Periods? Tampons? No water? What does any of this have to do with school?
Actually, did you know that not all girls can go to school when they are having their periods? Can you imagine the impact on society if girls were less educated just because they had to miss school for one week a month, almost every year?
When I was 15, I learned about an American woman who decided to make a difference in the lives of girls impacted by this very problem. Laura Ponte Chauvin, founder of Her Best Foot Forward, researched and figured out a way to train other women to manufacture 100% biodegradable sanitary pads from tree pulp. Distributing the UhuruPads (Swahili for ‘freedom’) to school girls in Tanzania allowed many to manage menstruation in safety and dignity, increase confidence, and remove barriers to success.
The pads were named UhuruPads, which means freedom, for a reason.
Remembering Laura from her college days at Vanderbilt University, early in 2018, my mother showed me some Facebook posts about the project, and I reached out immediately. Laura responded that if I were able to raise funds to support at least 300 students for a year that I could join her that summer. Remarkably, after drafting a fundraising page with the Uhuru story, and sending it out to my community, it took off! Within a week, I exceeded the goal.
Did you know that it only costs approximately $12 to provide one girl with self-confidence building health and hygiene information, undergarments, and a year’s worth of UhuruPads?
After seeing my success and the positive support of my community, Laura opened the trip up to 5 other students. The project gained steam quickly. Her college chose her for a philanthropy award and invited her to speak at graduation, Tori Burch (the designer!) recognized Laura with a community activist award, and even Nelson Mandela’s foundation enlisted her help! Presented with a unique opportunity to speak to both Democratic and Republican officials at Capitol Hill, I was able to work with her to advocate for our project, and it received both political and financial support. The money was used to purchase an additional machine in the single machine workshop where the pads are made. UhuruPads are made in a small facility by local women (resulting in a critical product and desperately needed jobs).
Before we left, we were scheduled to participate in training, which helped us learn how to present the educational materials (about the menstruation cycle, the pads, self-defense, etc.) effectively. The delegation was divided into teams, and we were to canvas schools across the country. I was assigned to meet with hundreds of school girls at a time, visiting six schools, teaching them about health, hygiene, and safety.
Initially, I had no expectations traveling across the world, to a new place, and with a dramatically different culture, alongside strangers. I saw it as a journey. The trip was rapidly planned, and I rushed to get a passport and all my required vaccines, including yellow fever, weeks before I left. With little knowledge of what to prepare for, I loaded up on candy from CVS to hand to children, afterbite for mosquitoes and packed LLBean multipurpose shirts and a bunch of long cotton pants (before this my closet was filled with Catholic school uniforms and lacrosse and yoga work out clothes). Before I knew it, it was time to leave. I jumped on a train (first time ever!) from DC to meet the group (to head abroad, again, first time ever!).
Little did I know, the only “thing” needed in Tanzania is openness, a big heart, and a warm smile.
Greeted by our Tanzanian hosts, Jane and John (who were found by chance on one of those online rent-a-home travel sites), I immediately felt comfort and immense hospitality in a foreign place. Jane greeted us with a warm meal consisting of fresh bananas from her garden, bread from the market nearby, and spiced chicken. I was prepared to eat like a bird during my stay, but instead, with much gratitude, went to bed every night with a well-fed and with a full stomach. Each day, we woke up to the sound monkeys outside the window and packed into a rusty white van to visit schools. Each van ride, I took the opportunity to look out the window and appreciate my surroundings: non-existent traffic rules, zebra crossings, homemade jewelry, vibrant clothes, women balancing water buckets on their heads, children herding sheep, and simply beautiful nature.
While each school I went to was different—its location, uniform, gender make-up, leadership, and standards—they each had something in common, which was thankfulness. For most of the students, I was the first American person they had ever seen. Boundaries quickly dissolved, as children touched my hair, felt my skin, and stared into my blue eyes. Rather than a sense of isolation, I felt secure belonging and love. My name, “Mimi” translates to “you” in Swahili, so you can only imagine the instant laughter and wittiness sound of giggles when I introduced myself. The girls adored making fun of us and imitating the way we spoke and acted, something I found hilarious and instantly created a connection.
The girls we met were fascinated with our presentation and asked insightful questions: what do girls in America use/how is their experience different? Does this mean I should have a baby now? What was your experience like? Do you ever feel at a disadvantage to males because of this? They always remained respectfully attentive.
After the education portion, teaching basic skills, and providing information as well as for the first time telling them that what they were experiencing was a “normal and part of being a woman,” we passed out a years supply of products to each girl as well as undergarments. As we did, the girl’s eyes lit up with joy, and they raced to the front of the line. In a few instances, girls tried to go back in line and grab more supplies. Something I take for granted made these girls shout, “this is the happiest day of my life” or “are you an angel?”
Afterward, the girls begged to take photos on my camera and baffled when I showed them their photo in the viewer lens. Each time we took a group picture and I looked away, the girls all ran their hands in my hair and giggled. The girls loved asking me about what my country was like and what I aspired to be—many of them dreamt of becoming lawyers and doctors. I was amazed and humbled by their curiosity.
At one specific school where resources were minimal, and students ate from a communal bean pot, I realized just how selfless these people were. Four or five young girls grabbed me by the hand and dragged me to the front of the dinner line. They picked up the cooking pot, filled it up with half of the school’s food (supporting a few hundred students) and gave me the bowl, expressing, “you’re welcome to eat.” I was in awe that these students, with mere resources and food, wanted to please me. I thought of kids back at home who complain about food. This pot, which could not feed all of the students to American standards, was being given to me so that I would be full. It was hard to hold back my tears.
When it was time to go on to the next school or return home after a long day, the girls would sob and made me promise that I would return. Many of the girls told me that they wanted to name their first child “Mimi” after me. My favorite part of the whole experience was being toppled with hugs and having children hang from all my limbs shouting “I love you” and “thank you,” in addition to knowing I had touched their lives, too.
One day when shopping at a market, I ran into a man, dressed in all-white linens, who sparked a conversation with me about why I was in Tanzania. He handed me his business card, titled as some leader in the government. A little skeptical and hesitant to believe his position, I thanked him, and I continued my day without little thought to our conversation. The next morning, he reached out and invited my team to a conference. In the spur of the moment, we went. Unexplainable except for a higher power, the conference included Tanzanian officials and high leaders. We listened to their conference and shared our project and hopes. The possibility of a national expansion for the UhuruPad project was ignited!
Entering into this a grassroots project, I did not expect to fall in love with the work, the country, or the people. Upon my arrival back home to the states, I already dreamt of the next summer when I could return to Tanzania. My perceptions, attitudes, and goals shifted based on this experience, and I plan to extend the mission of my work there.
I hope to attend medical school or focus on a public health and policy or health study and devote my life, similarly to Laura, to give back to my community and the world at large. Like her, I aspire to lead a selfless life motivated by giving to others. I not only look up to her as a mentor but also as a person.
When my dad died in 2015, everything changed for me. Instead of remaining fixated on what I did not have, I chose to focus on what I did have. Through that shift, I also realized that I am stronger than I knew, more determined than once believed, and much more able than people assume. As the oldest of four, by default, I assumed a great sense of responsibility and, in watching my mother lead us in her new role, the importance of having education became crystal clear.
The UhuruPad project extended that reach for me so that I could share with other girls the notion that they too could reach their potential. UhuruPads not only support their dignity each month but also mean a more consistent education. Realizing what I had taken for granted, ranging from easily accessible hygiene products, to clean water, and a fantastic education, a newfound consciousness guided me throughout my junior year of high school. Knowing that I had to continue the conversation, without reservation, I agreed to return with a growing delegation this summer.
At 17, I realize that I am so fortunate to be a part of this project and cannot wait to see how everything—the UhuruPad project, my life, and the impact—continues to grow.
For more information about how the UhuruProject and you can get involved: