Reporter Podcast Traveling to the 'Blood Sisters'
Journalists Verena Töpper and Maria Feck traveled to Kenya to meet with girls who are unable to afford sanitary napkins. There, they learned of new solutions being tested that could help millions in the same predicament.
Adventurous trips, unforgettable encounters, anecdotes and impressions from foreign countries: In the Hörweite podcast series, SPIEGEL ONLINE reporters talk about their reporting trips around the globe (in German). In this edition, journalists Verena Töpper and Maria Feck talk about their visit to Kenya. Here, you can read an abridged, English-language transcript of the interview.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Verena, why did you two travel to Kenya? What was it you wanted to report on?
Verena Töpper: We were in Nairobi and Masogo, a village on Lake Victoria, where we talked to young women about their period. This may sound a bit strange at first, but monthly menstruation actually presents women there with significant challenges that we simply cannot imagine. Many women there don't have access to sanitary pads or tampons because they cannot afford them. So they use anything that might offer some absorbency, such as rags or handkerchiefs, but those things don't really work that well. The result is that every month, thousands of girls don't go to school at all simply because they are having their period and are afraid to leave the house.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did you come up with the idea to report on this somewhat offbeat issue?
Verena Töpper: I was in Tanzania for two months on a journalism fellowship in 2011. I went to a large household goods trade fair when I was there called the Saba Saba and there was a group of young women crowding around one particular booth. I went over and was totally confused because the booth only offered panty liners and pads, and everybody was completely enthusiastic. I spoke to the women and they told me that such products were something special, because they used cloth pads. Later, I visited the Masai in the north of the country and a woman there told me that she was given a piece of fur when she got her first period. And she's still using that piece of fur today. The idea is that a woman uses the same piece of fur as a pad for her entire life, and yet there was no running water where she lived. That means she has to pound out the fur and clean it in the dust. Unfortunately, I didn't have the time to look into the topic any further at the time. But then, the opportunity to revisit the story came up.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Maria, you took the photos and videos for the feature. What is there to see and hear?
Maria Feck: As Verena said, we started out in a small village near Lake Victoria. It was fascinating to immerse ourselves in the lives of these girls, and to understand their backgrounds and economic situations. We shadowed a girl named Lavender during the first few days. She lives with her family in extremely straightened conditions in a mud hut. A cow and a goat are tied to a stake outside, and the family fetches water from the nearby river every day.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You also went with Lavender to school, right?
Maria Feck: That's right, and we also went to other schools. The activists we met offer workshops in the schools and try to make menstruation a normal topic. We attended one of these workshops. When we first arrived in the classroom, all the children had short hair. We couldn't tell whether we were in a mixed class or a boys' class. But as it turned out, they were all girls. The girls are supposed to cut off their hair and wear fairly neutral clothing, including ties and baggy sweaters, so that they don't really confront their femininity or worry about issues like: How do I wear my hair today? Do I look okay? Instead, the only thing that really matters is learning.
Verena Töpper: Exactly, and that's also the problem: Sex education lessons are virtually non-existent. The topic of menstruation is also taboo at home in many families. This means that the girls exchange information with each other, and talk to their sisters and even their grandmothers, who are sometimes easier to talk to than their parents. But that's actually a big problem. Many girls get their period for the first time and don't know what it is or how to stop it. This is where these aid projects come in, with aid workers going into schools and simply talking about it with the girls.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Menstrual cups are also handed out in the educational workshops. What are they and what's the goal of this program?
Verena Töpper: Menstrual cups are also becoming more popular in Germany, but it's still a tiny market. In fact, there are so few women in Germany who use them that you can't really quantify it. Menstrual cups are an alternative to pads and tampons. They basically work like a tampon, but they are made of silicone. They are folded and can then remain in the body all day long. The blood needs to be emptied out once every 10 hours. There are many arguments in favor of the device. One is that menstrual cups avoid an incredible amount of garbage. And there is a manufacturer who donates one cup in Kenya for every cup bought in Germany. These are the cups that are distributed in the workshops.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The schoolgirls in your story speak quite openly about how they deal with their periods. One girl says, for example, that she puts sand in her underpants because she has no sanitary pads. Was it easy to get the girls to open up?
Verena Töpper: I was surprised myself, but actually the girls were excited that we were there. They approached us, and everyone wanted to tell us their story. I think it was because these educational seminars are extremely motivating, and they create a comfortable atmosphere to talk about it. Besides, everyone thought it was kind of cool that there were two women from Europe visiting them.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: On a broader note, one legacy of the colonial period is that English is still one of the two official languages in Kenya, along with Swahili. Is it pretty easy to get along with English there?
Maria Feck: Yes, absolutely. Even in the countryside, we got by just fine with English.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Describe your impressions of the country.
Maria Feck: We saw significant socio-economic differences. For example, there is no running water in Lavender's village, and she uses a plastic bag for her school things. But in Nairobi, where there are skyscrapers and corporate headquarters, we met a businessman in the hotel who was celebrating his two-year-old son's birthday in luxury. These are definitely stark contrasts. Apart from that, we traveled a lot around the country by bus, including a nine-hour journey from Nairobi to Kisumu in the countryside. On the trip, we passed through a green landscape of tea plantations, but along the road we also saw a lot of corrugated metal huts and poverty, with roadside ditches full of garbage. Large amounts of waste are burned everywhere, and the air is filled with unpleasant odors, at least on the roads we took. We also experienced life in the slums. In Nairobi, we went to one of the biggest slums, called Mathare. We definitely felt overwhelmed by it all, by all the people, the filth and the movement everywhere.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You also went to a school in the slum, where you attended one of these workshops. Did you get there by yourself? Did you find it on your own?
Verena Töpper: No, in fact getting there was quite an adventure. We took a taxi to the headquarters of Femme International, the people who held the workshop. Then we traveled with them in a matatu, a kind of shared-ride bus. We then had to take another bus before walking quite a distance. Our journey continued in a smaller shared taxi and we covered the last bit on a shared motorcycle.
Maria Feck: These matatus, or shared taxis, are pretty funny: There are maybe nine to 12 seats, but there are a lot more people on board than that. Which is to say, there are as many as can fit and you're practically sitting on top of your neighbor. And they don't leave until they're full. There are also no predetermined stops. When someone wants to get off, he motions to the driver's helper, who then hits the top of the metal roof with his hand. This tells the driver that someone wants to get off, and he eventually stops the vehicle.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And you got caught in the middle of the presidential election campaign on the bus, right?
Maria Feck: Yes, it was on our long bus trip from Kisumu to Nairobi. The bus stopped at some point and we found ourselves in the middle of a market, surrounded by crowds of people. Hundreds of people stood in the street, and nothing was moving. It took quite a while; we were probably there for an hour. At some point, the crowd started shouting, everyone was cheering, and it got louder and louder. Then we could see the president and his entourage driving by in cars and speaking into microphones.
Verena Töpper: The jeep on which the president was standing came to a stop near our bus. He stood on the bed of the vehicle and gave a speech in Swahili, which we couldn't understand. But we had excellent seats because we could look over the crowd from the bus.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Getting back to the girls you met: You attended workshops in the countryside and in the slum. How did the girls' situations differ in those two places?
Verena Töpper: We felt that the situation in the slum was even worse than in the countryside. The headmaster also told us at the beginning that the school tries to offer a warm meal every day, which is difficult because they hardly have any money for it. In addition to the menstrual cup, the girls there also received a small aluminum bowl for boiling the cup to clean it. The workshop leader said: "I know that you find the bowl too beautiful to use it to boil the cup. That's perfectly all right. Just use it for food and use some old can to boil the menstrual cups."
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you think is the most important insight from your reporting trip?
Verena Töpper: I learned is that it's important to constantly challenge our assumptions. We only use tampons and pads because that's what our mothers taught us. Why don't we use menstrual cups? There are many advantages: It saves money and waste and is actually healthier.
Maria Feck: I found it particularly impressive to meet such great women -- Kenyan women who take things into their own hands and make a difference. Most African stories have to do with hunger and sorrow. In our case, I thought it was especially gratifying to do a story in which you depict something positive and highlight some wonderful things happening in African countries. And I also had another special experience: During a trip to a charity soccer match, I met a musician from the most successful African band, a fashion blogger and a player on the national soccer team. I found it interesting that I had never heard of this band, which had just received the MTV award for the best band in Africa. It was very impressive, because it showed me that there is so much more to Africa than what you hear about here in Germany.