How we found sanitary pads on the way to the Congo

Rabson, talking to us on Lake Bunyonyi

As I explained in my last post, Steve and I made this trek to Africa because of the Ugandan grannies. But after flying here via Qatar (and stopping there for three nights), the granny research consumed only four days. It seemed a shame to come halfway around the world, then turn around and go home after such a short time. Also, another adventure called to us.

Several years ago, Steve and I became aware of the plight of the bonobo (along with chimpanzees, Homo sapiens’ closest relative left on earth). There’s a bonobo sanctuary in the heart of Africa that is doing great work for this crucially important but highly threatened species. After visiting the grandmother project, Steve and I wanted to visit that sanctuary.

This isn’t easy. Lola Ya Bonobo (literally “Paradise for Bonobos”) is located outside the city of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The second largest country in Africa, the DRC is also one of the most tragic. It’s ridiculously rich in resources, mineral and physical, yet it’s one of the poorest countries in the world, with one of the bloodiest histories. It does not welcome tourists. As far as I could make out, it has no tourist industry. To go there, someone has to invite you, the invitation has to be approved by multiple ministries in the Congolese capital, and you have to send your passport to the DRC’s embassy in Washington DC to receive the crucial stamp.

Here’s the one in my passport, acquired after Lola Ya Bonobo invited us and all the bureaucratic hoops were jumped through.

Transportation options are limited, but the Rwandan airline does fly to Kinshasa nonstop from the capital of Rwanda, Kigali. The flight is only two and a half hours long, and Rwandair has an excellent reputation. The only problem (for us) was that this flight only operates a couple of times of week. Steve and I couldn’t get to Kigali from Nyaka (the Ugandan village where the granny program is based) on Sunday, and the next nonstop wasn’t until Wednesday (i.e. tomorrow).

Happily what initially looked like an irritating delay turned out to be a pleasure. I learned that we could be driven from Nyaka to Kigali via the site of Uganda’s most beautiful lake, Lake Bunyonyi. We planned to hole up there for two nights, review the work we’d done in Nyaka, and write about it. But yesterday morning, we couldn’t resist spending a few hours in a boat on the lake.

For $20 a person, the hotel where we were staying arranged for a motorboat, a guy to drive it, and a soft-spoken 23-year-old guide named Rabson. Rabson looked very young, but he’s been guiding for about three years, and I quickly found him to be quick-witted, conscientious, and knowledgeable.

The morning had started off a little drizzly, but as we putted along, the sky cleared. Lake Bunyonyi is the deepest lake in Uganda, and it’s filled with 29 islands, most uninhabited. It has no dangerous animals like crocodiles or hippos, and almost no fish.

Only tiny ones like these, skewered for sale at the local market.

The islands create a landscape that reminded me a bit of the New Zealand fiordlands. But the steep hillsides surrounding the water are an intense tropical green, dotted with banana groves. People swim in the lake, and it provides drinking water to the local villagers.

As in so much of Africa, kids were gathering it here.

Rabson loves birds, and he pointed out many interesting specimens to us, including these.

A pied kingfisher
Uganda’s national bird, the grey crowned crane

He recounted the history of some of the islands. Then he began talking about something that startled me: namely, how most kids in Uganda reach puberty without knowing anything about menstruation.

When girls suddenly begin to bleed, it shocks and horrifies their classmates. Girls have no access to sanitary pads, so they use torn-up t-shirts or leaves or other crude substitutes for sanitary pads that sometimes trigger infections. But Rabson had met someone who was trying to do something to change that and he wanted to take us to meet her.

Steve and I had seen so many African marketplaces over the past few days, I wasn’t dying to see another, but we held our tongues. We sensed it was important to Rabson to share this.

Our boatman pulled up to a dock on the mainland. We disembarked and walked into the jumble of stalls and food sellers that takes shape there every Monday and Friday. We followed Rabson up the dirt path to a compact wooden shack, where a friendly face beamed at us from a window, welcoming us. Rabson pointed out the poster on the front of the building, explaining the project, then his friend Harriet Rwosa stepped out and invited us inside.

If someone told me Harriet was educated in England, I would have believed them; her English is excellent, an ebullient flood of words. But she’s lived all her life in this village. We learned that she’s 27 and married. But she only went through the local high school. Although she yearned to continue on at a university, her parents lacked the money to send her. Like most girls, in her school years Harriet had experienced menstruation as a curse. Every month it kept her out of class, causing her to to fall behind her male peers, a new experience for her. Time had passed, and somehow she’d gotten the idea to design and market cheap, reusable sanitary pads that would enable girls to continue their education, even while menstruating. About a year and a half ago, she’d made her first pads on a little foot-powered Singer sewing machine, and she had marshaled the funds to create a little craft shop to support the purchase of materials to make more pads. Some were lined with a soft toweling. For others Harriet uses a local fabric that resembles flannel. It costs more, she told us, but it’s also more absorbent.

For $10, you can buy 3 pads for a girl. I gave her $20.

As inspiring as Harriet was, I felt equally moved by Rabson, who believes in what Harriet is doing and is trying to help any way he can. As we walked back to the motorboat, he told us he had been bird-watching on one of the bigger islands when he happened to meet Harriet, there to pass out pads at the island high school. She told him about the project, and Rabson immediately understood its importance. One day when he was in the fifth grade of primary school, he had shared a bench with a 13-year-old girl. When she stood up at the end of class, blood stained her clothing and the bench. Today Rabson mimes the reaction of the other kids; their shock at the sight of this frightening blood. They jeered, hooted, cruelly mocked their classmate. She was so mortified and humiliated, she never came back to school. Rabson says not long after this incident, she was married and had a child, but her husband later left her. Her life was ruined for lack of a sanitary pad, something that Rabson still clearly finds appalling today.

He disapproves of giving out free condoms, without also handing out pads to girls. Having sex is something you choose, he declared. But you don’t have a choice about menstruating.

This is true. Hearing Ugandan 20-somethings testify to it, seeing some moved to action by it, inspired me and touched my heart. It made me wish I could return to make a documentary about passionate, energetic Harriet and the lives she’s already changing.

I almost certainly won’t have a chance to do that; it’s not my talent. But I’m grateful to be able to write about her here. I’m thrilled to be spending the night in a really nice hotel in central Kigali, overlooking the Hotel Mille Collines (the inspiration for the cinematic Hotel Rwanda.) I’m happy to have a good fast internet connection to publish this post. In just a few hours, we’ll take that flight to the Congo, where it’s unlikely we’ll have much in the way of WiFi or phone service. But I plan to write every day about our experience in the bonobo sanctuary, and I’ll post the results as soon as possible.

Ugandan grannies: better than any tourist attraction?

Can you spot the San Diegans amongst the valiant Ugandan grannies?

The world is a big place, and Steve and I hunger to see as much of it as possible before we die. That’s why we rarely go back after an initial visit to most countries outside North America. The list of places we’ve traveled to repeatedly has been short: France, Italy, Japan. I’m thinking, however, that I need to add Uganda.

Before our first trip here, in 2013, I would have bet it would be our only one. That was our first (and I would have predicted only ever) visit to East Africa. In the course of it we also swept through Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya. But just a few months before we went, something extra got tacked on.

We have a close friend, Leigh Fenly, who in 2006 co-founded a San Diego organization called Women’s Empowerment (WE) International. Its goal is to improve the lives of some of the poorest women in the world. In the spring of 2013, WE had been approached by a group with a project in southwestern Uganda that was providing tiny but invaluable loans to older women who were raising grandchildren orphaned by AIDS. Amazingly, Steve’s and my itinerary would be taking us not far from Nyaka (the central village), and we managed to adjust it to allow for a one-day visit. We came away so moved and impressed that WE began a partnership early in 2014 with the Nyaka AIDS Orphans Foundation’s granny-group project.

Steve and I also agreed to be the liaisons between the San Diego folks and the Ugandans, a job we’ve continued to fill ever since. In that role, we returned to Nyaka accompanied by another WE member in 2017, and our current travels (this time with 6 WE leaders in tow) were driven by the desire to go back for another on-the-ground assessment of how the Ugandan “micro finance” project has been playing out.

We’ve been dazzled. In our two days in the field, the 8 of us interviewed more than a dozen individual grandmothers, learning about what they’ve done with the loans they’ve received from their groups. We also met with two large granny groups located near the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (home to some of the last mountain gorillas in the world).

One of the groups we visited has developed a robust business making handicrafts and selling them to the foreigners who come for the gorilla tracking.

Progress that was already starting to be evident three years ago has continued and seems to be accelerating.

For example, the first one-year loan ever granted (back around 2007) to one of the two groups we visited Saturday was for 200,000 Ugandan shillings — about $75. The group then made tiny loans — the equivalent of $5 to $10 — to individual members. Each woman would have the money for three months, then she would have to pay it back, along with about 15% interest. With so little money, a granny might only be able to buy a chicken or two. But she could hatch some of the eggs, sell others, and come away with a bit of extra cash — money that more often than not she would use to pay her grandkids’ school fees.

Over the last six years, as WE has donated money raised in San Diego, the Nyakans’ central revolving fund has grown from just $7,000 to almost $250,000 (including profits from the interest on the group loans and about $175,000 from WE). That’s meant granny groups have been able to receive bigger and bigger annual loans. The group that began with a $75 loan now has a loan of more than $4000.

Virtually all the grannies grow crops that their families eat, as shown here by the hands.

Grannies with bigger ideas have been able to get bigger and bigger loans to help them realize their dreams. Take Meleth, for example. She’s 52, currently raising 6 grandchildren (one disabled).

Meleth at the counter in her salon/beauty product store

She joined her granny group just a few years ago and has since become its treasurer. She’s gotten two substantial loans, first one for the equivalent of about $82, then another for almost $200. She’s used that money to build up a beauty salon that would be respectable even by Kampala standards. She’s installed a hair dryer and a wash basin; has diversified into providing decorations for weddings and other celebrations, as well as catering. She told us she currently serves 25-30 clients during her typical six-day week. (A Seventh-Day Adventist, she closes Saturdays.)

Because of her loan money, 54-year-old Robinah started a restaurant that she estimates feeds 40-50 customers a day. Business is good, but she thinks it would be even better if she could buy a refrigerator and sell cold drinks. (That would cost between 1 and 1.5 million shillings, about $275-$400.)

Robinah

Many grannies still do simpler things: acquire goats or chickens or pigs; hire help to grow more cash crops like coffee. We met 65-year-old Ketty Turiyatunga at the Friday market in the little village of Nyamirama. She was filling baskets with sweet potatoes that she hoped to sell for about a dollar. Her loan was for less than $14, but she seemed happy to have it.

Margaret Tumuhimbise, 67, has a small loan too, but she uses it to buy products like tomatoes to supplement the pineapples, sweet bananas, and maize she grows and sells at a stand in the local market.

Margaret currently cares for 4 grandchildren and a great-grandchild, whom she’s holding in this photo.

Note the uniform Margaret is wearing. On our first visit, no grandmothers had uniforms, but by 2017, one large group had had some made. Since then more and more groups, maybe 60% of the 10,000 grandmothers who are currently Nyaka granny-group members, have used their profits to buy the distinctive outfits. They wear them with pride. Folks respect and admire and even envy them now, whereas just a few years ago, they were despised for being dirty and poor and old and bad-smelling. Now they all have soap and toothbrushes. Now they have hope they won’t ever have to beg again.

The Nyaka group’s leaders are talking about getting another 10,000 grandmothers organized into groups that will receive loan money. They envision doing this within just a few years. Some dream of expanding still further, going country-wide.

I have to confess that Steve and I were skeptical seven years ago. Billions have gone into aid for Africa over the course of our lives, and much of that money has been squandered. But, started by a Ugandan, run by Ugandans, decentralized and shaped by leadership at the village level, this program looks like success to us. Even if Uganda didn’t have any great natural beauty and touristic pleasures, I might be tempted to return some day to see if the human thrills continue.

As in the past, the granny group members greeted us with joyous dancing. This is an electrifying experience.
The village kids look on, curious and somewhat amazed.

On the road in Uganda

When you drive west from Kampala along the Masaka Road, heading in the general direction of Rwanda and the Congo, about two hours outside the Ugandan capital you cross the equator. I’ve done this twice, and both times it’s been a jolly experience.The Ugandans have erected circular structures on both sides of the highway, to mark the invisible line that divides the northern hemisphere from the southern one. Both Africans and visitors from other continents get a kick out of standing with one foot on each side of the line. Folks queue up to get their pictures taken.You can buy coffee or a snack or a host of souvenirs.

For less than $5, I got this table mat, made from bottle caps that have been flattened, covered with cloth, and stitched together.

For a small fee, you can get a demonstration of the alleged Coriolus effect.

It involves pouring water down a drain and watching it swirl down in different directions on each side of the line. But Steve whispered to me that this was hokum.

And whether it’s true of not, you can get a certificate attesting you have witnessed it in person.

Steve and I did not come to Uganda for any of this. We’re not here as tourists nor as religious missionaries, though we are on something of a mission. For years, we’ve been enthusiastic members of a San Diego-based group called Women’s Empowerment (WE). Founded about 14 years ago by two friends of ours, it is dedicated to raising funds to help impoverished women, primarily through a variety of “micro-loan” programs. Seven years ago Steve and I checked out a Uganda organization with which WE subsequently became partners. Since then, we’ve served as the liaisons between the San Diegans and the Africans. We returned in 2017 to see firsthand how the program was developing. Now we’ve returned for another close-up look, this time with six other WE members accompanying us.

The hardworking crew in Kampala.

Yesterday we had a great meeting in Kampala with the Uganda organization’s administrators who are based there. But the group’s main work takes place in and around the village of Nyaka, in the far southwestern corner of the country. We’ll spend 8-10 hours on the road today getting there. Then we’ll be traveling around visiting a number of the grandmother groups that are the primary beneficiaries of the loan program. I doubt that I’ll have any time for blogging until Sunday, when we’ll depart for the next phase of our adventure.

That will take place south of the equator. (The next time we cross that line we’ll be airborne, flying home.)

Don’t try to get to Africa this way

It’s not the easiest thing to get from San Diego to anywhere in Africa. But this time Steve and I appear to be doing it the hard way. The irony is, it seemed to start so well.

We had scored inexpensive tickets traveling on Alaska Airlines from San Diego to Boston, and then continuing on Qatar Airways to Doha, the capital of Qatar. These tickets would enable us to stay in Doha (a place we’ve never visited before) for three nights before continuing on to Entebbe in Uganda.

The first flight was at 9:50 am and we were inside the terminal by 7:44. We had our boarding passes by 8, and the signs all said we’d be on time. Outside, the sun gleamed off the plane parked at our gate. We went for coffee and doughnuts and returned around boarding time, when the first creepy thing happened: a tug began pushing “our” plane away from the gate. “Wait, stop!” I wanted to shout. “We’re not aboard yet!”

But no one was, and a minute later, the sign changed to Delayed — first to 10:20, then 10:30, then 10:40 am. Our spirits dipped, but when we returned to the gate around 10 and saw another plane parked next to “our” jetway, they rose again. Boarding started soon after, and by 10:40, everyone was seated, ready for take-off.

The captain’s voice over the loudspeaker smashed everyone’s good mood. He sounded annoyed, not with us, but with whichever imbecilic manager had decreed that our plane was needed to fly to Lihue on the island of Kauai, a route on which Alaska is aggressively competing. Everyone and their luggage would have to get off this plane and onto some other one.

The infants on the plane (and there were a bunch of them) all began screaming, an apoplectic chorus, and many of the grownups looked almost as unhappy. I was aghast, but I wasn’t panicking. Our flight from Boston wouldn’t depart until 10:15 pm. We had been facing a long wait at Logan, so this would shorten it a bit, but not catastrophically. Then the ground crew announced that a replacement place wouldn’t arrive until after 1 pm; it wouldn’t reach Boston until around 10:30 pm.

Here’s the Alaska plane we all had to get off, to free it for a lucky Hawaii-borne group. Aloha!

Poof! went our visions of a swift easy transit to the Middle East. We could barely see the Alaska gate staff, the line of querulous customers trying to reach them was so long. I jumped on my cell phone; called Qatar’s customer service. The guy I talked with made what sounded like a intense effort to find some other path to Doha for us. But the flight from LA was leaving in three and a half hours. There were no flights, so we’d have to cover the distance on the ground in two and a half — not something we felt like gambling could be done. Other Qatar flights from other cities all were leaving earlier than the one from Boston. The guy on the phone finally told me Alaska would have to fix the problem.

It took some gal on Alaska’s International desk in Iowa almost an hour to figure something out for us. She said she could get us on a nonstop flight from San Diego to London that was leaving San Diego at 2:50 pm. Once in London, we could connect to a nonstop Qatar flight. It wouldn’t arrive in Doha until after midnight Saturday night (versus the 5:30 pm we had originally been scheduled for). But in our beggarly positions, we didn’t feel we could be picky. We searched for the British Airways check-in counters, where we would have to go to get our boarding passes.

Somehow the young lady in Iowa had gotten the time of the flight wrong. It turned out to be 6:35 pm, not 2:50. Waiting for the check-in counters to open, we considered getting Lyfted home and back, since home was the only place we could think of to nap in. (We couldn’t get into the secure part of the airport until we got our boarding passes. But we couldn’t get our passes until the BA counters opened. I’m here to tell you, the NON-secure part of San Diego’s Terminal Two has no place where any normal person would consider napping.) Reluctantly, we decided against trying to go home and then return. The likelihood of meeting up with some other problem that would keep us from catching our flight (a traffic accident? a Lyft strike?) seemed all too real. The hours dragged by. We finally got those boarding passes; moved to another gate area. I tried to rest, but sleep eluded me. More than eleven and a half hours after we’d entered the airport, our 747 lifted off from the tarmac.

I’m writing this onboard now, with about 17 hours left to go. Our connection in London is short. That might get screwed up too. But if it doesn’t, and we reach Doha, I’ll post this, maybe in the morning.

With any kind of GOOD luck, we could even still have a day and a half to see Doha’s sights. Then we’ll move on to Africa, where bigger adventures loom.

More than once, we were thankful we travel with carry-ons. (Here are our four, plus our lunch bag. Checked luggage would have significantly complicated the nightmare.