There’s a billboard on your way to the CBD from Thika Road. It’s about period shame. In a colourful way that makes me lack the temerity to describe the image in words, the billboard utilizes shock value to bring attention to the issue of period stigma that, I presume, is prevalent across the country. I am informed that there are other billboards like it across the city, including one which features a girl, 11 years or so, holding a menstrual cup with half of her face covered with period blood. The one on Thika Road shows a girl bleeding through her dress. I would have posted the pictures on here, but I have been banned from Facebook before and it’s no fun.
While I must admit that these images make me squirm, I’ll also agree that they’ve forced me to confront my discomfort around menstruation and give serious thought regarding the accessibility of sanitary pads.
Seeing that billboard reminded me of a conversation I had with a Tanzanian writer friend of mine a few months ago. It was one of those incidences that are so surreal that they leave your head spinning as though in a swivel.
Mark Twain, the greatest humourist of the previous century, once remarked that “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Those of us who are writers will remark that our stories are obliged to stick to what is likely, realistic and possible in order to make sense. Fiction must be credible because, after all, it has to make sense. Truth isn’t bound by these obligations. It has a manner of throwing at us all sorts of coincidences.
So my friend hits me up because she wants some help with crafting a short story for a competition (By the way, if you ever need help in this sector, I’m your guy). The submission guidelines require one to write a young adult story that touches on outdated traditions which hold a woman back. Here’s an abridged version of our conversation:
Me: How about you write something on menstruation? You know, like how women are sometimes considered unclean during their period and are alienated? (I actually do know of a church in Nairobi that does not allow menstruating women to go inside it. In 2019!)
Her: I was also thinking the same!
Me: Great minds…
Her: I wanted it to take place in a school though. Best to avoid stepping on religion’s toes.
Me: Yeah, that could work! How about the teacher shames the pupil because she’s bleeding through her skirt?
Her: The teacher? No… It’s unrealistic that a teacher would do that. I’m thinking other pupils should do the shaming.
Me: It still works, but the teacher would have delivered maximum shock value.
Her: You love going for shock in your stories, I prefer subtlety. After the boys in her class shame her, the teacher should be one to come to her rescue and educate other pupils on menstruation.
Me: Ok. But I’m thinking the girl should commit suicide because she couldn’t carry the shame. It’ll make the piece much more powerful. We can title it “There will be Blood” after that movie. 😊
Her: Jesus Jones! Must every story involve people getting killed? (I like killing people in my stories). It’s a young adult story, remember? Plus, it’s quite farfetched that a young girl would kill herself just because of periods. Don’t you think it’ll be more powerful if, after the teacher’s intervention, the girl learns to overcome her shame and embraces her periods as something to be proud of? Embracing her womanhood?
Me: Hey! Calm down, your story, your plot!
The very next day. Very next day, a news item grabbed the headlines here in Kenya. Here is how The Standard reported the incident:
“A 14-year-old girl committed suicide after her teacher said she was dirty for soiling her dress in class (during her period).
The mother and relatives of the Standard Six pupil claim she hanged herself out of shame after being humiliated in class by a female teacher.
The pupil at Kabiangek Primary School in Konoin Constituency was found hanging from a tree last Friday.”
That wasn’t fiction. In fact, my friend had refused to write such a plot, claiming that it would be too far-fetched and unbelievable to be considered good creative writing.
Speaking of mind-swirling coincidences, one day I will narrate to you how, while in Nigeria, I made a random friend and it turned out that we’d been messing with the same girl! Kenya and Nigeria are thousands of kilometres apart!