comfortable seat with a good view of events and took photographs instead. Between dances, there were bits of drama to illustrate how having a period need not prevent you from living a normal life. Interestingly, several male actors had female roles and hammed them up to the delight of the audience.
The Girls’ Clubs each did a dance. Four small girls lined up opposite four larger girls (who were adopting the male role). In turn, each pair danced towards each other, twitching their buttocks in time with the drums and thrusting their pelvises in a very provocative manner. “In the village, this often leads to sex,” said someone sitting next to me. Well, that might reduce the need for sanitary protection for nine months, I thought.
The best dancers were rewarded by spectators stuffing money into the performers’ chitengis. These are brightly coloured pieces of cloth wrapped around the dancers’ waists, designed to draw particular attention to jiving buttocks.
After an hour, there must have been a crowd of 250 people of all ages watching the show. Now was the time to hit them with the educational message. Ladies showed the audience the pads, demonstrating how they fitted onto panties and how they could be dried inconspicuously. Then Karen came out and did some mathematics to show that re-using these pads saves money in the long run. She wrote out the figures on sheets of white paper and placed these on the ground. “How much will you save after two years use of the pads?” she asked the masses. Although a few women hazarded guesses, it was a man who got the answer correct and won a sanitary protection pack.
When money is tight, people are more concerned about the present, rather than planning ahead to make savings in the future. The girls seemed to get the message, but I suppose the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If the pads are culturally acceptable and the girls can see their value, the initiative will succeed.
All the girls who participated in the dancing and singing received a free sanitary protection pack. Already they are planning how to celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day next year. No jokes about this being a red-letter day, please.