I went to a Catholic private school. They started what was supposed to be sex-ed in the 4th grade. We were given workbooks – “Family Life” was what they were called – which had chapters covering anatomy, sex, marriage, etc., and after each chapter was covered in school, we had to take home the workbook, read through the chapter with our parents, and have them sign a page saying we went over the content together. Usually my parents just turned to the last page of the chapter and signed it. In any case, it was around this time, the 4th grade, that I learned about menstruation.
I was a competitive gymnast until I was 14 years old. On June 1, 1998 I was at one of my practices, and went to the bathroom to pee. When I took off my leotard (ya, I was rocking my FAVORITE leotard – a plushy, teal, tie-dye work of beauty that actually accommodated my growing breasts), I noticed a red spot in the crotch area. I remember just ignoring it because I felt that something like menstruation couldn’t possibly happen to me. Puberty was for “older people,” and I never considered myself to be older (I know, that’s not how it works.). I think I tried to reason my way out of it – maybe I cut or scratched myself sometime in practice – did I straddle the beam at some point? I finished practice and went home, and when I changed to go take a shower. I put the leotard in the laundry hamper, just as I always did. After showering, I just thought that I would ask my mom about it, since it did seem a little out of the ordinary. She was a nurse, so I trusted her. I showed her the red spot that had grown a little bit over the course of the evening. I don’t remember exactly how she reacted, but it was something to the extent of her telling me that it means that I started my period. I remember her being very calm, but I know she probably wanted to cry – she always got emotional when we exhibited any sign of “growing up.” The WORST part, get this, was that she MADE ME TELL MY DAD immediately. He was in the home office, at the computer. My mom said, “Teresa needs to tell you something,” and stood in the doorway. My dad asked me what it was, and I said that I think I started having my period today. I don’t remember everything that he said after that, but he eventually said, “Well, it’s June 1st. That’s easy to remember.” And I guess he was right, I never forgot the date of my first period.
I knew it would come but somehow it found me unprepared. I had been told by my teacher to expect it, I had been told that once it comes it would mean I can get pregnant! Mind you it had not even crossed my mind to engage in sex yet that was a real fear. I still recall that day which was a public holiday in Kenya, possibly October 20th so I was at home. I went to the toilet and felt ‘funny’. Checking I realized my panties had blood. I felt sad, and the thought that went to my mind is “I can get pregnant”. The fear of pregnancy was more than anything else. I didn’t know who to tell, I did not think I was meant to tell anyone! Somehow I was among the last girls who got their first periods but I ‘knew’ that ‘bad girls’ got their periods early so I was happy I was not among the bad girls. Still there were some girls who had not got their periods, so I didn’t feel that much achieved. I needed to have it remain a secret! It did remain a secret. I was in primary school and since there is no pocket money for primary school students I looked for tissue then later cotton wool that was cheap. It took going to secondary school to have ‘shopping list’ where sanitary pads featured. I have never ever spoken about this, let alone write! Yes I wish I knew that this was the time to celebrate womanhood.
My story is interesting, when I was 12 my mother thought I had started my period. One day as I was riding my bike, I crushed into a wall and hit my vejay jay area really hard. Of course I went to my mum and told her that I was bleeding but neglected to tell her of the bike accident. Immediately my mum thought I had began my period. She asked me to take a bath and then showed me how to line my panty with a pad. She used some pads that she had in the house. Of course since I had not really started my period. I was not bleeding the next day. Then when I was 15 my period started while at boarding school. I did not have any pads but I told the other girls in my dorm and they were so helpful. They let me use their packet of pads. Since my mum had already explained to me about my period about 3 year prior and since most of the girls in the dorm were already having their period. I just felt that it was time for me as well. Thankfully there was no shame surrounding it. However when my period did finally come, it was extraordinarily heavy. It used to soak through my pad even if I wore two. I had to sleep with a towel on my bed. There was a lot of shame in this as I did not know what to do and I felt like there was something wrong with me. I suffered through it till my adulthood without really addressing it. As a result I am highly anemic. I wish I would have felt comfortable enough to talk even to my mother about it. In hindsight I know she would have helped but it is something I carried with me and dealt with on my own.
Dirt in my Panty…
It had been about a week and a half since I recovered from an unknown illness. The doctors did not know what it was but I knew how it felt like. Blinding pain in my abdomen coupled with continuous throwing up, landed me in the hospital, followed by bed rest at home. It was exciting to be back at school and quite pleasant being the centre of attention while I shared the horrors of needles. My day was going quite well till a trip to the bathroom. I noticed a light brown stain in my panty and started running the day through my head, wondering where I sat down during break time. I thought to myself it must have been dirt from that tree root I sat on at break-time and advised myself to start sitting on the school benches. During the day I started getting queasy and my mum’s warning that I needed to rest as much as possible came to mind. I did not want to go back to the hospital and mentally scheduled myself for an early night.
My last trip to the bathroom after school revealed the dirt in my panty had increased and gotten darker. Now I started becoming alarmed. With my mum’s consistent and graphic description of female hygiene and consequences, I was sure I had an infection and I was a little scared. I charged through the house looking for my mum when I got home and told her the bad news:
“Mama I have an infection, the bottom of my panty is stained brown”
“Does it smell? Can I see?”
“Ya”, Pulling my panty down.
“Thank You Jesus!!!! My baby is a woman!” excited pause and relieved laughter followed this.
At this point I was wondering if my mum was alright. What could possibly be joyous about the potential decaying of my vagina?
“AAHHHH that’s why you were ill. You may have been ovulating!”
“I have my period?” I glared at her accusingly. You told me it was blood. Blood is red”
“Yes but the first time is brownish. I didn’t tell you that?”
“Now go take a bath and use a pad as I showed you; if you are in pain, let me know”.
I was mad. Having my period was going to be inconvenient. My mother had given me a detailed description of menstruation and what went into taking care of it. I had never looked forward to the work involved. It was all her fault I had mine so early; always talking about this menstruation thing. She had jinxed me.
While I was sulking in my room and wrapping my wad of cotton with gauze to use (in the 90’s sanitary towels were scarce and expensive in Ghana), I heard my grandma bulldozing through the front door. She came to inspect my DIY pad was firmly in its place and dragged me to the dining table where my parents were sitting looking very happy. She was so excited I started getting a little less angry. She banned me from coming into the kitchen while announcing to anyone in hearing distance that her grand-daughter was a woman. I watched her walk to the dining table after 30 minutes, proudly carrying an earthenware bowl with mashed yam and egg. And that wonderful woman sat me on her lap and fed me; telling me how amazing it was to be a woman. I did not fully understand the excitement but as I looked at my parents’ glowing faces across the table and wrapped my arms around my grandmother’s neck, I thought ” this getting your period thing may not be too bad after all”.
It happened at home and my mother had explained to me what is would be like previously so I knew but I was very sad and devastated by the fact that it had come. I thought I was too young. I wasn’t ready to be a woman yet. I told my mother and she assured me that everything would be ok. That was it
I applaud the 28th May initiative and ask God to permanently break the silence. My 1st menstrual experience was a horrible one. I was living with my sister and when I realized something that seemed abnormal then; blood on my under wear I was so scared! I could not tell her because I felt so ashamed. I got some old clothes padded myself but this caused more embarrassment because I think I used such a big clothe that I could hardly walk. My sister called me and asked if I was raped I was so embarrassed. I did not know what to tell her. Then I thought that may be it is to. I thought everybody is going to laugh at me just as it happened to girls at school then I would not go back to school again. My sister showed me what I should do but that made me feel more embarrassed. We need to break the silence.
Well my experience is a bit different. I had older sisters that went through it and I knew what to expect. Plus, I was almost 15 when I got it and I already learned about it at school. The day I got it, I was so shy to ask for help but my sisters knew and they gave me the pads. And my sister (who is a nurse ) told me how often I have to change and what I had to do.
.. Yeah I remember after my first period not having period for a number of months and was completely freakin out about it, thinking I was pregnant (funny when you think about it, because we were told then not having period meant you were pregnant. Didn’t even think about the haven’t had sex part). I also remember when my period came back, it just generally a 6 DAYS pain ordeal. A lot of what I knew about period was learned from teachers in boarding school and class mates. I used to (well still do) have a ton of horrible cramps, back aches, sometimes fever, and just some crazy headache and stuff. We were taught to shower twice or more a day during our period then
Long before I had my first period, we were taught what to expect. And yet, my first experience was completely unexpected. I was in Grade Six, and my mum had had a surgery in October that year, for a hernia and appendicitis. About two weeks after she was discharged, I’d begun having abdominal pain around my appendix, and somehow thought I’d had the same thing as mum. She took me to her surgeon, who then told her that this was just all the “growing up” pains that had begun to take root. In a month’s time after, I had my exams at school. I woke up on the morning of my first exam to a rather jolly bout of stomach cramps — I choose to use the word jolly, because the pain quite felt like it was dancing about in my tum. When I noticed the tell tale smear of red that had made its appearance, I was quite ecstatic. At eleven, I was among the last few in my class at school to begin menstruating, so the whole process felt quite liberating. I went about my first cycle quite normally – it didn’t feel like much had changed, this was one more natural process that I had to experience! In the culture I belong to, the attainment of puberty is marked with gifts and jubilation. I remember my grandmum made me these delicious sweet pancakes out of flour, jaggery and grated coconut, and my mother baked a fantastic cake. I was gifted new clothes and lots and lots of books!
Menstruating for the first time was a very daunting experience. It wasn’t weird because I knew nothing about it, it was weird because I was a bit too over grown when it happened. I was in Secondary school. An all girls secondary school. In my first year. Still a teenager, contemplating life and why I was alive at all. I hated my school, partly because it wasn’t the school I wanted to be at. My mother had forced me there because it was her alma mater and I was at serious loggerheads with her for sending me to that school. I was undergoing a serious sexual orientation issues and at some point in my life felt I was a boy trapped in a woman’s body. I couldn’t relate with many of the girls there because they had conversations I couldn’t have. They liked to have conversations about boys, menstrual cramps and Elle magazine. I wanted to discuss films, politics and literature.
So it was one of those days, a Monday to be precise. I had turned 17 about 8 months ago. It was time for math class. Oh how I hated math class. In fact, anything that had to do with numbers, I stayed away from. Mr Owusu was there rambling about an equation when all of a sudden I felt a huge lump travel from my tubes and sort of make its way down my uterus and stop. It felt funny, but I didn’t know how to react. Within a few minutes I felt wet and a slight sharp pain. Not sure what it was, I excused myself and run to the bathroom. I took off my underwear only to realize the horror. Red! It was blood. Oh My God! I shrieked. This cant be it, this cant be it. Not knowing what to do, I run back to class to talk to Victoria. Victoria was a no-nonsense girl, I have to say. She took crap from no one but had a very loving side to her. She was very slim with curly hair and was light skinned. When I informed Victoria, she immediately summoned her two side kicks, Sally and Sena. They lined up in front of me in the bathroom and took a serious look at me as if I were in the military. She ordered to see if it was true and when she did, she looked at me with such incredulity and said; ‘Oh Anita, what took you so long?’ Immediately, Sally hugged me so tight and so did Sena. They put me in the shower, helped me clean up and taught me how to use a sanitary towel. I had seen many women from Reproductive health organizations come to our school to tell us about how to use sanitary towels and all but I had never paid any attention to them because I just didn’t care. I hadn’t menstruated so why should I care?
Victoria, being the boss of all of us, assumed her role and taught me step by step how to wear a sanitary towel and what it means when I don’t menstruate. She taught me how to walk and what to do when I experience menstrual cramps. In that moment, I missed my mother. Not because I wanted to share with her this ‘joyful’ discovery, but to let her know that I am sorry. That I was sorry for hating her so much. In that moment, I needed her to assure me that there was nothing to fear, that there was nothing to worry about. That I will be fine. I felt she didn’t understand me, that she didn’t understand how I felt. Now, as I write this, its another time of the month. I am experiencing menstrual cramps as always, but I am grateful to Victoria, Sally and Sena all three of whom spent the remaining two years of High School with me, teaching me about boys and how to take care of myself and how to appreciate my womanhood. For me, menstruating was one major turning point in my life, in that it will be a constant reminder of two things, that I am not pregnant and the fact that I was a woman.