Celebrating East African Writing!
Yes, this piece might be about Tampons, but as has been pointed out to me several times, a taboo is something that has been known for a time, and then classified as a no-no for a specific community. Since we are in Africa, a taboo would have to be known for several generations and quarantined as a taboo through those generations likely backed up by some oral tradition about why-not. There, so we really cannot have tampon taboos, since tampons are fairly new *phenomena* around these parts of Africa. 🙂
Well, the thing is, the thingy I am talking about is not a taboo either. True, the menstruation period (when the actual flow of blood occurs, rather than the cycle itself) has been, in both African Cultural and Mosaic Law codes classified as an unclean time. The Mosaic Code stated to this effect: Leviticus 15:19 “‘And in case a woman is having a running discharge, and her running discharge in her flesh proves to be blood, she should continue seven days in her menstrual impurity, and anyone touching her will be unclean until the evening.
It would seem that the prohibiting of sexual union during menstruation contributed to health, perhaps preventing, for instance, the occurrence of inflammation in the genital area, simple urethritis. Israelites also may have been reminded of the sanctity of life and blood by the Law’s regulations involving menstruation or blood flow. These rules were not necessarily discriminatory against women, because men were also subject to being deemed unclean if found to be experiencing discharges.
I don’t know about anyone else but I’m sure that I would not be particularly interested in sex when I’m cramping and hormonal. So that would be a thumbs up from me for that particular rule in the Mosaic law. Now we can talk about cuddles, and chocolate. Wait, Chocolate gives me headaches, but I think I just heard an Amen from someone female.
Seriously though, while menstruation was, is considered unclean and for good reasons, I am convinced without a doubt that in this day and age, 21st Century and all, the reason anyone would consider the discussion about menstruation, tampon use versus sanitary pad use, between pubescent youth and responsible adults, would have nothing to do with the ‘uncleanness’ of menstruation.
I think, and until you prove me wrong, staunchly believe that the icky tampon taboo has much more to do with sexuality. Sexuality, which the 21st century ‘African’ strangely believes should never ever at all be mentioned.
You see, a tampon as opposed to a sanitary pad, requires a process that requires penetration into a woman’s body, in a process that faintly 🙂 mimic sexual penetration. Because we have this unwritten rule that sex, grownups and teenagers should never ever be involved in one conversation, even if the conversation was to be formed with the sole purpose of educating and arming young persons with enough information such that they can make smart, informed choices.
In our defence, we always say, “We are African, it is not in our culture to discuss sex, or anything that has to do with sex.” And that is what makes us shove under the bed and refuse to discuss with our children everything that might be remotely related to sex; body changes, teenage infatuations, tampons, condoms…
It makes me mad. Plain face red mad. If my face could turn red that is.
African culture celebrated sexuality, assigning a full celebration of rites around ‘it’. When a girl reached puberty, she would go through education at the hands of the elder women at the end of which she would go through the rites of passage and become a ‘woman’. Talk about informed consent. Yeah, yeah, you are going to point at the circumcision that went with it. I am against genital mutilation. Just so we are clear. This article is not in any way an effort to make light of the brutal abuse that has caused pain for many young girls and women in Africa. But this article is all for the education that went with the rites of passage. I mean, how can you make a decision to be a woman without the information you need to make that decision?
So let’s go back to the thingy that started this all. The Tampon. At this juncture I might delve into my teen years, and an experience that very nearly jarred the bejesus out of me. The Bejesus remains in me, although a certain person who might be considered my boss has as of today Patented my insanity as his. Japanese Kiondos. Sorry, I digress.
Well, I was 15, maybe 16. Those who can remember me from back then will testify that I was a very ‘boyish’ girl. Arm wrestling when the teacher was out of class, rugby practice in a team with only one other girl, oh yeah, and sitting on the wall wolf-calling at the hot girls (Daddy, you shall not comment. Mum’s mouth is zipped. We are not going to discuss species, gender and confusion.) Oh dear, I have wandered off again, haven’t I?
Anyway, a few years before this particular incident I had hit menarche. I had been pre-informed by mum in the ‘talks’, so I was not really shocked about the blood. But I was surprised to find out that I was a girl after all. Mum was quick to explain that I did not have to stop climbing trees, although my brother strongly advised against it, since he ‘expected me to grow up and be worth some cows.’
Mum introduced me to Tampons. We did the read-up on how to use them, and how to look out for Toxic Shock Syndrome. And then she held my hand when I tried it the first time and there I was climbing trees, playing beach soccer, and sitting on the wall making wolf-calls, even on menstruation days. I had another separate conversation with the Principal about the possibility of extra fatigue if I went for rugby practice on the red days. So we found ways for me to have other priorities then.
And then came The Incident. After rugby practice, one late afternoon, I went to the changing rooms for a shower. While I was in there, the Home Science Teacher who was on discipline duty that week walked into the changing rooms. Just as she walked in, my box of tampons fell out of my school bag. I didn’t even think much of it, until she reached to pick it up, and then looked back at me with a frown.
“Are you a virgin?”
What? What do you mean ‘Am I virgin?’ I don’t even remember answering her. I do not think I answered her. And if I had, she probably would have died of stress related myocardia. Next thing I knew we had mum leaving her job to come for a PTA meeting. I think the situation would have deteriorated very fast if not for the Principal’s intervention. In retrospect, Ms. Lavingia rocked.
I can’t remember that Home Science teacher’s name. Mrs. Otieno, Mrs. Ochuodho, something like that. Anyway, the PTA meeting turned into a ‘let’s educate the damned home science teacher’ session including read ups on how the vagina naturally adjusts to the tampon, and how the reason for resistance might only be ‘fear clenching’. I was not embarrassed at all. But Home-science teacher could not believe we were talking about Vaginas in the presence of ‘the child’! Then she went on about destroying ‘the child’ by adopting European cultures by talking about sex. We were not talking about sex, just about the vagina, tampons, periods and adjusting to penetration.
So I remembered this incident a few days ago when someone decided to take a bashing on a kind mzungu who wanted to help collect and donate sanitary pads to poor Kenyan girls. The argument was tampons would be far much cheaper, and far much better for the environment, considering size, material and so on. At which point someone else, I think perhaps the kind mzungu, mentioned that Tampons are considered taboos by African women.
So here is my take on it, limited, since my insanity has been patented and I can therefore only use it with the very likelihood that I might be sued for copyright infringement.
Tampons are not the issue. Sex is. Sexuality is. (Honestly, judging from some people’s opinion, we should all not be alive, seeing how sex is such a bad thing) It shouldn’t be a problem but someone has perpetuated the idea that discussing sex and sexuality is a European thing. Wrong! It is not a European thing. If it was, there would not be any poor Kenyan to donate sanitary pads to. Now do not get me wrong, I have nothing against the kind mzungu. Remember that saying, ‘Mwacha mila ni mtumwa’? Well, that wise person should also have mentioned the consequences and absolute confusion of abandoning ‘all’ culture indiscriminately, and then trying to get back on the ox-cart. Seriously damaged home-science teachers.
So now, we are still having sex, but it is a bad bad thing and hush do not talk about it, or anything that has to do with it. Just use pads, which are generally uncomfortable, comparably expensive and do not ‘penetrate’. In the meantime, the same issues that have you accusing tampons of being taboos, will mean that more and more women are living unfulfilled sex lives, oh they do, cause the birth rate still has not dropped. It means that women will die of cervical and breast cancer. What didn’t you know breasts have everything to do with sex, and we do not dicuss sex, let alone go for pap smears or breast exams? I mean how can you let some strange doctor probe your ‘ladybits’? And did you know that quite a few gynaecologists are men?
Well, now, I guess what all this means is that we shall continue contributing to the environmental disaster, and continue dying of diseases that could be controlled and cured if caught early on. That’s our tampon taboo. Sigh.
© Juliet Maruru 2009 An earlier version of this piece was published at www.jmaruru.wordpress.com
A heavy sigh indeed!! Too much 4 the taboos. 8.5
I was first introduced to tampons “by force”, after using only pads in my teens. I had entered myself into an inter-schools swimming meet and could not pull out as Mrs. Raburu (the Swimming coach) would not take any excuses unless it was a broken limb I could just hear her words, “…Tampons young lady, haven’t you heard of Tampons…?”. I got my first pack and after agonizing over the the instruction leaflet for just 20 minutes in the Nyayo Stadium changing rooms… Needless to say I came in third place …
16 years later: Last September I was visiting my godmother and her family abroad. She found a pack of tampons on my bed and wondered out-loud whose they were. She was of the opinion that ladies should use those after they were married!!! I was shocked at the attitude.
It’s interesting how the topic of discussion on men masturbating is not viewed askance while that of women is – in Africa women are expected to be sexually retiscent.
I might be the “kind mzungu” you’re referring to, but my plan is not to solicit donations. Imports or retail-priced purchases of Proctor & Gamble’s Always are not sustainable financially, are not generating any employment locally, and are – as you note – creating a nightmare of environmental waste.
We are, instead, fundraising a combination of donations (program-related investments in particular) and equity investments to start manufacturing eco-friendly, low-cost, locally-made sanitary pads in a model that won the Wharton Africa Business Forum business plan competition. A serious business for a serious concern, to create a national solution so that nearly all women or girls can better afford feminine hygiene products.
Also, despite being a resident here for 10 years and engaged to a Kenyan, I am indeed still a mzungu, and cannot be the one to spearhead a revolution to overthrow sanitary pads in place of tampons, particularly by starting with school girls. It just doesn’t look right, like another western-imposed “this is the way things should be done” kind of neocolonialism. My organization, ZanaAfrica, is about African-led innovation, tools from within, and teaching “my people” to learn from the best of African culture and innovation, and from that posture of learning, to better engange.
In that light, such a plan (of introducing tampons) must, in my opinion, start with women here, and be something that Kenyan women introduce to their daughters. As you mention with the Swahili proverb, we must not become a slave by abandoning culture, but neither should we adhere to the darker side of any culture. I would welcome the opportunity to accelerate our timeline of introducing tampons into the local market – perhaps you can help us to lead the revolution, get back to mother-daughter rites of passage, and victoriously raise our tampons in celebration of womanhood, in celebration of comfort with our bodies, in celebration of creating less waste in our environment!
Thanks for your article!
@ Megan, indeed you are.
I hope you do realise that I was not in any way accusing you of some kind of NGO fraud, but rather that I cited your work because it is from it that the tampon tabboo comment came from. I am bothered by the umber of people I personally know who died of cervical and breast cancer because they were not comfortable being examined by some male doctor. I am even more bothered by the number of teen girls who get pregnant, drop out of school and become statistics because they did not have a mum or adult to talk to them about sexuality. Need I go into the HIV/AIDS statistics?
I admire your work because it is a genuine and sustainable project that contributes greatly to girls staying in school and having some hope of living a much better life than illiterate women are condemned to.
With regards to the above, I would be happy to spread the word if you can send me details http://www.facebook.com/jmaruru