Amapoli: Sustainable menstrual health

Amapoli: Sustainable menstrual health

I live in Temuco, Chile. And I can say for a fact, that this country was not ready for a world-hitting pandemic – just as none of us really were. The active cases number in all 15 of our regions continues to rise, people continue to become ill and affected by the virus, the need for isolation, and the repercussions of economical shutdown.

In times of crisis and need, it is normal that we disconnect from wider problems. Issues like sustainability and social action come down second-place, as our immediate needs for sustenance, physical and mental health feel more important

Vale, a young woman in Chile on the other hand, tries to juggle with both sides of the coin every day with her small home-made sustainable business, Amapoli, where she makes hand-made sustainable menstrual pads for her community.

So this is the problem, right? I never really thought about it before Vale talked me into it. How much waste do we, menstruating people, throw out during our cycles? It is estimated that a menstruating person uses up between 10,000 to 13,000 disposable pads throughout their fertile lifespan. Each one will take up between 500 and 800 years to degrade.

Even more, do I even know how many menstruating people are out there? How can our brains possibly calculate this level of environmental harm?

“Sometimes, you are too busy about other things to worry or take action about these greater problems. Sometimes, not even visualize them,” Vale laughs. “After the pandemic hit, I was inexperienced and unemployed, doors were shut everywhere and surviving was harder than ever. I needed to resolve to creativity. But still I knew that, whatever I decided to do for a living now, it had to be something that harmed the environment as little as possible. If possible, do it some good.”

I see that you are really interested in sustainable education, but why did you choose this? Why menstrual pads, of all sustainable items?

I have been using a menstrual cup for a long time no. I would have turned to reusable pads, but my problem with them, was that they were too expensive for me. It seems to me, that the “sustainable menstruation” business in Chile is clearly targeting higher socioeconomic sectors, more affluent people. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean reusable pads are impossible to buy. But even though they are a necessity, sustainable menstruating still feels like a luxury.

I would understand that, for most people, it is much easier to just buy your good ol’ plastic pads at the supermarket.

Therefore, even if the people who want to stop producing waste while menstruating, they still face this economic barrier that sometimes comes unsolvable. Especially during this pandemic. Maybe it is just my opinion, but I am not an economically stable person. I know, sometimes, every little pesito counts. My most expensive products are less than 4 dollars. If you buy a pack to use, even less.

To summarize, my motivation is to create sustainable options that are easily affordable for people like me. This way, I hope to make it easier for people to make a change, for themselves and for the environment.


Vale lives with her mom, dad, and cat

Clients leave their orders in her social media inbox every day. So she wakes up early in the morning and writes the orders for the day: Pads, packs, express deliveries…

When her schedule is ready, it’s time to sit down in front of the sewing machine and start working. Vale works in her own dining room, and gets her fabrics from other small local second-hand businesses. “We use 100% cotton fabrics, some new, some second-hand,” Vale says. “We favor the reuse of fabrics, because the fashion and clothing industry is also one of the most contaminants in the planet. I don’t want to contribute to that. I wish I could have a 100% second-hand fabric use, but people keep asking me to buy new ones too. They think reused fabrics might be inconvenient for intimate use…”

Is that true, though?

“Not really. It’s all in how you treat them. The ones we use, come from other used pieces of clothing, which we select very carefully. To be repurposed for our menstrual pads, they must be in good condition (no stains, no ripping parts), and have a tag that indicates composition, density and treatment. After that, we run discoloration and wearing-out tests at home, and very carefully sanitize them. If done with care, these fabrics are just as good.”

You keep saying “we”… Are there more people behind this project with you?

Vale smiles. “My mom was with me from the beginning of it all. I am blessed to have a mother who happens to be an expert seamstress. She was my one partner through it all: long weeks of designing, sewing, trying and messing up in the kitchen table… Looking back, I could not be happier to have her by my side.


Vale’s mom, Marlena, was the first to hear about the project and has been Vale’s one partner through the entire project.

“In the beginning, I had no idea how to use the sewing machine or how much work there was in being a seamstress; she was, and will always be, a very important part of what we have created. She taught me everything I know now. Our project, Amapoli, is named after her favorite flowers, amapolas (“poppies” in Spanish).

I have to admit, at the beginning of it all, my mom had to do almost everything herself, because I would mess up. As I learned from her, she eventually let me work on my own. She was very strict. But that’s why I trust her standards so much.

I learned fast. My mom says it’s because sewing is in our blood: most women in our family were seamstresses in the past. In a way, Amapoli has helped me connect to my family’s roots, and inherit this knowledge from the women of my past.”


Today, Amapoli has nearly 2K followers in social media, and clients all over Chile, north to south. Twice a week, Vale walks up to the post office to send every package, sometimes tens at a time. Between answering messages, updating social media and delivering the packages herself, Amapoli work takes up the entire day. Her customers text her daily to thank her work, and celebrating the good quality of her sustainable menstrual pads, that allow them and many others to avoid the production of tons of waste, that can make up tons in the span of a year.

“This lights my heart up,” Vale says about the messages and pictures. “Even now, when I am sending a package off, I am constantly thinking, ‘oh, no, what if they don’t like it? What if I made these wrong, what if I messed up?’ I am terrified of not meeting people’s expectations. Nevertheless, people seem to like what I do. They use my products. They stop wasting. It feels like I do help, in my own tiny way.”

How are you doing about this pandemic? Do you feel safer, calmer, now that you are working on this?

I don’t know how I am doing. I am just, doing. The uncertainty of this pandemic is the most nerve-wrecking thing. I have managed to continue to this day, but the pandemic just goes and goes on, and you never know what is going to happen. I never know if we will make it by the end of the month. I would feel terrible if I had to pause all of this; but I am ready to understand if I have to. I am not a very optimistic person. The thought of the future never does me right. But still, it gives me peace to be able to be at home; to see my family healthy, to have my girlfriend by my side. The most important thing for me, is to have these motivations that keep me distracted from the future. My present and all I have done, is all I really need. That’s all I should be thankful for.

That sounds rough… Still, I bet no one is a stranger to what you feel. Hope is not always just sitting there for the naked eye. Do you have any advice for people struggling, or fighting to make their projects work for a better future out there?

My advice for people is, just do stuff to help. In the tiniest ways, just do it. It feels like we are living the end of the world to me, and if there is an opportunity to be better, to help, to follow a passion, it might be now. The worst case scenario is that it doesn’t work. But just as you had your opportunities in the past, I trust you will have them new tomorrow. Don’t give up, don’t fear the future too much. No one is stranger to failure or pain, but at least make it worth it, knowing you at least tried to help.

Looking into our own backyard

Looking into our own backyard

Tens of thousands of people have been protesting for social justice (especially for Black Americans) in the United States and beyond over the last few weeks. By now, most people know why. Or we think we know why. And yet, a large portion of India is continuing to live life every day as though it doesn’t concern us. Some have called out the hypocrisy of Indians supporting the Black Lives Matter
movement. One such statement I remember reading, “Before you start lecturing everyone about Blacks and Whites, please dear Indians, look into your own backyard.”

“She’d be so much prettier if she were a little fairer, no?”
“He’s from South India probably — tall, dark, and handsome.”
“I keep telling my daughter to try Olay for skin whitening, but she’s so lazy.”
“Such a mismatched couple — She’s so ‘fair’, and look at his skin tone! Must be a love marriage.”
“Please mention clearly! Looking for a fair, slim bride for a fair, wealthy boy. I don’t want dark-toned
“I’m so fair! And she still rejected me.”
“So many Africans have started moving to India. Such a menace!”

I can go on. These are all sentences that have been said in front of me, in perhaps just the last year. And they’re forgotten just as easily as they are said. India’s obsession with lighter skin is centuries old.

Have you avoided someone because they have a dark skin complexion? Have you felt good about
yourself because you are lighter than your friends? Have you made jokes about the color of someone’s
skin? Have you witnessed someone else jokes about it and participated? Have you tried a ‘fairness’
treatment? Do you have friends or family who differentiate based on skin color? Have you seen or
heard of similar stories and not stepped in to correct the narrative?

I would have to say yes to at least one of the above questions. And chances are, you’d have to as well. It may have been ignorance, bias, or outright racism that made us complicit in discrimination of this nature, but no person today can say ‘This doesn’t concern me.’ With today’s story, I’m not attacking you, blaming you, or trying to guilt you. I’m trying to get you to start a conversation. An important,
urgent, and relevant conversation.

Today, we venture into the story of Tryphine Clara Dzimbanete, a Zimbabwean student living in India for the last five years. One of my recent memories of Tryphine Clara is of her expressing her genuine sympathies and love to four African Americans currently protesting and living in New Orleans. She said to them, If we could fight slavery, we can do this!!

Tryphine Clara was born in February of 1994, in the small Gweru town of Zimbabwe, and spent her early years growing up with her grandmother and mother.
In 2012, she graduated high school, and given the inability to afford a college education in Zimbabwe, she started her search for scholarships to study in any university in the world where she would receive a well-rounded education. The search quickly turned into a long-drawn struggle and it was only in February 2015, that Tryphine Clara received a concessional scholarship to study at Christ University, Bangalore, India. In June 2015, a wide-eyed Tryphine landed at Kempegowda International Airport, Bangalore. And here is where her story begins. Settle in……..

What made you choose India to pursue your college education? What were the early days like?
TC: I can pretty confidently say India chose me. I was open to studying anywhere really. I went to South Africa, Mozambique, applied to the US, etc. I just wanted an intercultural experience, quality education, and access to some decent opportunities, of course, as long as I could afford it. Back home, we have this TV channel, Zee World. We watched all the Indian shows, songs, and dances growing
up! When I received the scholarship from Christ University, I remember thinking — hey, maybe I’ll get to meet Priyanka Chopra! Haha. Also, I’d heard of many African students studying in India, and mostly the feedback was positive. There were a few red flags about how Indians perceive us, but I thought it to be a small price to pay.

When I arrived here, the first few weeks flew by. Christ University has very strict rules about discriminating against foreign students and the culture, in general, is very inclusive. I lived on campus, and there were also other students from various countries in Africa. Within that bubble, life seemed great. I did experience a huge culture shock — I remember feeling overwhelmed by the
population density here. It felt like all the people of Gweru could fit in Koramangala! My discomfort began when I decided to explore the city. On one Sunday, I was taking an elevator in a shopping mall, and a group of girls entered the elevator, and as soon as they saw me, they moved away into the corner, at least 2 feet away from me. That ride was tense. They got out as soon as the doors opened,
and it felt like they were relieved. There have been other instances of subtle micro-aggressions like this — people would touch my hair without my permission, address me in the singular, dismiss me easily, and I began feeling very aware that not everyone wanted me here. That must have been incredibly hard to experience. Unfortunately, such incidents are almost wilfully ignored by our society.

How did you adjust to life in India? What happened next?
TC: The real problems began when I had to move out of campus housing and had to find a home to rent. A friend of mine (also Black) and I, started looking for an apartment close to the university campus. One landlord saw us approaching and even before I could say hello, quite literally chased us away!

At this point in the interview, Tryphine was giggling. She imitated the landlord, and with the best Indian accent, she could muster up, animatedly recited his words to me. “No, no, no, no, no! You Africans are not welcome. Don’t come back here! Go! Go away now!”
TC: I remember the incident as if it happened yesterday. As soon as he realized we wanted to rent his house, the landlord vigorously shook his head saying no at least a dozen times. He didn’t want my name, background, qualifications — nothing. Next time, we were prepared. We telephoned first. I introduced myself, came to an agreement on the rent, and this landlord decided to meet me that
evening. Now when I recollect, I don’t think he’d realized I was Black. As soon as we met, his face went from bewildered to annoyed rather quickly. Once again, we were unsuccessful. In some cases, we did find men who were willing to rent to us, but their wives thought we would be a bad influence on their children. Eventually, after about a hundred houses, I did find a home. A Mr. Somanath in S.G Palya Koramangala rented to us. He was well-read, knew about Zimbabwe, told me about his favorite India-Zimbabwe cricket matches, and to date, is one the kindest people I’ve met in India. But people like him were far too few. And the next three years taught me to never recommend any other Black person to come study in India.

Starting in 2016 and to this day, multiple Indian men have assumed I am a prostitute. Many a time, I am nonchalantly asked for my ‘rate’ for the night. On more evenings than I can count, I’ve come back home in tears and googled the meaning of the words ‘bartiya’ (will you come?), and much worse that I don’t want to mention now. My guy friends — almost always perceived to be drug peddlers. We’ve been approached in broad daylight for buying drugs, and for buying our bodies. The first time I went dancing at a club in Bangalore, I was man-handled, spoken to derogatorily, and assumed to be present to pick up customers. I thought that happened because the men were drunk? Because of my dressing? Because of the atmosphere? Because it happens to all girls, black or not? And I convinced myself it won’t happen again. Next time it happened on the street. The next, at a grocery store. The next, on
public transportation.

My neighbor, who I once made the mistake of accepting a favor from (I’d asked him to help me translate something from Hindi to English), though it was okay to come knocking at midnight and make moves on me. My visible discomfort translated as me being coy or shy because clearly, he thought this was ‘common’ where I came from. Just last year, I was in Kerala for a non-profit project
with a local school, and I was groped. In 2017, I was on my roof hanging clothes out to dry, and I was flashed. I’m immune to these experiences now. It’s so unfortunate, but I am. I’ve also been presumed to be ‘uncultured’ for how I dressed, talked, sat, or stood! Now that is something that confused me.

In my culture, married women are not supposed to expose their belly or their stomach. But in India, most married women wear sarees, and evidently, they do expose their stomach area. Never once did I think that was wrong. In fact, I instantly understood that it was a cultural difference, one that I actually appreciated.

So when I accept your norms as cultural differences, why do you get to tag mine as indecency?
Tryphine Clara had fallen silent. So had I. As a girl, I shared her anger, her frustration. We hear stories of public harassment of women almost every day. But listening to her also taught me that conversations about racial and gender-based discrimination are not mutually exclusive. A feminist issue can very much be a racist issue. The experiences of an African girl in a fairly progressive society
are far more worrisome and so different than those of a White girl, a Brown girl, and by extension, other people of color. I tried to gather my thoughts, and after some more conversation, I decided to ask her the question that perhaps has crossed her mind too by now.

These incidents you are describing to me are clearly criminal in nature. They’re illegal. They must be
reported. Did you ever share or report these incidents? What has your experience been like with the
government, local police, and authorities here?

TC: Free speech in India is a joke. Politicians seem to only care about those who can vote for them. There was once a time when a cab driver deboarded me at midnight in Kothnur because I wouldn’t give him five times the fare. I’m not great with directions, and I got lost. Nearby I saw a police station and felt an immense relief, and decided to approach the cops who were standing outside. They saw me walking towards them and simply ignored me. They walked away, didn’t help, and didn’t try to communicate with me. I was then rescued by another Black friend who happened to be in the area. As I educated myself more, I realized how the justice system in India is blind to the needs of Black students. In February 2017, a twenty-five-year-old Ugandan girl was brutally murdered in Bangalore,
and the story was widely reported as ‘prostitution gone wrong’. No follow-ups, no clarity, and clearly she did not live to tell the tale. Less than a month ago, a Nigerian was murdered in Bangalore at a party.

We come here to study or work, and we end up dead, and nobody seems to care. Worse, they seem to
think — ‘Served them right’.

So I don’t have faith in anyone else protecting me anymore. I look out for myself. I keep a low-profile, triple-check my surroundings when I’m outside, and look over my shoulder every damn day.

Before I moved here, I’d heard of a few red flags about how Indians perceive us, but I thought it to be a small price to pay. I was mistaken.

I didn’t have the courage to ask her to keep going. It felt like my skin was on fire. We live a few miles away and yet our worlds are completely different. I could feel my cheeks getting hot, fighting to hold back tears, and she stared back at me — calm, composed, and ready as ever for my next question. In what were the last few minutes of our conversation, I requested her to share with me what she
would want to say to someone reading her story. She answered almost instantly,

TC: To my fellow Black people living in India –
We’ve got to learn to survive. To choose our battles wisely. To live carefully on borrowed time so we
don’t end up as just another statistic. If you’re having a tough time, try and see the big picture. Why
did you move here? What are your goals, your hopes and dreams? If you feel yourself being dragged
into crime or illegal activities, if you are in the wrong, seek help. No matter how difficult, do the right

To the authorities –
Your relationship with Africa needs to go beyond the local embassy. Lend your support not just in international law and trade, but in my home as well. Implement laws to protect us, see the need for a systemic change.

To Indians reading –
Your country is beautiful. I love your food, your music, your weather, and your culture. I respect your values. Just like how there are bad and good people in your community, may be there are in mine as well. Don’t treat all of us as expendable. As a threat. Indians who visit any country in Africa are mostly treated with the highest respect. Can’t I expect the same?

Hi reader,
Tryphine Clara is a brilliant young woman, part of her university choir, former VP, and acting President of FISA-B, a federation of international student associations in Bangalore, and has created an impeccable impact as part of social impact organizations like the Melton Foundation and others — and yet, this is her reality.

By not taking an opposing stand, we enable her reality. By letting the color of someone’s skin disadvantage them, we enable her reality. At the beginning of this story, I shared the need for each of us to have an important, urgent, and relevant conversation. It’s time. It’s time indeed, to look into our own backyard.

Global issues need local solutions. Will you be part of the solution — sign petitions, make donations, not let a pigment decide a human being’s worth? Will you have that conversation? You know where to start.

How my culture soiled my life

How my culture soiled my life

Most inhabitants in the Noun Division, identify themselves as Bamouns. Celebrated for its cultural diversity and heritage; the Bamouns venerate their sultan and have made arts and craft a backbone of their economy. It’s emblem of a serpent with two heads is one of the several touristic sites which has attracted people from far and near. People from all walks of life with different religious backgrounds. It is one of those communities that depicts the true Cameroonian parlance of “Vivre assemble” as Christians, Muslims, and  Traditionalists, live in perfect harmony without interfering in the culture of one another. While the aroma of this amalgamation makes the strength of the Noun Division, a group of people in this community feel left out. “Culture is mankind’s primary adaptive mechanism, but when our primary adaptive mechanism becomes the reason why we are dying slowly, that means something has to be done.”

“Leave my house; Leave my house; Leave my house!” were the three words he repeated thrice to terminate a 10 years marriage. Just like that and it was over” Salamoutou narrates. Salamatou, 20 years old was the 8th wife to a notable in her community. She hails from a Muslim community in Massangam, a subdivision in the Noun, West Region, Cameroon. The Noun covers 52% of the land surface in the western region, with a surface area of 7687KM and a population density of 455,083 as of the 2005 demographic survey.

Covered with a hijab Salamatou explained how her culture is wired to make her stay at the bottom and how her husband has his way in her even when she is sick, battered at will, and deprived of her right to socializing. Like most young girls in the Bamoun community, Salamoutou was betrothed to her husband at the age of 10 and finally moved to his house when she turned 15. She was lucky to have a husband who waited for her to complete her primary school certificate. Some girls in her community don’t have the privilege to finish primary school before getting married.

Some get pregnant by older men who impregnate them because their parents owe them money. Such was the fate Salamatou found herself in. “It is a privilege for a parent to married out their daughter when they are still a virgin, besides men prefer them young because they are obedient, submissive, and respectful at that age” explained Aisha a 31-year-old mother who just saw her 15 years old daughters off for marriage. She adds that she had been given into marriage at age 12.

Her numerous issues including cancer of the cervix resulting from traditional methods of treating her virginal wounds from her older husband’s huge penis, still remain fresh in her mind. Asked if she felt it was a good practice, Aisha responded flatly. “It’s our culture, I got married when I was 12 and I learned to love my husband even though he beats me all the time. My daughter is lucky, she is the 2nd wife to her 38-year-old husband. I was the 9th wife to my 57-year-old husband. You see, she is lucky” Early marriage is part and parcel of the Bamoun culture which is highly celebrated in the communities. Almost every Saturday, parades of vehicles celebrating newlyweds can be seen across the streets of Foumban. With 60% of these marriages recognized traditionally, about 40% of the couples take the bar higher to establish their union legally in court. It will interest you to know that the opinion of the girl child is not sought by her parents. Some give them out as payment of debts, to fulfill Ancestral promises, and for many other reasons. Salamatou’s husband, in his affluence, organized a wedding for his 8th wife to reflect his social status. Salamatou had earlier rejected her union with him not only because he was 45 years her senior, but because she had a “fling” with another guy of her age. Not having a voice to choose her spouse, she stayed silent
and watched her parents sell her off to the highest bidder The couple had consummated their marriage without ever knowing each other’s previous medical report. Salamatou admits that though her husband wasn’t her first, she had undergone a virginal repair to make him feel like he deflowered her. It would have been sacrilege for him to discover that she wasn’t a virgin. Hence, Salamatou had disclosed her deepest secret to her mum about her sexual activities who after admonishing her, took her to an elderly woman in the
community to “repair” her hymen. Such practices are common in this locality as women undergo virginal tightening to win the hearts and trust of their husbands. Salamatou was contacted by the HIV-Free field agent during one of their outreach trips to Massagam. At four months pregnant, Salamatou was assisted with a free ANC consultation package which included HIV testing. She tested HIV positive.

At first, Salamatou did not understand what it meant to be HIV positive, she felt being HIV positive meant she was free from the virus. Understanding her level of education, the service provider used her vernacular to educate her on what HIV is all about, why she needed to take medication for life, the different modes of HIV transmission, and the steps to take to protect her unborn baby from contracting the virus. Conscious that adherence to treatment could prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV which accounts for 8% of HIV transmission in Cameroon, Salamatou was ready to do anything to keep her baby safe. She started learning more about her health and how to avoid re-infection. Empowered, Salamatou decided to open up to her husband. “he was very furious and warned me never to bring the topic up again. He repudiated me once and told me it was out of pity he was keeping me, if not he will have just sent me off as he did to my co-wife. I was banned from leaving the house till further notice” During her stay home, one of Salamatou’s co-wife visited her. It was the eldest of them all and she always looked up to her as a mother. Salamatou opened up to her. To her greatest dismay, her co-wife informed her that HIV was the cause of the saga that pushed their husband to utter the three-letter words that pushed their co-wife to leave. Salamatou made the hard decision to escaped one night to Foumban, the divisional capital of Noun. Once in Foumban, she was harbored by a relative. Salamatou is convinced that she can better follow up with her treatment and ensure the health of her baby away from her husband. While early marriages is in-vogue in the Noun, so are the rates of divorce/separations, it is estimated that over 40% of women married within the age of 13-20 end up as widows or  eparated/divorced in their 30s-40s. the quest of starting life anew, their impoverished background coupled with their limited knowledge on sexual education has increased the rate of unprotected sex with multiple partners amongst them, hence increase their exposure to HIV infection.

“Our moral values represent our culture and the importance of our culture lies in its close association with our way of living and thinking. Going contrary to this set of norms made me an outcast. Yet I’m ready to be that outcast if that is what it takes to have a healthy baby” Salamatou quipped.

According to the HIV-Free Project in Cameroon, the Noun harbors 20% of persons living with HIV in the Western Region of Cameroon with 70% being women, mostly of childbearing age. While many factors may account for these high numbers, the lapses of the culture of early marriages, and high rates of divorce, coupled with the low rate of sexual education are some key indicators that have favored the spread of HIV transmission among these beautiful people. If nothing is done, more girls would be infected with a ripple effect on the general population.