Maria Hawranek: You are a man, and I am supposed to talk to you about menstruation. It’s a little strange.
Mike Wamaya: For girls, it is very exciting, strange and unique at the same time. I am a guy, and I talk about menstruation. And that is okay. They can complain, they can confess, I know their secrets and I don't say a word to their parents. We talk about sex, guys, they ask for advice. I really appreciate their trust. They have taught me so much.
Why do they come to you?
- I am their ballet teacher, and dancing is one of the few tools that easily breaks boundaries between people. If we move our bodies together, it is easier for us to talk. It certainly has to do with the way I teach. I often sit down and let them take over. It is never about perfection. It makes our relationship really strong. I used to help many girls grow up - I used to help them put on their shoes and tutus, now they are going to study. They trust me one hundred percent.
Once I was in a meeting with teachers, just male staff. A girl comes into the room and asks me: "Do you have any sanitary towels in your office? Can I borrow one?" The men look at me with surprise. I explained to them that she doesn't see a man in me, just a solution. When we talk about menstruation in dance class, the whole gender division disappears.
All over the world, menstruation is taboo. I would not tell a colleague about it.
- In Kenya too. Many people find this experience disgusting, dirty, unhygienic. That is why children experience conflicts at home - if you do not have sanitary towels and you use old clothes and your father finds them, there will be a scandal. Many men want nothing to do with this. They avoid the subject. They do not talk to their daughter about her vagina.
How did this start?
- Because the girls couldn't dance. They were ashamed of being on their period and could not put on their beloved costumes for ballet. They had a piece of cloth in their underwear, it was uncomfortable for them. They either didn't come at all or they would sit in a corner and I saw them slump in their seats, becoming apathetic, absent. I told them: we must find a solution.
Did you come up with a solution?
- No! They were wondering: we do not have the money to buy sanitary towels, but we can get that money. And so the idea for Smile Bank came up. The girls wanted the name to have ‘smile’ in it, because when you have a period you are sad and the sanitary towel can make you smile again. I added the ‘bank’ - instead of money, you invest time. Thanks to the project, one thousand girls have access to sanitary towels and there will be more still.
This works so well precisely because it belongs to them and the products are not given away for free, unlike many organisations. The girls invest a minimum of 30 minutes every week in community work and in return they get their sanitary towels at the end of the month. They are all the more valuable to them because they have had to work. And by the way, they learn a lot in the meantime. I don't have to keep an eye on the project because it belongs to them - it is managed by 120 ambassadors from the age of 12 to 22, dancers, some of which I have known from the age of 7. We have grown up together, we are a family.
Every day, 800 million women menstruate. At least 500 million women are facing menstrual poverty. What is that?
- A violation of human rights. Children do not come to school. In Kibera, 14-year-old girls get pregnant because of a lack of sanitary towels. Don't look at me like that, seriously. When they come out of the house to get money, people use it: I will give you the sanitary towels, but you must also give me something.
They use ordinary wipes, because they are cheaper, old rags. Some just sit at home: a day, two or three. In one place. There is blood dripping onto something, so that nothing gets soiled. Imagine: you can't go to school, you're a child, but you can't play, and to top it all off, if you want to change things, you're exploited.
You mean sexual harassment?
- Yes. Girls feel as if they have been put up against a wall: they have to offer sex in order to have a supply of sanitary towels. Sometimes they are outright raped. One of my students is undergoing a legal case. She was 13 years old and lived with her stepfather who thought he had the right to exploit her if she were provided with food and menstrual supplies.
The girls are faced with a choice: a sanitary towel or food? How much do sanitary towels cost?
- Most of our parents earn between 2.5 and 3 dollars. And this is a very good day. They have to feed their family of eight. It is difficult to put 80 cents towards sanitary towels. What if you have three or four girls at home? Sometimes there is no way out, you have to use rags or wipes - a packet costs 20 cents, not 80.
The problem is that the companies that make headliners still make a lot of money on people who live in poor neighbourhoods because that is where there is a lot of them. Although the government has reduced tax on all products, in the case of menstrual supplies, prices have not fallen. This may be crazy, but I think that sanitary towels should cost 10-20 cents. Then they will be available to every girl and menstrual poverty levels will start to fall.
Or better still it will be free, as it is in Scotland which was the first country in the world to decide to give all women access to free hygiene products in February. In fact, they were already free in Scottish schools and universities.
- Definitely! After all, a sanitary towel in Kenya is more expensive than a book. This is absurd!
Menstrual poverty, contrary to what many people think, is also widespread in Western countries. In the USA, one in five girls do not go to school one day a month because of it, in the UK one in ten. And if a girl loses one day each month, she is not at school for 145 days throughout her education.
- And, in our schools, bullying and harassment because of menstruation is common. Last year, four girls killed themselves because they had no sanitary towels, bleeding on their clothes, children and teachers ridiculed them. Yet these are only cases that we know of, and they have broken through to the media. Every day, children experience trauma and become depressed. They enter puberty and have access to neither information nor products. Parents are busy or avoid the subject. So they look for rags, old clothes, blankets. If they can't find anything, they use parts of mops. Infection, ringworm, itching. Before the girls find out, their self-esteem disappears completely. The child becomes the shell of a human being.
This is extreme poverty - not being able to find even one clean piece of fabric.
In Kibera, the biggest slum in Africa, there is a huge problem with water. Most people have to get it at higher prices than New Yorkers.
- Even if the piece of fabric you use is washed away, it is not completely clean, because the water was full of bacteria. Again, infection over and over again. We have started a project to introduce reusable sanitary towels because it is an immediate and long-term solution, but due to the lack of clean water and hygienic measures, it has missed its target. This is menstrual poverty. Its consequences increase with time: you don't play, you don't go to school, you are punished because you didn't go, you don't pass exams, because you attended less classes, you lose the chances you were supposed to get in public schools and high schools because you have poor grades. And who are you becoming? The wheel of poverty is a vicious circle.
A sanitary towel gives you the strength not only to go out with people - it also becomes a trigger for wider change in the whole community.
Is that so?
- Have you ever heard of flying toilets from Kibera?
- Toilets are one of the key challenges that affect young girls very much. You have to go very far to the latrine, which is the hole from which the waste falls into the river. Or to the forest, just as far away. So there is a flying toilet: you defecate into some paper and throw it away at night just about anywhere. Sometimes it lands on people, sometimes in their homes. Nobody cares about that. The girls raised the issue openly at one of the meetings and then decided to build a toilet in their area.
You must know that in Africa women do not own land, they cannot inherit anything. And they go to the local leader and say: we want this and this place to have a toilet. On the first day, the guy chased them away, the next day too. They came back to me excited. I showed up there because they respect me in the area, and in less than an hour they received a piece of land. They would have never stood up to a man before to fight for space for themselves. And it all started with the sanitary towels that freed them.
What else do they do now?
- Two have set up a small soap business, others sell clothes and shoes, some have set up small kiosks. Once they understand their dignity, who they are, they become enterprising, they do not wait for someone to do something for them. They invited boys to the programme - we now have 38 menstrual champions in Kibera. They wear "Periods are cool" t-shirts. And it started with the fact that they wanted to practise gymnastics and acrobatics in our space, they started to come to meetings, and with time they started to help with food distribution.
This is one type of community work that the girls can do in exchange for their sanitary towels?
- Before the pandemic, they worked a lot at school - the older ones helped the younger students in primary school to clean the classrooms, go to the toilet, they brought them meals. During lunchtime at school it is usually chaos, lots of pushing and shoving, little children find it harder to make their way through. Sometimes the sewage system would become clogged, so they helped out. Others came up with the idea of cleaning up litter in the road, it was their project of the month.
Because of the virus, we had to suspend ballet lessons, but we still do Smile Bank meetings. There was a need to feed our community - most parents have lost their sources of income, so we are raising money for food. The girls prepare packages and distribute them. They find out where the disabled and the elderly, who have been completely ignored by the government, live. They bring them food every month.
The lack of sanitary towels has brought about so many changes, but the important thing is that they were carried out by children. The key is who owns the project. If it is the children, they feel that change depends on them, and it is happening.
You also run workshops on sexual health and send text messages. What do you write in them?
- All the girls who get their sanitary towels give us their parents' numbers. We write text messages in sheng, a unique language of the youth that parents don't understand, and that's really great. Sheng is like a chameleon, it changes with every generation, so we use the kids' help to write it properly. For example, "Sasa" means hello and we write “XaaXaa" instead. Parents have no clue. They ask what it means and we start talking about what we write to them. Such a simple trick.
We send two text messages a week, very basic e.g. how do you know that the water is clean enough to wash your intimate parts with it, what soaps to use. Sometimes we send out slogans: "Menstruation does not mean that you are weak, but that you are growing up". Or, "Menstrual blood is not dirty. It is a sign that all your organs are working fine”.
We have been talking for a long time, and I still can't quite imagine the situation. Even premenstrual syndrome and the period itself make us feel hopeless, fat, ugly, sad. And no access to sanitary towels on top of all this.
- And you are still in a very competitive environment, the boys are focused on school, work, and you are not, because your mind is absent. And the pressure of the environment in which you live: when a girl reaches maturity, she stops being safe. We have a very high rate of teenage pregnancies, a lot is the result of exploitation. The houses in Kibera are ten by ten metres long, there are eight people living in them, sometimes more people, squeezed in. You have to share it with your siblings, with your brothers and sisters. When you have a period, sometimes you need a moment for yourself. Most of these girls do not have a place where they can sit down and just stay and feel sorry for themselves. Do nothing. They hear: you are not able to work, you are lazy. In their heads these words are piling up, they feel they have to leave. And outside, they can meet a man who will say: you can always come to me to chill. They don't dream of anything else, so they catch on to promises...
We have managed to create a room to chill out here, with a TV, a couch. If you are overwhelmed by problems at home, tensions, you have a place to go to. During the day, parents can drop off little children and go to work, the girls look after them. And in the afternoons they can come to watch TV, make themselves hot chocolate and do nothing. Taking such a moment for yourself works wonders - I have seen with my own eyes how my wife is surrounded by problems at home, because she has a period, and when she finds a quiet place for herself, she calms down, opens up.
This room was the girls' idea, they suggested it during the last renovation of the dance hall. I keep emphasising their participation, because aid organisations usually do not allow the people they work for to participate in designing their actions, they do not involve them. Therefore, sometimes these actions do not work afterwards.
There are many NGOs in Kibera. Many of them deal with menstrual poverty.
- Kibera has more NGOs per square kilometre than any other part of the country, because this is where the most poverty is concentrated. Many have been working here for 10 or 15 years and the situation has not changed. Huge organisations, huge budgets and nothing. My conclusion is that their approach has always been wrong, because it is not working. They should reach for a solution in the long term, and that is local production and distribution of hygiene products. That is it, the problem is solved.
I am annoyed by the way in which some of the actions are carried out: distributing sanitary towels and taking pictures. No consistency - some action lasts four months, then it is over. No open-door policy. In most organisations you can come when they invite you, not when you have a problem. It is not people who own the project but those who implement it.
In Kibera, thefts are the order of the day. We do not have a guard and no one has robbed us because people feel that this place belongs to them. When we were doing the renovation, our parents worked on it. The food for the parcels is also provided by parents who lost their businesses in the pandemic. They earn money, we support them, women learn how to invoice, and they feel proud: I did it for my community.
And in many NGOs, everything revolves around one person. And what if that person dies?
You teach ballet lessons in 13 schools. You deliberately use dance as a tool, just like sanitary towels. At the beginning you said that it is not about perfection. Most ballet teachers would be outraged.
- Oh, I hate this approach! Classical ballet should be free or very cheap - every child wants to be a princess one day. However, only girls with a certain body type stay - they get the most important roles, it is them that the audience wants to watch. I want the main role to be played by a girl with a very big bottom. I want a girl with a very big bottom to play the lead role, and I want a girl with a very big bottom to dance in front of her, and all the slim ones to dance behind her. If I can dance like the slim one, then we must have the same chances.
We also invite disabled children to ballet lessons and they dance on the same stage. I do not care about the result, I care about the process. After all, this is not at all about the performance that people watch for 20 minutes. Children invest in education all year round. How can I tell a girl not to dance because her body is different?
Classical ballet is very strict: you have to raise your leg so high. What if I cannot? Will I die? I get this attitude in children. And I see that when they grow up, they can meet so many challenges.
I taught a girl who wanted to be a neurologist from a young age. Of course, the school did not help her to get the best grades. In ballet lessons she said: "Say, how do doctors dance?" Dancing ballet, dancing for the rich, in slums, gave her the confidence to believe she could become a doctor one day. She worked very hard in high school. She just got into medical school in Nairobi.
Let me tell you more about Abdul, if you like?
- He's a madrasa student, and Islam doesn't allow him to dance. One of our dance projects has been closed in the Muslim community, even though I explained what it was about: self-awareness, finding yourself. It was considered inappropriate because dancing evokes other associations: nudity, go-go clubs, strippers, alcohol, parties, drugs. Abdul had to convince his teacher to let him take ballet lessons. He came to me to understand what this dance is about, why I teach dance at all and how I work. And when he understood that it was about changing his mentality, he became one of our staunch supporters. Thanks to him and Abdul, we now have a lot of Muslim children in class.
When I look at these children, I wonder what they will be like when they grow up. Because there is a whole new generation coming, which is free. Completely free, with an open mind, focused. A generation that may not have a perfect academic career at school, but can initiate change. Look what this little sanitary towel can do to a child's life. They are more self-confident, speak in public, ask difficult questions, question the opinion of teachers, take initiative. They do not let themselves be told: you are not good enough. In time, they will demand to be treated on an equal footing with the more privileged ones.
*Mike Wamaya, a Kenyan ballet teacher, is among the ten nominees for the prestigious Global Teacher Prize 2017. He teaches ballet in the slums of Mathare and Kibera within his organisation Project Elimu (in Swahili ‘education’), run by Smile Bank. He grew up in one of the poverty-stricken districts in Nairobi.
Smile Bank Project
Since 2019, the Kulczyk Foundation and Elimu Project have been implementing their own Smile Bank Project, which aims to combat menstrual poverty and to provide reproductive health education in the slums of Nairobi. You can support this initiative by making a donation through the website kulczykfoundation.org.pl
“Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.