The Language of Shame

“Maybe if I said it in English, it would be easier.” That’s what I was telling myself on the walk home from school. The previous two days had been hectic, and I was tired of suffering, but I was afraid of the conversation that would get me out of the rut that I was in.

Picture this, I had just transferred schools, so I had no one to talk to, not about something so personal anyway. I wasn’t sure what kind of teachers the school had; they couldn’t be bothered to help in the previous school. Home, well, home was what you would expect a typical traditional African home with two old parents to be; tongues were to be tamed, and taboo subjects were to be avoided.

There I was, a 12-year-old girl who did not understand what was happening to her body, not entirely. I was in class 7, but it felt like I had skipped all my lessons from class 4 through 6. The topic on reproduction had passed me because our science teacher in the previous school had decided sitting in class and filing her nails was more important.

She had instructed us to read our books without disturbing her. She said she was teaching us to be independent. According to her, we shouldn’t rely on the teacher’s understanding of a topic. Funny, I thought that was how it was supposed to work, but what did I know?

This negligence led me to this moment. I was walking home, wearing a pad that my science teacher in the school had given me. I know now that if I had asked her for more, she would have given them to me, but at that time, I was ashamed.

My First Time

On a hot Thursday afternoon in January 2008, my body started complaining after a cross-country and games session. Everything that could hurt, ached. I had never exercised so intensely, and had it not been for the rumbling in my stomach; I would have dismissed the pain as a result of the rigorous activity. It amazed me that some students were still playing in the field.

When I went to the washrooms, I almost screamed. I knew I was going to get my period soon, but I expected it to wait, at least until my sister, who was in high school, came for her midterm. I knew that she would have pads. I planned to take some from her for the first month, and then maybe I would figure out how to get more for the ones that followed.

Now, here I was, freaking out, trying to find a solution to my predicament. No one had talked to me about periods; the little I knew was from girls my age who were also trying to figure it out.

Carefully, I reached to my pocket, took some tissue, and folded it several times. When I was satisfied that it was thick enough to hold the flow, I went back to class. Fortunately, it was time to go home. So, all I needed to do was fetch my bag, but childhood is blissful, and it’s easy to forget.

One hour later, I sat on a desk, laughing with my new classmates as they told stories of their December holiday. As a newcomer, them wanting me to participate in their conversation was a privilege I couldn’t deny. I think I laughed too hard because I felt something lumpy leave my body, and I was reminded that I had more important things that needed my attention.

I apologised for leaving early, took my bag, and started walking out. By the time I made it to the classroom door, I could feel the tissue moving down my thigh. I tightened my legs and made my way outside.

And then it fell. I wanted to cry; I wanted to shout; instead, I bent down, picked up the partly soiled tissue, folded it a bit, and put it in my pocket. Before going home, I went back to the washrooms and replaced it.

That day I ran home. I was panting so hard by the time I got to the house, but I had one goal in mind, to search my sister’s room. If I were lucky, even just a bit, I would find pads; I did, I found one. I was worried about the next one, but I was grateful for the one.

The thing about lack of knowledge is that you end up in situations that could have been easily avoided. The problem is, you don’t know what misstep you took until it’s too late.

That evening, when my mother handed me a soiled seat cover, I knew I was right to keep my secret. Evidently, periods were not something to talk about, and they were definitely not something people wanted to see. I took the kitambaa and went to the bathroom to clean it.

In my little knowledge, I had heard girls say that you could wash pads. So, while cleaning my mother’s soiled kitambaa, I threw my used pad in the basin too. If I hang it through the night, I could wear it in the morning. That always worked with my uniform, so I was sure it would work with the pad too.

It’s sad to remember how disappointed I was when I woke up to a wet pad. The gel had absorbed the water, and although it was not dripping, it had expanded. Maybe I thought about waking my parents and asking them for money, but how would I explain what the money was for. I wore my wet and soiled pad and walked to school. You should have seen me, looking like a hen that was about to lay eggs. Legs apart, calculated steps, and fear on my face.

Later in the day, when one of my teachers noticed the sweater wrapped around my waist, she took me to her house. I washed my uniform, she ironed it dry, and I took a shower. I felt safe; I felt seen, I felt taken care of. I stayed in that shower so long, I didn’t want to go back to school, but I had to.

My First Purchase

Although I had messed my dress earlier, my schoolmates didn’t mention it. One of the girls told me it was normal for the first time. Her statement and my teacher’s kindness gave me a little courage. Now, I was ready to go home and ask for money to buy pads.

My father was busy reading his newspaper when I got to the house. He looked up from his huge glasses, smiled at me, and then prompted for a narration of how my day was. I looked at him, swallowed hard, and then walked to where he was. If possible, I wanted this to be our little secret. I did not need the world to know.

So, I leaned in, as close as I could, and whispered, “I NEED SANITARY TOWELS.”

He closed his newspaper, stood up to get money from their bedroom, but before he got to the door, he stopped. He called out to my mum, who was busy in the kitchen. He said it in Kikuyu, it felt foreign, but I understood what he said. Maybe he thought he was doing the right thing, letting my mother know that her daughter had started her period.

When he realized there was no forthcoming response, he walked on. He gave me the money and went back to his paper.

I was glad that it was easy. That I didn’t have to explain myself, that I didn’t have to talk about it, all I needed were the pads, and I would be good to go. That’s what I thought.

A few people were waiting in line at the shop. There was no way in hell I would ask for pads in front of the entire village, so I stepped aside and let everyone go before me. When it was my turn, I lost my wit; I started contemplating what language I should use to address the shopkeeper.

He was a bit older, so maybe he would understand it better if I used my father’s words. But then the words felt foreign in my ears, how would they taste in my lips? I leaned in and whispered that I wanted pads.

The shopkeeper looked at me, confused. I had used kikuyu, I knew he understood the language. In my head, I thought that he had not heard me, so I repeated the same thing, a little louder. His confusion was still there, and I joined him in it.

Was it the language, was it my voice?

This was already a difficult purchase, and he was making it worse. I decided to try it again; one last time.

“I want sanitary towels.”

This time he understood; he walked to the back of the shop, took a newspaper, wrapped the pads, and handed them to me.

Evidently, this was something that was meant to be hidden.  

Editor’s note: I thought saying it English would be more effortless; my father thought kikuyu was better, the shopkeeper just wanted to sell his products. There’s no universal language that should be used when talking about periods, but it seems like people around the world have adopted the one of shame.

Conversations on menstrual health are far from being a norm, but we are slowly getting there. Believing that every menstruator deserves access to menstrual products without jumping through hoops, I have committed proceeds from my first eBook, Limitless Existence, to the global. #EndPeriodPoverty.

I get to tell stories, you get the book, and menstruators get pads. Sounds like a good deal, right?

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