I was in a Nordstrom dressing room the first time I realized that there was more to a vagina than I had previously known. Was I five years old? Or six? I don’t entirely remember.
My mom was trying on dresses. She was happy. Giddy even. There was another woman there too, was it my aunt?
I looked up from where I was sitting, saw a white cotton string hanging from between my mom’s legs, and was terrified. I screamed.
“There’s something coming out of you!”
She looked down and laughed.
She wasn’t surprised at all. “Yeah, it’s okay, it’s just a tampon.” Then she shimmied her way into the next dress.
I watched the little string dangle and felt confused.
What was it?
Where did it go?
Why was it there?
My mom had a funny smirk on her face the rest of the time in the dressing room, but I never got any answers.
Flash forward to today.
Here is an in-depth post by Jennifer, our team leader, about today. http://paradoxuganda.blogspot.com/2022/07/remember-to-welcome-strangers.html
But I’m not going to write much about refugees, or the ADF, or the terror just on the other side of the border. I’m not an expert on any of it. I’m just a mom living in Western Uganda, in close proximity to all of it. We’re living in a community that has absorbed thousands of families fleeing violence. And we care about our neighbors suffering and what it looks like to enter into it thoughtfully both individually, and as an incarnational faith-based grass roots organization.
We took our family for a walk down the road the other evening, and at the same time a Congolese mother was out walking the same loop with her similarly aged children. We passed each other and smiled. We were walking in opposite directions, but in a big circle. About thirty minutes later we saw each other again, only realizing at that moment that we were doing the exact same thing, with children the exact same heights. 2 girls, 1 boy. Like mirror images of one another. All of us just strolling slowly at sunset. And something about the similarity of our situation, mixed with the stark differences, made she and I break out into laughter.
But my family walked away towards our home. Full of beds. And a kitchen. Stocked with food.
I don’t know where she ended up in the night. But she most likely was sleeping with a draft, barely able to scrape together food for her family, collecting firewood to cook and using unclean water.
Local leaders determined that our organization’s assistance could be helpful. So local leaders arranged all week for today to be a distribution day in multiple areas throughout our town, where folks would receive a donation of soap, a jerry can, water purifying tablets, and… sanitary pads.
At the beginning of the week I proposed the idea of bringing my children along, as a way to expand their knowledge of the lived experience of our neighbors.
“These distributions can get out of control sometimes, but the ones after the floods were really organized,” I was told. Then I was given the go ahead.
Me and my best mom friend here took a few of our kids out of school and loaded them into my van this morning. They were excited to be on an impromptu field trip, going to a place they’d never been. We tried to get them to imagine what it would be like to have to leave everything behind, and live moment by moment. The more we talked the more I realized I can’t understand that. Even if I think I’m “getting it”, I’m not.
Then we followed the trucks loaded with supplies to the border and down a long bumpy dirt road that stopped at a quaint cement church. Next to the church was a plot of land. The land was full of sticks bent and tied together into the frame of a tiny tent-sized living structure.
Some of these had tarps tied around them to make an enclosed space, like little houses that looked like caves. Others were just a work in progress. A hundred people stood and watched as I parked my van.
The head organizer of the distribution, a former student at Christ School Bundibugyo, was delegating everything. My kids jumped in where they could and helped empty the sachets of pills from their boxes. Two members of the Ugandan military showed up, complete in head-to-toe army green with guns strapped across their chests, to make sure people stayed in line and didn’t riot over the goods.
“Your children can give three of these to each person,” the organizer said to me, pointing to the boxes of Always Super Long sanitary pads with wings. “Have them stand here.”
People’s names were called one by one.
They’d step forward, take their water sanitation pills from my friend, her son, and Piper and then come to us. Winnie had three bundles of pads in her arms and handed them over.
Eventually she asked, “What are these anyway?”
This wasn’t really the moment I was planning on divulging the great mysteries of
womanhood to my girls. We started making our way through an “American Girls” book last month, but we hadn’t reached the section on menstrual cycles. Actually, I was hoping to be really intentional about it. I have a book that I was soon to share with them, and a curriculum of sorts that I borrowed from my friend.
I sort of stumbled over my words as we continued to hand out the pads. “It’s like female toilet paper,” I said.
Winnie looked up at me with a crooked face. “What? Female toilet paper?”
Then my friends eight-year-old son leaned over and said “Yeah, cause girls bleed out of their butts.”
Three packets of pads slid out from my arms and fell to the floor. I scrambled on the ground with a Congolese mother trying to pick them all up.
“Yuck,” Winnie said. The look on her face was bewilderment and disgust, like how I felt in that Nordstrom dressing room.
I handed the pads to the woman.
“Well…” I said, totally confused about how to move forward in this conversation. We were in the sun, in the middle of a circle surrounded by military, and Red Cross personnel, and hundreds of children. “Every month a woman has some blood… come out…not out of her butt. But out of her vagina. So they need these.”
She nodded her head and seemed satisfied in the moment with that.
My friend leaned over and said “Piper has some questions too about the pads so I’m keeping it real simple.” Piper was sitting on the dirt ground at my friend’s feet. Like a student learning from her sensei.
I said, “Same thing here. This wasn’t how I imagined explaining periods to them,” we both laughed. This is real life.
I opened the next cardboard box up with my car keys.
“Why are we giving these to men?” Winnie asked.
“For their wives or sisters,”
“Yeah, guys don’t need these cause we don’t bleed out of our butts,” our little guy friend said, again.
“We can talk about the rest later sweetie, at home.”
After we left we drove to a tiny roadside stand that had a cooler of sodas for sale. The kids all picked out an array of colorful sugary drinks. Orange and yellow, “Mirinda”.
“My mom never let’s us get soda!” Piper said. “Thanks mom!”
If the girls are going to remember this story for the rest of their lives (or who knows, maybe they won’t)… I can’t imagine how it’s going to be retold. Will they pick up on the value of service? Will they see themselves at all in the children we spoke to or the houses we visited? Or will they remember it as the first time they realized there was more to a vagina (and a woman) than they had ever previously known?