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Why didn’t he affirm that her red is of fire and power, of energy and strength, of warmth and vibrance, of love and life?

She looked at them keenly. She searched for nonexistent answers on their faces. Their eyes returned the gesture but with a tint of disgust. She remembers that it hurts looking at them. She could feel a tightening sense of inadequacy around her chest, enough to make her gasp for air. It was obvious Mr. Kene was oblivious of what was happening in his classroom. This was evident from the loud applause he, and only he, gave her whilst saying, “Wow, Esther! You really exceeded my expectations this time”. This could have been her crowning moment in secondary school; having Mr. Kene, the man who could never be pleased, applaud her work so loudly in front of her peers was a rare moment but far was it from blissful.

I arrived at Merit Mixed Secondary School with a suitcase in hand, a prayer in heart, and a task ahead, the task of proving to my pessimistic parents that their 10 year old daughter would not lose herself in a city far away from home. At the time, I had only one dream (okay, maybe two); to make my parents proud and to work on my self-esteem. Ese, my best friend at the time would always taunt me, saying, “Esther cares too much about her parent’s opinion of her even though they could care less about her existence”.  She taunts me this way because, after our dormitory’s welcoming orientation on menstrual hygiene, I confided in her that my parents could not afford to buy me menstrual sanitary products. She was, however, of the opinion that there is no justifying reason for a parent to neglect providing one of the basic necessities of life for their girl child. This is an opinion I imagined she formed from years of sitting on the high pedestal her parents so “generously” provided her with.

Anyway, one would expect I would give her a good beating for her foul mouth but I never did. After all, she was right to some extent, and most importantly, the school’s code of conduct for scholarship students explicitly stated that fighting leads to an automatic scholarship withdrawal. I could not joke with my express ticket out of my hometown where nothing ever happens now, could I?

Just so you know, Ese and I were not always best of friends. In fact, we had our falling out a few times too many but this narrative changed for good when she offered to give me some of her menstrual sanitary products every month. She decided to do this because she was scared for my health considering the fact that I used pieces of my old cloths for my menstrual hygiene management. Because of her generosity, I continually blessed the day I met her, that is until she left me to go abroad with her parents. I cannot remember for sure if my loud weeping was due to the fact that my best friend was leaving or because my free sanitary pad supply had come to an abrupt end. Either ways, I was back to square one and my tear glands fully expressed how I felt.

To forget my woes, I drowned myself in perfecting Mr. Kene’s project assignment before the next school day which happened to be the much anticipated exhibition day.

On the morning of the exhibition day, I woke up all gloomy, not knowing what was wrong. “I gave my best to this assignment but why don’t I feel so good”, I asked myself. With no answer in sight, I dragged my slob of a self out of my bed and to the dining hall. Immediately, I sat down at the dining table, I felt it! That monthly red reminder, the one that tells me I am a woman, was beckoning at my door. “Oh no, I hope no one saw the blood stain? Calm down Esther, if they did see it, everyone, especially the boys, would have left the table for you”, I said under my breath.

You might think I was overthinking the situation but I was not. It was 2008 and menstruation was a huge taboo, not to be spoken of, and the product of which was certainly not to be seen. So, I excused myself from indulging in breakfast that morning and I ran as fast as I could back to my dormitory. I must have spent over 40 minutes having my bath. This is longer than usual because I had to take extra care in washing the red abomination off me. Since I had discarded my old menstrual cloths when Ese was still around, I took the only available option, a roll of tissue paper, folded it into the shape of a pad and wore it. I remember nodding to myself with so much satisfaction and saying, “not today, devil, not today”. I guess it was actually “today”.

“Esther, you can go back to your seat now. See me after the class for your grand prize”, Mr. Kene said, jolting her back to reality. As she walked back to her seat, Mr. Kene had a rude awakening of the situation while everyone else started laughing at her. Her seatmate excused himself from their seat ostracizing her like a widow who had just been caught with another man two days after the death of her husband.

Moments later, Mr. Kene walked up to her and gave her a scarf to cover her blood stained white skirt. Then, he asked her to go wait in the toilet while he fetches a female teacher. She tried, she really did try to move but her knees were weak and her body failed her. Eventually, she started crying and it was in that moment, not a second after, that she clearly understood what people mean when they say, “I wish the ground just opens up beneath me”. She prayed fervently to God to make her disappear into thin air but I guess it truly was a day for the devil.

Her weary body was on the verge of crossing the finish line, one that had witnessed the downfall of many before her who got hurt on a race track meant to be benign.

As the gest from her classmates died down after months of progressive bullying, the feeling of her not belonging in that school never went away. This feeling was strong enough to make her sit out three consecutive school days during her menstrual period every month. She would hide in the dormitory toilet until everyone had gone to school. Then, she would reveal herself, heave a sigh of relief and fall asleep on her bed. No one could account for her whereabouts on those days and in fact, no one cared.

Why didn’t Mr. Kene do more than ask her to go wait in the toilet? Was he ashamed of her too? Why didn’t he scold those mean kids? Why didn’t he shout it at the rooftop or perhaps in his Basic Science classes that menstruation is a beautiful preamble to life? Did he understand this himself? Why didn’t he assure me that I would never have to recount the events of that moment in third person? I wish he didn’t leave me with so many unanswered questions.

On the next parent visitation day, I begged my mum fervently to allow me change schools. But she said, “This is an unreasonable request, no other school in Delta State is better than Merit and most importantly, who would offer you a full scholarship at midterm?” She was right! I reckoned that I would be trading in my future for a shot at not being “Miss Unpopular” at school. So, I let it be.  However, I ended up spending the next 6 years of my life, ones I will never get back, as an outsider looking in, a spectator in my own life story, a she not an I.

There are a lot of things I would have changed about my secondary school experience but nothing comes close to the utter lack of provision of menstrual sanitary products for girls in my school, and the unpreparedness of my teachers to handle sensitive situations involving students. The grandeur of self-esteem diminishment that comes from standing in front of a class full of unkind children who did not understand the beauty of menstruation, the power or the message behind it, is close to none. It breaks you no matter your resolve, and it ruins you, making you see life from a lens you shouldn’t even have at age 10. Oh, how I wish I can go back and change that moment but since I can’t, I can at least change the future.

-Esther Ajari

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