BUSHENYI – Many great schemes have no doubt been born in the aisles at local grocery stores.
A friend runs into a friend and together, they hatch ideas that leave everyone with something far greater than the gallon of milk or loaf of bread they originally pursued.
So it was last summer when Ms. Mara Havard ran into Kellermann Foundation champion Dr. Jean Creasey at SPD market in Nevada City. One minute Ms. Mara was perusing the laundry soap and the next; she was purchasing a plane ticket to Uganda and researching better solutions for girls in Uganda to deal with menstruation.
Ms. Mara, a UC Davis grad, had been working for a local physician and preparing to apply to medical school. Her hope was to spend the rest of her gap year traveling and perhaps engaging in a meaningful volunteer project. Creasey had just the project for her to consider.
Creasey, through her work with the Kellermann Foundation hospital in southwestern Uganda, had become aware of a particular challenge that girls in rural Africa face as their menstruation interferes with their education. She knew there must be a better solution.
Even if a girl is lucky enough to convince her parents of the value of educating a daughter and is able to afford school fees, cultural practices and lack of resources often dictate that she miss several days of school during her period. Far too often the result is falling behind and dropping out.
Ms. Mara was inspired by the idea and connected with “Days for Girls,” a successful nonprofit that seeks to “change the status quo through quality menstrual care solutions, health education and income-generation projects.” “Days for Girls” trains ambassadors like Ms. Mara, who provide health education to young women, distribute reusable menstruation kits and teaches local women to sew and sell these affordable kits.
According to the organization’s website; “It all starts with a POD (Portable Object of Dignity), the basic unit in the Days for Girls Kit. A POD contains one waterproof shield and two absorbent liners. These washable and reusable PODs are also the seed for micro-enterprises as small entrepreneurs are able to fabricate and sell at affordable prices in local markets.”
Days for Girls prioritizes using locally available materials whenever possible.
While Ms. Mara transported nearly 50 premade kits to distribute in Uganda, one of the most valuable gifts she brought was her time and presence. By engaging local Ugandan women in the fabrication, distribution, and health education components, she ensured that the project will be sustainable. Two sewing machines, one purchased using donated funds and the other procured through Days for Girls International, helped initiate the project.
Batwa development program
During her stay in Bwindi, Ms. Mara worked with the Kellermann Foundation’s Batwa Development Program, a program developed to alleviate poverty among the Batwa pygmies.
With the Batwa Development Program team, she visited local schools and spoke with students, worked with new mothers at the waiting mother’s hostel, and initiated a POD fabrication project with the program. One of the highlights of the experience was working with program team member Sylvia Kukunda, a young Batwa woman who, as one of the first Batwa ever to complete University, is a rockstar mentor to young Batwa students, especially girls.
Sylvia regularly visits local schools in Bwindi to provide extra support to the Batwa students. Ms. Mara noted the celebrity-like enthusiasm that greets Sylvia when she visits the schools. Sylvia is passionate about advocating for her community and is currently earning a master’s degree. Her education has been supported over the years by Nevada County Kellermann Foundation friends, Judy Goldman, and Dr. Sarah Woerner.
Ms. Mara admits she was surprised by the lack of basic health knowledge, especially among high school age students.
According to Dr. Scott Kellermann, the Nevada County physician who founded the Bwindi Hospital and practiced medicine there for 12 years, “Rural Ugandans are generally bashful when it comes to speaking openly about reproductive health.”
From her own observations, Ms. Mara noted: “Although rural Ugandans are generally shy about speaking about reproductive health, I found that when I started these conversations, people had a lot of questions and were very receptive and grateful for factual information.”
Ms. Mara could clearly appreciate the value of introducing more open conversations to share facts and solutions about menstruation. The Day for Girls curriculum has content for both girls and boys to help de-stigmatize the topic
In her own words
Ms. Mara described her most powerful moments:
One weekend I visited a group of Batwa secondary students with Slyvia and other BDP staff members. It was my first time giving the reproductive health lesson and I realized towards the beginning of the lesson that it was going to take far longer than the 30 minutes that I had planned for. I was feeling guilty about taking up the student’s time until I reached the lesson on birth control.
I asked the students to give me examples of different types of birth control and they all sat in silence with blank looks on their faces. I asked Slyvia to then translate for me in the local language and still, nobody volunteered. I then asked the students if anyone knew what birth control was and they all shook their heads.
Not only were these students unaware of what birth control is, but they also didn’t know it is free in their communities. It was very rewarding to be able to provide them the information necessary to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies as well as basic reproductive anatomy, healthy relationships, and how to prevent STD’s.
On another afternoon I brought postpartum pads to several Batwa women who were staying in the Waiting Mother’s Hostel until they gave birth. The three pregnant women, a Batwa Development Program staff member and I squeezed into one of the Hostel’s rooms and I gave the reproductive health lesson.
I finished the lesson and I turned my head to find there was a group of about 20 other women who had gathered around the door and were listening to the lesson. That afternoon demonstrated to me how eager women are to learn about reproductive health.
These women also asked me questions such as “Don’t condoms cause cervical cancer?” and “Doesn’t birth control cause you to have miscarriages later on?” I was so happy that we were able to tell them that those myths were false.
Down the road
The project Ms. Mara has introduced will continue to expand, helped by the efforts of Sylvia and others at the Batwa Development Program. They will get continued reinforcement from Nevada County this Fall when retired seventh-grade teaching legend Nancy Gillespie visits Bwindi Community Hospital along with eight other women on a volunteer excursion planned and led by Dr. Jean Creasey.