How I Scarred An Entire Kenyan Village: A Period Story

This post is made possible by the generous sponsorship of GladRags.  And had I known about the Moon Cup back then, I would never have experienced this.  Sorry, Kenya.  Thank you, GladRags.

I went to school for paramedic medicine, with the intention of working in underdeveloped countries. It was a lofty, heartfelt dream. Like Indiana Jones meets Mother Teresa meets Jim Gaffagan.  I wanted Meaningful Adventures, and I set out to make them happen.

One of these Meaningful Adventures took place in the remote West Pokot region on the Kenyan-Ugandan border.  I flew in a Swiss helicopter operated by a German pilot, and worked with a male Kenyan nurse who grew up in the tribe where we offered a day of medical assistance.

At 5:30 a.m. I eagerly anticipating the next 12 hours of helping people and adventuring.  I boarded the helicopter for the 3 hour flight, became immediate friends with the pilot, and watched the breathtaking landscape of rural Kenya unfold before me.  Herds of wild antelope raced beneath us, fluffy white clouds billowed and shifted, and the ever-brightening mountainous horizon beckoned us closer.


About 90 minutes into the flight, we touched down at a medical dispensary to pick up the Kenyan nurse and our supplies. I took a quick bathroom break and panicked.  My period, which wasn’t scheduled to come until much later in the trip, had made a sudden guest appearance and it was…fierce. Vengeful, even.  I hunted through my bag and found two super absorbent tampons and one maxi pad, and prayed it would be enough to get through the day.  You know.  Kind of like the miracle loaves and fishes.  Except with tampons and a maxi pad.

The Great Rift Valley, photo taken from the helicopter.

We landed about two hours later in a small clearing, high up in the mountains.  The pilot deposited us and our supplies, then flew off to run more African sky errands.  The tribespeople emerged from bushes and trees, and watched us with cautious, inquisitive eyes.  I gave the traditional greeting the Kenyan nurse had suggested, and the caution turned to warm welcome.


The day rushed by in a terrific blur of work, smiles, hand gestures, and laughter.  The tribe was open, generous, stunningly beautiful and incredibly curious.  Every step I took, I had a little entourage of fascinated  tribespeople following closely behind.  This made eating a public event, and I didn’t even attempt to sneak away to go to the bathroom.  While I had no problem squatting behind a bush, I was fairly certain I would not have the privacy I needed to conduct tampon business.

Young Hunters
Young Pokot hunters, back from a very successful gazelle hunt. They ate it immediately, no need for cooking!

The gorgeous sunlight soon hid behind dark, looming clouds.  The Kenyan nurse kept looking nervously at the darkening sky and then shooting me shaky smiles, trying to tell me in very broken English that a storm was coming.

I didn’t panic immediately.  I had no idea what time it was, but we would be swooped up by the giant steel bird at any moment, right?  Right. Because I was very poorly prepared to spend the night in the mountains where I could barely communicate with anyone about my bleeding uterus.  I could hold my pee for another 12 hours. Skipping a few meals was not even a little bit of a problem.  I had enough clean water for 24 hours if I rationed well. But I couldn’t figure out a way around The Tampon Problem.

The sky started spitting on us and we heard the helicopter whirring in the distance.  The nurse and I packed up quickly, made the short hike back to the clearing just in time to meet the helicopter.  The pilot got out, threw our bags in the luggage compartment, dumped out all of our drinking water, and we were zipping through the air two minutes later trying to outrun the imminent storm.

The pilot told me that he needed to pick up supplies, and drop off my Kenyan nurse buddy, (who was still looking nervously at the dark clouds and had pulled out a well-used rosary by this point). In order to do this, the pilot needed to drop me off on the way at a third location for about 20 minutes. By myself.  But not to worry because he would come back for me in EXACTLY 20 MINUTES.  And I believed him because he was German and Germans are always prompt.

We flew for about 45 minutes, and the storm clouds abated.  We touched down on a basketball court in the middle of nowhere. A large crowd gathered, shielding their faces from the swirling dirt.  I hopped out with my backpack, and the helicopter was gone as soon as I closed the door.

So, there we were.  About 100 smiling Kenyans and me, trying not to bleed everywhere. I smiled back and waved.  I knew I should feel at least a little apprehensive about being dropped off alone, somewhere in Only-The-German-Pilot-Knows-Where Africa.  But I had one urgent mission to complete in 20 minutes:


Surely, if this village had a concrete slab and basketball hoop, they would have some kind of bathroom, right?

I tried Kiswahili first.

“Jambo! Uhhh…Bafu?” (Literally translated to “Hello! Uh, bathroom?”)

Kind, confused smiles.

“Hi! Where is your bathroom?” I asked, certain they knew exactly zero English, but desperation was setting in.

Blank, smiling stares.

“Uh, restroom?”


“Water closet?”





And so it went for 10 MINUTES.  I thought about pantomiming a squat, but I didn’t want to offend anyone. Also, I was absolutely certain I would no longer be able to contain any of my bodily fluids.

Finally, I smile-shouted “Lavatory?” as a desperate last resort and everyone laughed knowingly.  Then they ALL led me to their community squatty potty.  Jubilant, I walked inside.  I pulled out my second tampon and looked up.  I was in a three-sided outhouse with the whole front wall missing.  The tribe gathered and watched me silently, still smiling, waiting to see what would happen next.

The squatty potty footholds were slanted, so I couldn’t turn my back to the crowd. Believe me, I tried. I toppled backwards and then overcorrected and nearly launched myself  head-first into the hole. Then I heard the tell-tale sounds of the helicopter blades and pattering raindrops on the corrugated steel roof. My time was up.  I had already peed myself a little.  I knew I would not make the rest of the journey without a major disaster.

So, with an entire village of enthusiastic onlookers, I hiked up my skirt, squatted as low as I could go without falling into the terrifyingly wide squatty hole and changed my tampon. 

I tried not to make eye contact with anyone afterwards.  But I did.  The smiles had vanished. Profound confusion had taken their place. I jogged back to the basketball court, along with 100 of my now-bewildered Kenyan friends, certain all of us were now indelibly scarred for life. The pilot was anxiously waiting, oblivious to my tampon triumph and simultaneous humiliation. This was certainly not the epic Meaningful Adventure I had been hoping for.

That night, the German pilot and I almost died.  We were caught in a terrifying thunderstorm. In a helicopter, in the dark, above a remote and dangerous stretch of African wilderness. The rain was so heavy we could barely see right in front of us and the wind threatened to knock us straight out of the sky. I know the pilot made calculated decisions about what was more dangerous: forging ahead into the storm or sheltering in the open with deadly gangs of roaming cattle bandits and violent thieves with no passable roads for help to reach us on the ground.

The pilot made a series of life and death decisions and kept us alive that night.

I changed a tampon and scarred a Kenyan tribe forever.

We’re all a bunch of little miracles, aren’t we?

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  1. Catherine says

    I will share this with my daughter when it’s time to have the talk about periods. See, Helen? It will never be bad, because you will never be changing your tampon in front of Kenyans who have probably since created a new oral tradition to pass down to their children.

  2. Gladys Aguilar says

    Not that big a story but once I changed my pad and my 3yo daughter just barged into the restroom. She saw the pad and I just stared,waiting for the question. She just scolded me and said I shouldn’t poop my pants because I am a big girl lol

  3. kelley says

    Actually a terrible CUP story. I was new to it, didn’t have it down quite right. I was on vacation and visiting the LA Zoo. I could feel it “slipping” down and uncomfortable and leaking… okay I need to find a bathroom! All but one stall was full so I enter, I see it semi-clogged with toilet paper, but the paper was on the side so MAYBE it would go down with another flush! I dumped my cup and reinserted. Success! Except it didn’t flush, I tried again and it only clogged more. I had no choice but to leave a toilet full of toilet paper and a blood! As I exit a teenager was waiting and go in. Ut oh we made eye contact. I wash my hands (only because I had to!) and she reverses out of the stall and we make eye contact again. ugh.

  4. says

    Glad to have found something worse than my 3.5 year old son following me to the bathroom and asking “Did you pee in your underwear mommy? Why are they yucky?” thought it’s close to having my first period ever while on a mission trip to Belize…

  5. Noreen says

    I started my period as my family was walking out the door for a long weekend which started with a 2 hour drive. My mom only had tampons which I was not going to use. I had to ask my dad to stop at the store which he was not happy about. He would only stop at the small store near our house which was only slightly bigger than a 7-11. I had less than 5 minutes to buy it or my dad would of left me behind (he really would of) and they only had the super thick one plus the bathroom was broken. I bought the pads but since I couldn’t put one on I had to sit in the car with a wad of rolled up toilet paper for 2 hours. The funny part is for that first time at night I didn’t stain the pads so I thought you didn’t bleed at night. A month later I didn’t bother using a pad at night and found out you do.

  6. Mia Walshe says

    I don’t really have an awesome period story :/ I have endometriosis and have been on birth control since age 13. I’m allergic to mainstream pads and tampons were not an option for many years due to pain. I wish I had an option like a cup back then, though it would have been extremely intimidating. Now I don’t really get a period since having my son, but when I go off of this birth control I plan to try mama cloth :)

  7. Jessica says

    I can relate…I live in Zambia and there have been several instances where I have found myself in awkward situations regarding tampons…not quite like that one. My favorite was right before I left and had ordered extra cloth pads to take with me…my brothers opened the package (thinking I got a t shirt or something) before I got home that day. They were a little traumatized over that surprise once they figured out what it was for.

  8. says

    We have an open door policy at our house when no guests are present. My 2 yr old has seen me change my “equipment”. She came around the corner and there she was, just watching away. She freaked when she saw the blood. Like major panic. And I had to tell her it was normal and it would happen to her one day–which made her freak even more. Uggg I don’t know how our real talk will go in a few years. I hope better than that little “talk”.

  9. Pixie says

    Ahh, Periods. No way around it. I have been thinking of getting a Moon cup lately as I just started having a period again now that my daughter is one year old. I was not thrilled about using tampons again. A cup would be so much easier!

  10. says

    I really don’t have any interesting stories (especially not like this). The worst I can remember is leaking through my clothing and praying I could get somewhere to change it before anyone else noticed or I left a stain somewhere (on a seat).

  11. JenL says

    No unforgettable story here, just a “classic” tale of asking friends to walk behind you as you find your way down a crowded hall to a bathroom when your “protection” has failed again. As one with extremely heavy flow, this has been part of my life’s story.

  12. Jane Doe says

    I got my first period having no idea what was happening to me. My mom had never told me about it beforehand. (While I have every right to be upset with her about that, I really can’t blame her since she had four boys before me and her periods were long gone before I got mine) I was scared, but a small part of me could believe it was normal because I had seen ONE commercial that mentioned underwear and bleeding. Anyway, I changed my panties and showed the bloody pair to my mom. We had a very brief talk about it and the next day she bought pads for me. Here’s the thing that killed me inside with embarrassment…. My brother saw the pads on the table and asked if our baby nephew was here Cuz he thought they were diapers. And even worse, my older brother who knew better as to what they were started teasing me. I was so depressed that first period…

  13. Pekoe says

    First time I got my period was at a restaurant. I got it heavy. My dad wiped it up off the white seats with a wet napkin. No words for how awful.

  14. Holly D. says

    I can remember in middle school, my period starting on a day I didn’t expect. I had some pads or panty liners available in my locker but not with me when needed. Thankfully I had a sweatshirt I could take off and tie around my waist to cover the little leak. I thought everyone had seen it, but I’m pretty sure now (20 years later) maybe only one or two people noticed, if that. Now I’m thankful to use a menstrual cup, even if there was a learning curve to get past at first.

  15. Amanda Lea says

    No real story here… I remember in school though always having a friend walk behind to do a check for me :)


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