Bonyo’s Kenya Mission (BKM), a nonprofit based in Akron, Ohio, has been providing medical care and education in western Kenya for over 21 years. I began traveling with Dr. Bonyo and BKM in 2010. The nonprofit supports the operation of a full-service mini hospital/clinic, called the Mama Pilista Bonyo Memorial Health Centre, in a small village about an hour east of Kisumu, Kenya.
In 2015, I traveled to the country with the intent of distributing 5,000 insertable and reusable menstrual cups, donated by SoftCupTM. I distributed 600 cups personally and the staff at the clinic distributed the rest. The reception of the SoftCups was initially met with excitement, however, upon use, it was determined the removal of the cup was difficult and the Kenyan people considered insertable items taboo. While some women may have continued to use the SoftCups, it is likely the majority are not. Few women in this rural Kenyan area have knowledge of their reproductive anatomy, which has contributed to the lack of continued use of the SoftCups. Comparatively, an American volunteer on the trip, who had experience using tampons, thought the product was fantastic!
With this new knowledge, I planned to distribute pre-made washable and reusable menstrual pad kits and provide education and equipment to make additional kits during my November 2017 trip. I researched washable and reusable menstrual pads online and developed an educational poster explaining the process of upcycling used fabric into pads. The Peace Lutheran Church – Canton Massillon Chapter of Days for Girls International (DFG), generously donated 150 Days for Girls kits as well. Each kit, perfected in style and function through global research, came with a drawstring bag, two pairs of underwear, a washcloth, a bar of soap, two pad holders, and eight absorbent pads. The pads discreetly look like washcloths when hung to dry.
Additionally, a refurbished 1920s Singer #99 sewing machine was gifted to the Kenyan women by the Socially Responsible Sweatshop of Kent. Prior to making the trip, the machine underwent maintenance to be used as a hand-cranked machine as there is no electricity in the village. Before revealing the pristinely created DFG kits, volunteers set up a sewing room at the clinic to show the women the collection of donated sewing accessories, after which, the women learned to make their own Kenyan-made washable and reusable menstrual pads out of the upcycled fabrics. Impressed with the sewing machine and the washable menstrual pads, many of the women at the clinic were excited for a better ‘monthly experience’. After a day of sewing, we needed more fabric. It was difficult to find flannel and denim was too expensive. Due to the people’s limited income in the community, bolts of fabric were impossible to afford and most bolted fabric was either polyester or African waxed fabric, neither of which would have been useful for this project. An abundance of used towels and bed sheets, however, were perfect for our upcycling needs! Having the means to make their own reusable menstrual pads out of affordable and accessible materials will give the young women in the villages around the clinic a better chance to be self-reliant, remain in school, and to break the circle of poverty caused by lack of education.
After several days of excited discussions about the newly made washable menstrual pads, I surprised the group with the beautiful Days for Girls (DFG) kits, which were professionally made from cotton fabrics. I distributed these to approximately 30 young women and clinic staff distributed the rest. Compared to the rudimentary pads we had been making, the DFG kits gave the Kenyan women a goal to achieve while perfecting their new skills! With the success of the 2017 trip, I returned home excited to build upon the washable and reusable upcycled menstrual pads project.
The Peace DFG group will donate another set of DFG kits that will be delivered to the Kenya clinic in November 2018. This donation will include ‘heavy kits,’ which are better for high school aged girls as they are longer and more absorbent.
The Socially Responsible Sweatshop (SRS) of Kent was inspired as well! Their goal was to help set up a “sister sweatshop” at the Mama Pilista Bonyo Memorial Health Center, which is an ongoing project. SRS members repurpose everything and end up with completely ‘green’ products, which keeps manufactured monthly-care products, fabric, sewing machines, and other reusable items out of landfills, saves money, and builds community. The SRS members have repurposed approximately 300 expired airline emergency inflatable floatation vests as the moisture barrier for the washable pads. In addition, several younger members have made their own set of pads to use and care for, like the women in Kenya, in order to assess design comfort and durability. Furthermore, the SRS donated a second 1920s hand-cranked sewing machine and accessories to the Kenyan women. Keeping with the same model of sewing machine will allow for easier training for new sewists at the clinic and provide a backup machine should one need repairs. Kent Farmers’ Market shoppers and the Universal Unitarian Church (UUC) of Kent members helped the SRS cut out hundreds of washable pad pieces from fabric donated by Kent State University School of Fashion. The UUC Youth Group also collected over 300 pair of girls’ new underwear to compliment the washable pads. The refurbished sewing machine and 100 pre-cut kits were delivered to the clinic in June 2018.
I travel to Kenya every two to three years, so I will hopefully return in November 2019, which would coincide with the high school graduation of the young man I sponsor. Being part of Bonyo’s Kenya Mission has fulfilled a lifelong dream of mine to work with the people of Africa. Kenya has become my second home. I have grown as a volunteer, as an educator, and as a person through my work with BKM, not to mention building life-long relationships with the volunteers at the clinic and the people in the surrounding villages. Through volunteering, I have learned what I can and cannot do well. More importantly, I have discovered what I want to impart may be less important than what I can learn. I evolved into the ‘menstrual mentor’ without intent. I saw a need and ways to fill it have crossed my path. As a volunteer, I have learned to watch for clues and follow my instincts when working to meld my ways with those of another culture; the ways I know and want to share are not always the best option for those I’m trying to help.
About Heidi Weisel
Heidi Weisel, Clinical Experience Specialist at Kent State University College of Nursing, assists in the coordination of undergraduate clinical and practicum placements and graduate practicum placement onboarding. She has traveled to Kenya multiple times and sits on Bonyo’s Kenya Mission’s Board of Directors.