An off-the-cuff Facebook comment caused a chain reaction that changed North Idaho midwife Kim Palmer’s life.
“One of these days, I’m going to come see you and those giraffes,” she wrote on friend Marilyn Sorensen’s photo. The two had met at a midwifery conference years before and had kept in touch through social media. Marilyn has lived in Kenya for 3 years and posted the photo of the wildlife on her daily commute to work.
Kim’s comment was taken seriously – her friend messaged her minutes later and invited her to visit, and within a week, plans were solidified and airfare was purchased. Marilyn is an ambassador for Days For Girls International (DfG), an organization that manufactures and distributes washable and reusable menstrual pads to rural areas around the globe. The pads are offered to girls in different kits – the ones Kim was able to offer to girls on her trip had a waterproof shield, several absorbent liners, panties, soap and a drawstring bag. Kits last for 2 to 3 years.
In a matter of weeks, Kim raised $2,000 from friends and family for supplies for kits. In February 2017, she brought 108 pounds of bright, fun-patterned flannel fabric and stayed in the Kenyan village of Narok for 3 weeks.
“I understand what it’s like to be a zoo animal and have everyone look at you,” she said, laughing. The very first Swahili word she learned was “mzungo,” which means “white person.” There aren’t many white people in Narok, and her presence drew a lot of attention. But Kim’s race wasn’t the only thing that set her apart from the Kenyans – she’s from a country where most girls and women have access to feminine hygiene products.
A world apart
It is rare for girls in developing countries to have the means to manage their menstrual cycle. In Narok, there’s no public school – families have to pay for their children’s education, and often do not have the financial resources to purchase period supplies. Girls tend to miss about 5 days of school a month, and parents don’t want to pay to educate them if they’re just going to be absent. They’re seen as a burden to the family, and periods are dirty and taboo, Kim said. It’s easier to marry girls off.
Life isn’t easy, healthy or safe for uneducated girls in Kenya. School is so powerful – it can keep them from becoming child brides. If their parents see worth in their education, they become more than a dowry to an older man.
DfG Founder and CEO Celeste Mergens was working in an orphanage in 2008 near Nairobi, Kenya. There, girls sat in their rooms on pieces of cardboard during their menstrual cycles, often going without food unless it was brought to them. Celeste began by giving them disposable pads, but there wasn’t a place to dispose of them. At that point, she realized reusable pads would be a more feasible option.
She created DfG to keep girls in school – let them be children, and give them the opportunity to learn, grow and have access to means for a brighter future. So far, DfG is on track to reach 1 million women by the end of 2017, and they’ve distributed kits in 110 countries. Their goal is for every girl to have access to feminine hygiene products by 2022.
When Kim arrived in Kenya, she remembered the old saying about how you can give someone a fish and they can eat for a day, but if you teach them how to fish, they can eat for a lifetime. She used half of the money she raised to purchase kits, and the other half to get a sewing shop started in a remote Maasai village. Two local women were sent to Nairobi for training to become DfG ambassadors, and received foot pedal sewing machines, an overlock (serger) machine, a cast iron snap assembly machine. Now, the women run a cottage business sewing and selling pads, making them vital members of their village.
A slow change
Many Narok citizens are members of the Maasai tribe. They’re the only tribe in the area left that still lives its traditional life, Kim said – the rest have modernized. They don’t want to give up their heritage, which includes genital mutilation. It’s illegal in Kenya, but the practice is still performed by midwives and grandmothers. Some girls want it done because it’s the cultural norm and considered a rite of passage. Others refuse, and some even run away.
Kim met Grace Namunyak, the founder of Gracie’s School in nearby Nkoilale, about 50 miles from Narok. Grace not only brings girls who escaped genital mutilation into her boarding school, but provides means for an education using sponsors, and tries to educate the girls’ families. If you don’t cut her and marry her off, Grace tells fathers, she could go to a university. She’s worth as much as your sons, only more.
“There’s no way we’re going to go in and change things,” Kim said. “It’s a slow, gradual process,” because female genital mutilation is so deeply ingrained in their culture.
Since her trip, Kim said she’s seen changes in herself. She’s realizing how much stuff she has and is trying to be more minimalistic – her spending has dwindled considerably.
“We’re miserable in this country,” she said. “There’s an emphasis on stuff here.” But people in Narok have so little and are so happy.
Kim will return to Narok in February 2018 for a month to continue her work with DfG, sponsor another student of Gracie’s School, and educate area midwives.
She’ll be teaching basic neonatal resuscitation as well as umbilical cord burning — that’s when a midwife holds flames from a small candle or two to “cut” the cord between the baby and the placenta, which is hygeinic and cauterizing. Currently, they cut cords using razor blades that may or may not be clean, and they do experience infant deaths due to sepsis, or as they call it, “spoiling.”
Kim was inspired to teach this method by Robin Lim, an American midwife working in Indonesia. There, the infant mortality rate plummeted when she introduced cord burning to local birth workers.
Kim said she would love to live in Kenya but would miss her grandchildren too much. She’s trying to learn some Swahili, at least enough to get by.
And she’s been missed – Grace was recently asked by her father, “When is Kim coming home?”
As soon as she can, as often as possible.