End the taboo. Period!

It’s Saturday morning. It’s time to start walking the walk. For the last six months, I’ve been training to summit Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak.

It’s called Trek4Mandela – a group of people from all walks of life getting together to climb to Uhuru Peak, 5 895m above sea level, while doing something for charity too. In this case, the charity is Caring4Girls, an initiative set up by social activist and entrepreneur Richard Mabaso to keep girls in school – particularly when they’re on their period.

It’s a sobering thought that girls in poor, make that poverty-stricken, communities can lose up to a fifth of their late primary and high school careers through the shame of not being able to deal with menstruation. They don’t have sanitary pads to start with, but most importantly, there’s no one for them to talk to because of the taboo associated with it – and the overwhelming patriarchal system that is still so prevalent in the rural areas.

Mabaso came face to face this when he was shut out of a conversation involving his niece and his mom, just after the young girl had started her period. He decided the only way to change it was to put on something spectacular and get people talking about it. 

He turned to his old friend Sibusiso Vilane, who you all know today at the hero of Everest, the two poles and the highest peaks on the other six continents, and together they climbed Kilimanjaro in 2016, on Nelson Mandela’s birthday.

By the end of this year probably half a million girls will have been supported by the project, getting a year’s supply of sanitary pads and a comfort pack, as well as a lesson on menstruation and the do’s and don’ts. The boys at the participating schools also getting a talking to – starting with not making fun of their sisters at this time and instead being supportive. This year, the centenary of Mandela’s birthday, Mabaso hopes to have 67 climbers summit Kili, with 50 trying for July 18 and another 27 attempting it on August 9, Women’s Day. There’s a specific symmetry in the numbers and a symbolism in the dates, but the truth – as we are about to find out, is that prejudice isn’t the preserve of the hinterland.

There are many milestones to climbing Kili with Trek4Mandela, but all have to come back to the apex priority – keeping girls in school. It’s easy to forget this when you’re out hiking, or making your way up the Drakensberg slopes, so Mabaso has arranged this project to continually recalibrate the process by getting climbers to accompany the Caring4Girls team into deprived schools – some only a stone’s throw from the Joburg CBD – and help with the distribution of sanitary pads, to pestering motorists on a chilly Monday morning this week at the Shell Ultra City on the N1 North to officially launch Mandela month and evangelise the cause.

Now though, on a Saturday morning, the climbers have split into teams at various participating Dis-Chem outlets across Gauteng. We’re in groups of four and we’re trying our bit to help promote the giant pharmacy chain’s Million Comforts campaign. Launched in 2015, specifically to support the Caring4Girls initiative, it’s the single biggest driver and collector of sanitary pads in the country. The eponymous million comforts target was crushed in the first year when customers, suppliers and staff doubled it to collect 2-million pads. This year, Mabaso is hoping the campaign which only runs from halfway through June until the end of July, will crack the 10 million mark.

It’s a slick operation, driven as much by the Dis-Chem staff themselves, who gently urge customers to add a pack of sanitary pads to their shopping as they pay for them at the till and then drop them in the branded bin. For us though in our Trek4Mandela branded T-shirts, it’s just inside the front door of the shop.

The customers are a typical cross section of Joburg’s gated north. The question is when to pounce – the answer is thinking like them, which in my case would be avoiding anyone in a branded t-shirt at the entrance on pain of death.

After the first couple of abortive forays (tip, when people’s eyes start glazing over in boredom and the aisle’s backing up behind, you’ve lost them, trust me), I’ve got my patter down to a fine art – which is effectively “buy this pack of sanitary pads for under R10, keep a girl at school and give her a chance to getting to matric” instead of trying to provide a twitter version of who I am, why I’m climbing Kili and why they should care. The truth is it’s Saturday morning and nobody really cares about me and the mountain – but most of them really do care about keeping girls in school.

By now, after my own road to Damascus conversion minutes before, I’m quasi juggling two packs of pads, more to keep from fidgeting but it’s also incredibly easy to slip a pack into a customer’s trolley. It wasn’t that simple in the beginning, I almost had to will my hands to pick up the packs initially – that’s how deep my taboo ran – but now I’m handling them like the innocuous essentials that they are.

Some of the women find this endearing, some of the men are – quite frankly aghast – as they spot me once they’ve crossed the threshold. For the women, it’s an excuse to come over and chat. My team mate Vickey Ganesh is upselling a woman who’s just bought a pack to donate at a Dis-Chem she’s just been into at another mall. Charlotte Mekgwe, the final member of our trio is putting us all in the shade; smiling, chatting, explaining and packing customers’ trolleys with packs to donate.

As for me, well, let’s just say we’re exploring male taboos.

One guy just looks at me as I start my pitch. He’d desperately tried to avoid my gaze – much like I try to do with comedians at live shows, with about as much success –  and turn his trolley up into an earlier aisle, but he’s too late.

“Mnumzane,” I begin, “there’s this pack, it’s under R10, it’s for the girls…”

“No thanks,” he says, “I don’t use them,” pushing past at increasing speed, his family in tow.

Well yes, I wasn’t exactly suggesting that, but there’s not much comeback on that, is there?

The next guy’s even worse, a buffed- up behemoth straight from the gym, his muscles so tight he’s just about up on his toes, popping out of his schmedium lycra t-shirt that would have struggled to cover his tiny girlfriend who’s trailing two paces back. 

“Howzit? Pack of pads, donation…” I try.

“No, bru, not for me, ek se.”

The blood courses across my forehead and flushes my cheeks. I want to retort “you’ll need two packs once I’ve smashed you in the mouth, boet!” dies the moment I think it and I meekly smile instead and look past to the next person coming in.

I know where both of them are coming from. I’m that guy. It doesn’t matter how much we talk about it, or in my case write about it, it’s still deeply foreign for many men to discuss menstruation – we’re not women, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a huge role to play keeping girls in school and getting to stage where we can talk about it.

It’s precisely why Mabaso launched the initiative in the first place, but it also brings home the age-old divide of us and them, the sophisticates of the suburbs v the much-maligned conservatives in the countryside.

When you attend a distribution in the deep rural areas of KZN, the absolute deference paid to the chiefs and the royals who attend might seem strange to a townie’s ear, but the reality that it is that traditional structure that is allowing and helping the sanitary pad distribution and education process take place – even if talking about still remains deeply taboo in those societies.

Closer to home in the informal settlements, there are no such cultural fatwahs, just the reality of poverty and the desperation of being denied education because of the shame of perhaps the most natural act of the feminine body.

We have enough problems with child headed households and up to a third of the country depending on monthly state handouts to survive without adding the further burden of not being able to complete your education – because you couldn’t afford a sanitary pad. But even then, some girls are so keen to break the cycle of poverty by getting properly educated that they’ll do any thing to get to class. As Mabaso told the pupils at a Diepsloot West school north of Joburg during a distribution earlier this year, there are girls who’ll make do with rags or newspapers. He’s heard of girls in Zimbabwe resorting to using a paste of cow dung to staunch their flow. 

In a country such as ours where you can get condoms dispensed for free in public toilets – and thrust in through the crack of your car window at intersections – isn’t it time we started doing the same for sanitary pads? 

  • The Trek4Mandela Centenary edition leaves for Tanzania on Thursday, starting their climb up Kilimanjaro next Saturday, aiming to summit on Wednesday July 18.

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 7 July 2018.