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Stories From The Field: The Real-Life Impact of LifeStraw's SafiCycle Program in Western Kenya

Stories From The Field: The Real-Life Impact of LifeStraw's SafiCycle Program in Western Kenya

May 28, 24

The following account of LifeStraw's SafiCycle program was written in early April 2024 by Dan Mbeti, a LifeStraw sub-county coordinator.

In 2023, we launched SafiCycle in Western Kenya—reaching over 1,750 adolescents with reusable menstrual underwear and comprehensive reproductive health education.

SafiCycle isn't just about products. It's about fostering understanding within communities. Our programming includes educating boys and men to break down stigma and promote empathy, creating a more inclusive society.

Starting SafiCycle Data Collection

Five months after the SafiCycle pilot in Bungoma and Kakamega, a program rolled out by LifeStraw to improve the menstrual health outlook among vulnerable girls in low-income areas, it was time to collect more in-depth feedback through Focus Group Discussion (FGD) data collection. This was to be done in all the pilot areas of Bungoma Central, Bumula, Cheptais, and Webuye West. LifeStraw staff from Bungoma and Kakamega were tasked with this responsibility, and after extensive training at Golf Hotel Kakamega, it was all systems go.

A freezing Kabuchai Health center was the scene of our first stop in the two-week journey that stretched from the plains of Bungoma South to the rich arable highlands of Cheptais and down to the expansive crop fields of Kakamega. Both the Kakamega and Bungoma teams arrived almost in tandem at around 0800 hours, everyone warmly dressed up.

It was the weeding season in western Kenya and most of the girls we were targeting had to attend to the crops first before they came to the center, which makes absolute sense. It didn’t take long though and before 9:30 am, we had enough girls to start the session. Having been paired up, Liz Oside and I took the first group as facilitator and data scribe respectively. It’s a surreal experience since before this, all we’d done had been simulations; this was the real deal. Credit to Liz though, being the expert trainer she is, session one took off without a hitch and before long a conversation had been sparked with the girls. Nancy Ogada kept checking in on us and helping smooth the rough edges. It was tentative at first, but we got raw feedback from the girls about their experiences with periods, the challenges they face, and most importantly they shared their experiences using period panties.

From Kabuchai, the team split up into two with one team heading to Mukhweya dispensary while the other headed to Sikusi Primary. Despite a few challenges at the dispensary, Julie, Foziah, and Sheila devised means to ensure the sessions proceeded as planned, even going as far as sticking charts at the back of our van that’s packed next to the group. The facilitators together with their scribes Sande and Dan Olubero sat on the grass with the girls. One aspect that intrigued the girls in all the sessions was the participation of men in the discussions. This was evident by the way they first shied off and then became more and more animated as the guys shared what they knew about periods and experiences gained through the female figures around them.

The Girls Share Their Experiences

The last sessions of the day at Sikusi Primary and Chwele Sub County Hospital stood out for one thing: the brazen nature of the girls. Both sessions were a no-filter affair as the girls described the attributes of the "local girl," her sources of support, and the challenges she faces. They shared how girls in their communities have boyfriends, sometimes several boyfriends for one girl. This, they explained, leads to sex for pads and other goodies such as phone airtime, roadside chips, outings, and the occasional clothing or shoe purchase. They discussed the risks, such as early pregnancies, exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, and dropping out of school.

To paint the picture, a typical FGD session lasted close to two hours. First, to break the ice, the girls introduced themselves using aliases or fake names. They were encouraged to give fake names to both the facilitator and the data scribe. To say the names chosen were interesting would be an understatement, and when it came to naming us, the girls went all out! Having elicited a few chuckles with the names, the session would come to life with a participant drawing a picture of a girl on the chart hung just in front of the horseshoe setup. The "girl" being a local, was named, and her attributes were noted next to her. This proved to be an ingenious way to have the girls share their experiences freely through the "girl." By the time the session shifted to their personal experiences with the period panties, the conversation was flawless. At the end of the session, after a few photos, each participant got a loaf of bread and a bottle of soda. This was always well received by the girls and other "participants" too, but we’ll come to that.

Day two took us to Bumula FYM Primary and later Nasyanda Bahai Primary School, both in Bumula Sub-county. The bumpy roads of Webuye would later take us to Sinoko Primary, Ndivisi Primary, and Misemwa Primary where the facilitators, having had a couple of days of experience, were on a roll.

Wrapping Up Two Weeks of Work

Cheptais Sub-county was intriguing in the truest sense. Being the region's food basket, the winding roads up the hilly terrain were littered with all manner of farming activity. Donkeys carried farm produce downhill on rickety carts, motorbikes buzzed uphill like angry bumble bees, farmers were bent over tending to their crops…this was the backdrop of our visit to Chebwek, Chepkube, Nalondo (day one), and to Cheptais Sub-county Hospital, Kanganga Dispensary, and Kimaswa Primary the next day.

The FGDs concluded with visits to Kakamega, which covered Cornerstone Primary at Emusanda, Eshisiru Primary, Ekwanda, Kwiliba, and Ebusamba where we were joined by Gerald. Vio [Ngunjiri, Head of Give Back] too joined us during week two and her joie de vivre reenergized the team to no end. After two weeks of clocking miles, 25 centers, 42 FGDs, and a total of 885 girls reached, the feeling of having achieved our goals was of immense pride. All the planning and strategizing—Becky coordinating with public health officers, Julie, Laban, Dan Olubero, Nancy Ogada, and Vio ensuring everything went as planned—was seemingly not in vain. Everyone refreshed themselves with a can of soda and bread, a nostalgic throwback to our school days, one of the standout memories of shared achievement and fun. Dan Olubero even added margarine and roasted groundnuts, making a crunchy, tasty sandwich!

Consolidating the Feedback

Emerging issues from the discussions included lack of access to sanitary products for most girls, inexistent changing facilities, especially at school, inadequate education for young girls regarding periods, and prevalence of myths and taboos that hinder menstrual hygiene. These archaic myths made women feel unclean and unworthy to stand before others, in church or other setups. We were told how women were not allowed in the farms during their periods nor to stay close to the men before decisive situations such as interviews, dowry negotiations, or when embarking on a journey. They believed that women were unlucky charms at such times and they would jinx everything they touched (facepalm!)

General feedback regarding period panties was largely positive and the few areas of improvement were well documented to inform production. Most girls gleefully talked of how having the period panty ensured they went to school even during their periods unlike before. The overall feeling was that the comfortable fit and absorbent nature of the panty made them more confident and improved their self-esteem tremendously.

"Mama Yao" (loosely translated to "The Matriarch"), a young girl at Kimaswa Primary in Cheptais hilariously narrated how as a budding footballer, the period panty ensured she continued banging in goals even during her periods…The period panty has been a game-changer indeed! Pun intended.

An important feature of these FGDs is that the girls were informed that the quest was to understand girls in their community, their challenges, motivation, experiences, and how they navigate them. The fact that there were no right or wrong answers, only experiences and opinions, encouraged them to speak openly since they understood the ultimate goal is to develop programs that will help improve the health of girls in their community and beyond.