If there’s one institution (and in fact there are many) that I’ve learned to truly appreciate during this time in Kenya, its the UK National Health Service. Free health care at the point of delivery. Treatment for those who need it, without assessment of their ability to pay. Rationed, yes. After a wait, ok. Sometimes a postcode lottery. Not a magic wand. But ambitious in its vision, a testimony to what you can choose to do with taxation, and a miracle of our times, of which to be truly proud and for which to give daily thanks. The freedom which comes from believing that should I, or mine, be struck down by illness, professional help that we can afford will, most often, be offered.
I’ve been thinking of blood recently. When we arrived, we filled out forms at Tom’s work to join the Walking Blood Bank. Gave it no further thought. Assumed, vaguely, it might be about access to pre-screened or better nourished blood. Gradually I’ve got wiser.
Now I’m in the networks I get regular texts and emails asking whether I’m a specific blood type to give blood. I’ve been a blood donor in UK, it’s surely a good thing. But here, in extemis, the appeals are to give earmarked blood, to donate my O+ for my mate, patient B, or a classmate’s dad, or the radio appeal beneficiary, patient C, and her alone. No man is an island and there aren’t the storage facilities, or, I think, enough donors. Here you need your network. You need your employment-based Walking Blood Bank. In case of emergency, you may need your O+ mates, the school mums, and their spouses, and their friends and relations, and the Quaker meeting and the book group, and additional Samaritans, and need them not just to bring grapes, or to bring the children home from school, but to turn out and to donate their blood.
Sanitary towels are another big issue. A hidden issue. An embarrassing issue I’d guess for many Kenyan young women. They aren’t cheap – probably 200 KSh – £1.50 for enough for a monthly period. But lots of poorer families in the slums try to live on 75 KSh for the whole family a day. So girls, young women, older women have to manage without sanitary towels. Try to make do with leaves, mud or rags. Many have to miss a week of school a month. Not good for self esteem, health or education.
An Irish women’s group goes to some schools in Nairobi’s slums and hands out termly sanitary towels to the pupils. Local women’s groups make cheaper ones to generate jobs. But they are a drop in the ocean. A friend passed me another appeal recently. For sanitary towels to work, you need knickers. And those who have no sanitary towels, in general have no knickers either. So this other appeal is to donate pants. Not pants for all the month. Just pants to be worn during a period. Parties for panties they suggest. Instead of bring a bottle, bring a pack of pants to donate. I have to say, it’s a form of solidarity which appeals. But like the peace movement saying that you don’t see generals holding cake sales to pay for the latest military hardware, pants, sanitary towels, blood they’re such basic needs in this country where you see many with plenty as well as extreme poverty.
Noughties life as a new Mum in small town Hertfordshire was a Big Shock. And yes, feminism still mattered, and yes the issues were just as present as a first tim Mum, but it fossilised to a private belief, without the community – or probably my volition – to move to action.
And now 2010 in Nairobi, and I weep at the stories that Kenyan women in my life share with me. The mother who interrupted the rape of her eleven year old daughter by a family member. How the police wouldn’t get involved. How the family had to move districts for security. Of the lack of any support services. The woman who tells of her rape by a family member who was paying her school fees. How she ran away just before A levels, but still hasn’t told her mother. The girls who tell of gatekeepers demanding sex to introduce you to a possible employer. My friend, a single mum, who works as a prostitute when she can’t raise the school fees for her children. The young girl who tells of the night time cries of her sister, being raped by her father.
These aren’t well worn stories which have been wrung dry in the telling and retelling. These are painful explanations of why something didn’t happen as it might have. In my friends’ minds they aren’t the point of the story, but a contributing factor to be endured, a thread in the pattern of their lives. They are the stories of the powerlessness of poverty. Of the impotence of the vulnerable when a justice system doesn’t do justice. The stories of why feminism matters, why we women need to listen and to advocate, and why feminism can’t be allowed to be a dirty word, even in the cocoon of Small Town UK. Take time today to pray for the women of Kenya.