A New Project In Ghana - Home of Care and Protection

In September of 2018 members of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany brought a visiting delegation from the “Home of Care and Protection” (HOCAP) of Ghana and two Ghanaian Presbyterian Churches to a MoonBee at the Delmar Presbyterian Church. Afterwards we all had lunch together and spoke about our work. The folks from Ghana had long been working with deprived communities to improve opportunities but they had not heard of the problems associated with lack of access to menstrual supplies. We spoke about our experiences in other parts of Africa and they went back to Ghana to perform a needs assessment to see if indeed this was also a problem in the communities they serve.

What they found didn’t surprise me. In a report to the Westminster Presbyterian Church they stated that, “Menstrual hygiene among young girls between the ages of 10 and above has shown very disturbing cases especially in rural communities. In a recent …menstrual hygiene awareness program in Okushibri and Otchbleku in the Greater Accra Region, and Nyitawuta in the Akatsi North District of the Volta Region, discussions with about 100 girls on menstrual hygiene showed that many young girls are faced with a number of challenges that is spread all over the regions especially in the rural communities.”

They go on to describe similar problems to those we find in Malawi, Kenya and Uganda such as the availability of menstrual pads, but at a price out of reach for many families. In some more rural areas, they found that menstrual products were not available at all, and girls were forced to use unhygienic substitutes (such as old, sometimes dirty cloth). They learned that girls in their service area frequently miss school when having their periods for fear of leaks, and teasing from boys. Furthermore, they found that girls lacked knowledge about this basic function of their bodies, do not understand their cycles and are sometimes shocked upon getting their first period because they did not know what was happening.

After the needs assessment was completed, Barbara Asempa, Executive Director of HOCAP and Catechist of the Tema Redemption Church requested and received funding from Westminster Presbyterian Church for projects in two communities -- Nyitawuta (run by HOCAP Mission) and Okushibri (run by Tema Redemption under the direction of their pastor, Rev. Kwadwo Osei-Bonsu).  Westminster paid the printing costs and then sent the MoonCatcher curricula (for both girls and boys) to HOCAP and the Tema Church.

It is so wonderful to learn how this dedicated group of individuals decided to change this situation. They got to work! They started educating girls and boys, as well as parents and teachers, came up with a design for a pad (a bit different from ours as they found that girls in their communities all have underwear), found a seamstress to teach sewing and started making pads.

A year later, here is what we heard from our friend, Barbara Asempa:

“…I must say the menstrual hygiene program (The MoonCatcher Project) really opened our eyes to many other plights of the Nyitawuta community teenage girls. I was in the Nyitawuta community on Monday and returned on Tuesday. I took to the community a seamstress who is teaching the teenage mothers and other teenage school dropouts how to sew, they are beginning with sewing the menstrual hygiene items that the girls need to have. We bought some fabrics, our major challenge was how to get the inner plastic (Tyvek) lining, but we were amazed at what we found. It worked perfectly well. We also bought three sewing machines which we sent to the community on Monday. We had eight teenage girls, four of them have children and one is pregnant all within the ages of 14 to 18 years who had dropped out of school and expressed interest in sewing the first time we had the program. They began the sewing this Monday and you should see the joy in their faces.

On Monday we also met the other teenage girls and showed them the pad holder that had been sewn, they were so happy and eager to have them, but the complete package was not ready so we assured them that since the seamstress was in the community to work with the girls we will get all done and share with them by next month.”

Barbara also sent us a few photos of the work there. It is so gratifying to meet people like this - who learn about a problem and then get to work solving it. We are also grateful to Lois Wilson of Westminster Presbyterian Church for getting us all together last year, and for all that she does to address period poverty around the world. Thanks Lois!

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Space at Last!

I’m sitting in the Sacramento airport waiting for my flight to Portland Oregon to visit my friends Dawn and Ken. I’ll be spending the week painting the last two sides of Dawn’s house as a 70th birthday present for her. My smart phone says the weather will be perfect the whole time. Yippee!

Our big news is that we finally have a workspace!  I am so grateful to Faith Methodist Church in Schenectady for providing this room for us. This will make the many parts of this project so much easier to handle.

Last week I went to help clear stuff out of our new work room along with LuAnn Santabarbara and a young, very energetic teenage girl. We lugged toys, books, furniture and an air hockey table from the room leaving it with just a few things that needed more muscle than the three of us had. With a rug cleaning and some fresh wall paint it will be perfect for housing all the totes and supplies that have accumulated in my studio, porch, front hall and friend’s basements. I can’t wait to be in there. We’ll keep you posted about what we may need but we probably won’t know until we see how all of our supplies, fabric, crafts and files fit into the space.

The home of our new MoonCatcher Office is thanks to the generosity of the Faith Methodist Church in Schenectady.

The home of our new MoonCatcher Office is thanks to the generosity of the Faith Methodist Church in Schenectady.

While in Portland, I’m hoping to meet a woman from Bend Oregon who works with a school in Nepal and is a Rotary member. She’s interested in bringing MoonCatcher Kits to the school and hopes to get some support from her Rotary Club to make this possible. It’s fun for me to travel around the country and meet people interested in what we are doing.

 As I was sitting here in the airport, I had a conference call with Maureen (my traveling partner) and a woman who runs a medical clinic in Haiti. Maureen and I asked lots of questions about Haiti and how best to navigate our trip there in January. Of course, most of what we need to know we are finding out from our partners from Bay Road Church in Lake George who we will be traveling with but the more information we have, the better.

 Our “Moon-vie Night” was a great success. I find myself having long conversations with people who saw the film and are amazed by the stigma of being a menstruating woman. PadMan is such a fun yet educational film. I’m so glad we decided to show it.

 It’s been a busy Summer. Our MoonBees have helped us finish another 350 kits that will be going to Zimbabwe for a group of AIDS orphans. The Glenville Rotary Club is helping us to get a grant from Rotary International for further work in Uganda. Sage college is partnering with us to involve students with a Kenyan school that needs our kits and menstrual education. Union College is kicking off the new school year with a MoonBee. We’ve been working with girl scouts in Lake George. Zonta is hosting a costume ball to support us on October 26 at The Water’s Edge Lighthouse in Glenville. Come dressed up (or not) and help make this a success! The International Foundation gave us a $25,000 grant and we have several other grants pending.

This looks to be a very fun eventing!

This looks to be a very fun eventing!

One of the most exciting things about to happen is that Phoebe Nabwami our partner from Uganda who makes The MoonCatcher Project happen there, is coming to the US to see us. She’ll be at our MoonWine and Cheese Party on September 17 and at several MoonBees and presentations too. If you want to meet an angel here’s your chance. We are so blessed to have Phoebe as part of our MoonCatcher team.

Phoebe Nabwami with students in Pallisa, Uganda

Phoebe Nabwami with students in Pallisa, Uganda

Enjoy the rest of the Summer. Mine has been great and I hope yours has been too.

Summer 2019

It’s nice to have a little reprieve from the sweltering days of this Summer. Today is my husband’s birthday and I’m taking full credit for ordering lovely weather for his day.

 Last week was our first ever “Moon-vie” at Proctor’s Theater in downtown Schenectady, New York. We decided to invite everyone to a fun evening of air-conditioned entertainment as a simple fundraiser in the middle of what for most people is vacation time. It felt like a huge risk, but we jumped in and for almost six weeks we had nine people signed up to come to the event. I found myself waking in the middle of the night having dreamt of the GE Theater with eight people staring at me as I spoke about The MoonCatcher Project. I was one of the nine ticket holders.

 We showed “PadMan”, the wonderful entertaining, heartfelt and profound story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a caring inventive man from India who designs and builds a machine to make menstrual pads and thereby brings low cost menstrual supplies to his country. Produced in true Bollywood style, it was fun as well as thought provoking and everyone loved all two plus hours of it.

 Happily, I ended up speaking to over 100 people in that theater who came out to support The MoonCatcher Project. It was a movie date for all of us and a great way to get out of the heat. Thank you everyone!

Over 100 local supporters attended “Moon-vie Night” at Proctor’s GE Theater on August 7.

Over 100 local supporters attended “Moon-vie Night” at Proctor’s GE Theater on August 7.

A young supporter helps Ellie to choose winners of our raffle.

A young supporter helps Ellie to choose winners of our raffle.

But speaking of fundraisers. The MoonCatcher Project Board spends a lot of time thinking about trying not to deluge people with ask after ask. I know that my inbox contains emails from non-profits nearly every day. The nonstop requests for money can get tiresome! The reality though is that in this day and age where large amounts of money aren’t being given to non-profits it’s our job to fundraise constantly. And it isn’t easy.

My feeling is that you should give when you can and let others give when they can. For everyone there are going to be fat and lean times and that’s understandable. Forgive us if our pleas are annoying you. In between all those asks are emails with information about what we are doing, stories from schools throughout the world, beautiful pictures and thought provoking ideas. We appreciate not only the financial support but the time you give us and the emotional support as well. When Oprah discovers us, we’ll slow down the asks. We promise

Thanks so much for being a part of our growing community. Watch for Fall MoonBees. There are a bunch coming up as well as some presentations and events. Thank you and enjoy the sunshine.

Saying Goodbye to Sophie

Sophie Chanache

Sophie Chanache

With great sadness, I would like you to know that MoonCatcher friend and colleague, Sophie Chanache, died on June 26, 2018 from advanced cancer of the cervix. Sophie was one of the head tailors at our Mtunthama, Malawi sewing guild and beloved by everyone who knew her.

I met Sophie 3 years ago on my first trip to Malawi. Phoebe (our Ugandan partner) and I were teaching women to construct MoonCatcher kits and Sophie was one of two women who caught on quickly. She had an immediate understanding of how the treadle machine worked (having never used one before) and grew to understand the importance of making beautiful menstrual kits for school girls in Malawi.

I loved Sophie’s infectious smile. She was not only a skilled seamstress but a delight to be around. She had a lovely sense of humor as we struggled to understand each other’s language. Of course, she was way more proficient in English than I am with Chichewa (I can say two words) but she made me feel at home as I tried to get my thoughts across. She was helpful when teaching our MoonCatcher curriculum too.

Sophie will be certainly be missed by all of us here, and by so many who loved her in Malawi. May she rest in peace.

A Busy Spring

The MoonCatcher Project has been going full steam ahead lately. Since I returned from Malawi in late April, we have held eight MoonBees and I’ve had several speaking engagements. It’s  been fun being in so many places and meeting so many wonderful people.

There’s been some other really cool things happening too. WAM (Where Arts and Activism Meet) Theater Company gave us a special donation of $1200. WAM donates a portion of the proceeds from its theatrical productions to organizations that benefit women and girls. This year the proceeds from the production of “Lady Randy” were donated to an organization in the Berkshires. In addition to the first prize winner they presented The MoonCatcher Project with an honorary donation. Several of us went to see the play and then participated in a panel discussion afterwards with the audience.

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Maureen Fernandez (my frequent travel companion and long-time friend) sent us some info about an organization called IMHER (The International Menstrual Health Entrepreneurship Roundup). Based in Dartmouth College, IMHER is a university-based information resource focusing on economic access issues around menstrual products and education, and on the organizations and entrepreneurs worldwide that work to meet those needs in their local communities. Their website features organizations from around the world doing work around menstruation. We are now on their site and will soon post a VLOG which explains how our pad can be worn without underwear. Please see: https://imher.net/find-washable-pads/.

That same Maureen suggested last year that I do a TED talk and researched some ways to make that happen. Last weekend at Union College in Schenectady I did a TEDx talk about The MoonCatcher Project and the political issues surrounding menstruation. I think it went really well. I’m not usually a  nervous speaker but something about having to follow someone else’s format made me anxious. In a month or so there will be a video of the talk on YouTube (which we will post on our website). Though challenging, this experience pushed me to think about The MoonCatcher Project in a new light. Though I’ve always thought we are part of something bigger, this talk made me seriously look at how oppressed women are due to attitudes around  menstruation.

In May, students from the graduate class at Rockefeller College at the University at Albany called “PAD: 527: Philanthropy and Civil Society” deliberated and voted to award The MoonCatcher Project $500 through their new Student Philanthropy Fund. It is the inaugural year of the Student Philanthropy Fund and The MoonCatcher Project, is the very first awardee. (Special thanks to Patrick Dodson for taking photos at this event.)

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We are gearing up for our “Moon-vie Night” at Proctors on August 7. We’ll be showing PadMan and talking about The MoonCatcher Project. We’ll sell crafts and lite Indian food too. Our amazing graphic designer Monica has designed the fabulous flyer below for the event and we are hoping that we can get a huge turnout. It will be a fun Summer night’s event.

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Our production in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda and India is increasing all the time. Two nights ago my WhatsApp was lighting up with messages from three African projects at once. It was fun though a little overwhelming trying to figure out the finances and international transfers involved to keep everyone working.

Summer is creeping closer. We are taking July off from MoonBees but will be working on other matters that all too often get pushed aside. I’ll be going to the beach for a few days too!

Day 13: Saying Goodbye to Malawi and Hello to Elephants!

Saying goodbye to Alice and Andy is always bittersweet. I’m happy to be going home but sad to leave the lovely people of Malawi.

Elizabeth, one of our tailors, met me at Peter’s house to say goodbye and thank you. That was lovely of her and made me feel a little better after missing all of them yesterday. We left an hour later than we expected this morning, but it all worked out just fine.

On the way to Lake Malawi we went through an elephant preserve and low and behold we found three of these glorious beasts. A mother and baby were on the right-hand side of the road and the daddy appeared after a while on the left. They were all beautiful, but the male was magnificent. I’ve never seen an elephant so close and I have to admit it scared the living daylights out of me until Luzu, our driver mentioned, that the elephant wouldn’t come down the bank towards us. He was so huge. None of us could believe our good fortune. Truly this was a major highlight of our trip.

 

Up close and personal with this magnificent animal.

Up close and personal with this magnificent animal.

We saw four enactments of the stations of the cross too since it is Good Friday as we leave Malawi. Hundreds of people come out to parade through the streets with a heavy crucifix, all dressed in purple and white singing and praying.

The Stations of the Cross.

The Stations of the Cross.

Swimming in the lake was refreshing and relaxing. Having a beer on the beach felt like vacation and I even got to read my book for a while. 

Sunrise over Lake Malawi.

Sunrise over Lake Malawi.

Dinner with the whole group and a walk on the peer was a sweet end to an amazing trip. We accomplished a lot. Tomorrow we head for home. Good bye Malawi!

 

Day 12: Building a New Bathroom

Ends up I love bricklaying a lot. We went over to Chamwavi secondary school to help build the girls bathroom that was financed by our local Rotary Clubs with help from The Mooncatcher Project. They already had a good start on it, so we jumped right in and asked for instructions. Ezekiel, my tutor showed me with pointing and a bit of English how to trowel the sandy cement onto the previous row and lay a brick just right, making sure that it sat evenly on the row beneath. We followed the string that gave us a true line and sometimes used a level to be sure the wall was straight and even. I especially liked filling the spaces between each brick being sure to get enough cement “paste” into each crack. With my back the way it has been on this trip I decided to stop before I got too sore. That’s never easy for me as I like to stick with that sort of things for hours and really see progress.

The old girls’ bathroom.

The old girls’ bathroom.

Ezekiel with Helen and Charlotte - building the new bathroom.

Ezekiel with Helen and Charlotte - building the new bathroom.

Later, Helen, Charlotte, Olipa and I decided to play hooky for the rest of the day. We had originally planned to spend three days this week in the sewing room working with the electric machines that I brought but there isn’t any electricity so that plan has been put on hold. Instead we went to the Kasungu National park to see if we could find Elephants.

The drive to the park is long, bumpy and very beautiful. I marvel at the sky this country has. The clouds are glorious against an electric blue color. There is just so much horizon. At home buildings and trees seem to get in the way but here I feel surrounded by sky and the African light accentuates it. The early evening moon was extraordinary.  It was so big and bright.

The road was an adventure!

The road was an adventure!

The rising moon.

The rising moon.

We didn’t find elephants except for those we imagined in the cloud formations that were pretty good imitations. We did see Rhinos, Antelopes and a lovely little red dragon fly. Taking the tour to find the animals had us car bushwhacking through barely recognizable dirt roads with so much overgrowth that one could barely see out the front window. My passenger seat window was broken so bits and pieces of sticks and reed kept flying through the opening and getting stuck in my clothing. I spent a fair amount of time pulling prickly stuff out of my t-shirt once the ride was over but am glad for the adventure nonetheless.

 And now this is the last day here in Mtuntama. I’ll miss the friends I’ve made here especially Andy and Alice. Alice taught me to make nsima tonight. I loved working in the kitchen with her. Every movement she makes is purposeful and elegant. I loved watching her. She made soy meatballs, chicken, rice and a really yummy eggplant dish for our parting meal. Nsima is a type of doughy cornmeal porridge eaten by hand.  I learned to scoop up the other parts of the meal with it just like a Malawian.

 I’m all packed and ready for the 7:00am departure tomorrow. Off to bed to read and get a good night’s sleep.

 

Day 11: Working with our Tailors and Another Visit to the Orphanage

I met Sophie, Elizabeth and Esme (our tailors) at 8:00 this morning in the Mtunthama MoonCatcher sewing studio. I was able to show them all the supplies that we brought for them and find out what they were missing. The biggest problem was that both Esme and Sophie’s phones had died, and this was preventing us from communicating. Olipa and I went into town and bought a phone, and some machine oil. On the way back we bought lunch for everyone at a little stand that used a piece of cloth to separate the kitchen from the dining area. It was a local street place that packed the food into take away containers that we later had to return. I liked that. Nothing got thrown away.

Elizabeth cuts fabric for MoonCatcher Kits.

Elizabeth cuts fabric for MoonCatcher Kits.

Esme at her machine.

Esme at her machine.

Sophie sewing drawstring bags.

Sophie sewing drawstring bags.

After lunch Charlotte, Helen, Olipa and I met at the orphanage to teach an art class to the age seven and up kids. Charlotte had brought watercolors and tablets of paper. She showed the kids how to apply the paint and then let them paint as many pictures as they wanted. They loved it. At one point we had to mop the floor because it was so wet from dripped paint water. The children just kept painting. It was a great success.

The children were so proud of their artwork!

The children were so proud of their artwork!

I went back to the sewing room and Charlotte went to take a baby for a walk. The orphanage strapped a baby on her and off she went eventually showing up at the sewing room when I was just leaving. She easily convinced me to go get a baby of my own to take for a walk. Little Elizabeth who is just a few weeks old got secured to my front and off we went. Both babies fell fast asleep as we walked over to Helen’s place to show off these sweeties. Felt like slacking off today but actually these babies need holding and attention, so it’s important to have people stop by and help. Charlotte remarked on how there are no strollers in Malawi. Long pieces of fabric hold babies and toddlers securely to their mothers and babies are carried everywhere

Charlotte carrying Baby Bernard.

Charlotte carrying Baby Bernard.

Tomorrow we’ll go help build the girls bathroom that we helped our local Rotary Club to raise money for. I’m looking forward to doing some manual labor after all this meeting, talking and moving around in cars. Hot and steamy today. It will be nice to take a bath.

Day 10: Returning to Chilinda

We are surrounded by intense poverty and so much need here. It sometimes becomes hard to focus on the MoonCatcher Project’s mission and prevent “mission creep” as we witness so many people in dire circumstances. It’s tempting to want to help everywhere, but the reality of course is that we can’t. I chose a small something – helping girls stay in school by providing menstrual kits - and I have tried to focus on just that. But other needs arise - this year it was a few pieces of foam for mattresses that my friend Helen and I decided we’d give to a school here. Girls had been sleeping on the metal springs of bunk beds. A good night’s sleep may help keep a girl in school too. 

All day long I found myself thinking of yesterday’s accident. I did have a chance to check in with Brian (Dr. Lisse – founder of Bridges to Malawi) this morning and was told that that thing about staying awake when you may have a concussion is an outdated belief. It really doesn’t help or matter – poor baby Lorice wanted to sleep and her two “helpers” were nudging and poking her relentlessly to keep her awake!  We also learned that the mother probably had some trauma to her frontal lobe which should sort itself out fairly soon and she will then pay attention to her baby again. I wonder how they are all doing. I suppose we’ll never know.

We returned to Chilinda, the school that we went to last week that had no students. Today 62 girls showed up to hear about menstrual management and reproductive health. We handed out MoonCatcher Kits and also pads made by Days for Girls. Sarah, one of the high school kids with Bridges to Malawi, brought the Days for Girls kits and helped us teach. I think it worked pretty well. I feel a little bad that her kits had soap and ours didn’t. So, some girls got that and others didn’t. We just haven’t worked out a way to supply soap to girls here like we do in Uganda.

Sarah teaching part of the menstrual health curriculum.

Sarah teaching part of the menstrual health curriculum.

Happy students with their kits.

Happy students with their kits.

Charlotte wanted some fabric, so we stopped in Kasungu on our way back and bought pieces of African cloth. It was fun to look through the colorful stalls and exclaim over the many designs and colors. Helen found a fabric with birds (birdwatching being her favorite thing in life) and the rest of us found various other designs that we bought. I’ve been in love with a red fabric that had polka dots on it and a border of colorful stripes along the edge. We see it on women everywhere and have dubbed it “Ellie’s fabric” after being told that some of the popular pieces have names.

The president is campaigning and there was a big noisy parade in town with soldiers riding on the hoods of trucks holding giant machine guns. I suppose the president was in one of those vehicles. We were told not to take pictures. 

Finally, we made it to the orphanage to hold babies. We spent a couple of hours feeding, walking, and rocking babies. The youngest was a couple of weeks old and there were four or five other tiny ones too. Toddlers kept wandering in, climbing onto our laps, and in my case often falling asleep. We got our baby fix and managed not to bring them all back home with us. 

These little ones need everything. They share four or five bottles and when we looked at the nipples we noticed mold. The clothing situation is pretty dire too. Everything is ripped and stained. The beds have cockroaches crawling on the dirty mattresses and every baby had bites. The place does the best it can. Babies are held and comforted. The older children seem happy and run around playing a lot. Elizabeth, the house head truly cares about these children but there is never enough to go around, and she is worn out trying to make it all work. We brought a few receiving blankets, but I wish we’d filled a fifty-pound bag with clothes or diapers.

Charlotte and I took a walk around the compound and got a little exercise. We are both a little red from the sun but feel like we aren’t quite so pasty white anymore. It was a good day.

 

Day 9: Unexpected Challenges

I got up around 5:30 this morning and went to sit in the dining room to write for a while. I could hear the birds outside and eventually a soft rain started to fall. It was a gentle quiet morning with no sign that anything unusual would be happening today.

We left for Muzuzu around 10:00, having gotten directions from Keni about where to buy treadle sewing machines. We wanted to send two to the Chituka sewing group and Keni was available to deliver them if we accomplished the task today. We were able to find the machines, oil and tape measures. All these things were on our list. 

Feeling accomplished, we were about to go play for a while. We talked about buying some fabrics or going to the art gallery that had been closed the previous day, but we found we couldn’t close the car door. Out of nowhere three auto mechanics appeared and started to dismantle the door and soon it was lying on the ground and all its innards removed. They discussed the problem for quite some time and eventually wandered off in search of parts. We waited, chatting away with Mary who would soon leave for her village up north, until finally the guys returned and miraculously put everything back together and the door worked. Most amazing of all is that it cost just a little over fourteen dollars. 

A little car trouble!

A little car trouble!

We drove Mary to her mini bus stop, said a sad goodbye and headed out of town. 

About forty minutes past Muzuzu we came upon a fairly major car accident that had happened minutes before. Ends up we were the first car on the scene and our little van became an ambulance that delivered a mother, her baby and a teenaged girl to the Muzuzu hospital. So back we traveled the way we had just come with our injured guests. The mother had a broken arm and seemed disoriented - she was completely unaware of her baby, never even checking on her - just in a daze. The teenage girl had cuts up and down both arms. She was crying and very scared. The baby’s ear wouldn’t stop bleeding so we worried that she could have a concussion. We tried desperately to keep her awake during the trip - thinking this was necessary. A second car brought in two boys, one of whom needed surgery and another who was bruised and very upset. The driver had left the scene and one boy didn’t survive.  We stayed until each of our charges had family to attend to them and then we were on our way.

Needless to say we were all pretty rattled ourselves and spend a fair amount of time trying to piece together what had happened. I keep thinking about that baby - wondering if her eardrum was damaged or if she will suffer from a brain injury. Her name is Lorice. I hope she is alright.

We got home at around 8:30. Dear Alice had some dinner left for me. I took a cold bath and here I am, in bed writing this. Mary made it home safely too.

 

Day 8: Catching up with Mary

I woke to the sound of the waves on the beach. I forgot for a moment that it was Lake Malawi and not the ocean. I woke with mosquito bites on my face and arms after battling them all night and mostly NOT sleeping. I always seem to have one night like this in Africa. It had rained too so everything was wet and fresh smelling.

Beautiful Lake Malawi.

Beautiful Lake Malawi.

After a breakfast of hot rice porridge, veggie omelets and fried plantain we settled our bill and left for Nyamoti’s house. Patience, Emily and one other tailor were there. We talked about the future of the sewing guild and expectations on both sides. They presented me with a lovely mortar and pestle carved with elephant motifs and bade us a safe journey.

With one stop for bananas - two kinds - we made it to Muzuzu just in time to meet up with “our very pregnant” Mary.  She looks adorable and we were so delighted to see each other after a year’s time. We chatted and caught up and held an impromptu baby shower. Kelly had sent gifts and I brought a few things. Mary was so happy and swore she’d dress baby Arnold in the outfit I gave her for leaving the hospital and send a picture too. She told us she thought it made this whole baby thing seem very real.

Our good friend, and the person who helped us get started in Malawi, Mary.

Our good friend, and the person who helped us get started in Malawi, Mary.

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Tomorrow we buy sewing machines for Chituka and head back to Mtunthama. Delicious dinner of veggie stew and rice tonight. Lon bought us chocolate! Along with Mary that made the day pretty perfect.

Day 7: Teaching and a Lot of Learning

By 9:00 we were on the road in front of Nyomoti’s house waiting for our friends to show up to go to the “singing and dancing” school. That’s what I call Malemgamzoma Primary School because the tailors there greet us with song and dance. 

We had 43 people in the library to learn how to make MoonCatcher kits. About half of the group was 8th graders and the others were women from last year’s group. We cut carriers and compared a good pad with a problem one and asked and answered questions back and forth. Eventually we made two really beautiful carriers using hand cranked sewing machines. I think we will see beautiful work coming from this cooperative.

Demonstrating how to cut carriers.

Demonstrating how to cut carriers.

We went next to the Bandawe School for the Hearing Impaired. We loved this place. The students there taught us lots of sign language and gave us each “sign names” that described some aspect of our appearance; for example, a gesture mimicking my hair was my name while Charlotte’s sign had to do with two freckles that are on her cheek and jaw. Everyone laughed and smiled a lot and enjoyed spending time together. I was there to teach how to put elastic on the shoelace belt but the minute we got there the power went out, so we just visited instead. Emmanuel, the head tailor is so skilled that with a simple explanation I was sure he understood how to do this task. “Go with the Flow” ... our constant refrain when doing this work. You take what you get and often it’s so much better than you expected.

 

Our new friends at the “singing and dancing” school.

Our new friends at the “singing and dancing” school.

We ended the afternoon with a swim in Lake Malawi. None of us had bathing suits but we managed with capris and tank tops and loved every minute of it. A little yoga on the beach made it even more fun.

Tomorrow we go to Mzuzu to meet up with our pal Mary who had helped us so much last year. Mary is pregnant and I’m dying to see her five months along and to hear all about her life. We will attend a meeting of a local a Rotary Club on Monday and somewhere during our time there we will find time to buy two treadle machines for the sewing group at the “singing and dancing” school.

Day 6 Our Newest Tailors in Chituka

There were amazing views traveling from Mtunthama to Chituka but it took us most of the day. I loved the expanses of fields, animal shaped mountains and endless skies. Around every corner was yet another magnificent vista. This is an absolutely glorious country.

We went to our first school to meet last year’s wonderful tailors. I had only expected to see Patience and some people I’d never met but instead we were greeted with song and dance by the women I had worked with last year and had grown so fond of. I was totally delighted to see them all again. Along with students, they have been making MoonCatcher kits and from what I saw they looked pretty good. There were introductions, speeches and a lovely little essay delivered by a teen about how much having a menstrual kit means to her and her friends. I was so touched by this.

Patience, one of our newest tailors in Chituka.

Patience, one of our newest tailors in Chituka.

The beautiful sign we brought for our new sewing guild.

The beautiful sign we brought for our new sewing guild.

We will return tomorrow to have an impromptu MoonBee working with students and adults.

Later we went to the School for the Deaf. A group of adorable eighth graders met us with big smiles. Nine sewing machines were lined up outside on a patio area for us to inspect. Again, introductions and greetings took place and I found myself wishing that I knew sign language. Hugs and smiles seemed to suffice. Three of these teachers will come to the MoonBee and when it’s over we’ll head back to the school to teach a little on the electric machines.

Ellie and Lon with students at the School for the Deaf,

Ellie and Lon with students at the School for the Deaf,

Charlotte spends some time with one of the students.

Charlotte spends some time with one of the students.

The hotel where we are staying is incredible. It is right on the lake. We put our feet in and marveled at how warm the water is. Hand-made canoes are scattered on the shore with a few out fishing even in the dark.

It’s been a long day. It was fun to find a little internet, have a glass of wine and eat a nice dinner. A peek at the stars from out on the beach was a fun prelude to a hot shower. Time to sleep.

Day 5: Visiting Three Schools and hundreds of Girls

I’d expected to go to one school today but in the end, we visited three.

We arrived at an empty secondary school by 10:00 and eventually found the headmaster who told us that the students had left for Easter vacation and only 5 girls were there for us to meet. After some discussion we agreed that he’d get 85 girls to return for a morning class next Tuesday and we’d make the long trek back to deliver our class and kits.

We’d noticed a primary school across the road and asked to be introduced by the secondary school principal. He happily walked us over and explained that we’d be happy to talk with the girls there. The class was made up of twelve, thirteen and fourteen-year-olds. Most of them claimed not to have started to menstruate yet and that’s perfect as far as I’m concerned. I wish we could explain menstruation long before a girl gets her first period, and then give her the necessary supplies to be ready and not afraid.

Teaching girls about their cycle.

Teaching girls about their cycle.

Our second school had some English speakers, so I was more helpful when teaching. The girls had great questions, wanted to be nurses, engineers, bank managers, and were cheerful and interested. They sang for us and hammed it up when we asked to take photos. This picture thing brings out the same in children all over the world. We were invited to see the dormitory and I asked to see the toilet. The dorm had three rooms; two bedrooms and a kitchen. the floors were dirt and the children slept 20 to a room on mats on the floor. The kitchen had one small window, a low ceiling and smelled of cooking smoke. The bathroom was made of grasses that had mostly fallen down providing no privacy and the toilets were small spaces with wooden doors and a hole in the floor. The only ventilation was some small holes up towards the ceiling.

These smiles say it all.

These smiles say it all.

The third school, which we didn’t find out about until our driver announced that we were late, was another hour down the bumpy, dirt road. The views all day were glorious. This is an amazingly beautiful country with some of the best skies I’ve ever seen.

It always takes a while for these girls to get over being shy about the topic of menstruation. We try to get them laughing which helps a lot and we usually leave with smiling happy girls surrounding us. 

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We saw the dormitory at this school too. It is a new building, but the wooden beds have no mattresses and the girls say they are scared at night to go to the toilets that are so far away. Six students stood up at the end of the session to read short papers about the challenges they face. Each asked us to help in some particular way. The most I could say was that I’d tell people about them. There is so much need here that it’s difficult to stay focused on our mission: to overcome barriers to menstruation.  There are just so many other barriers and challenges!

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We leave for Chituka tomorrow morning at 7:00. I wanted to leave earlier but we are too tired and it’s just not fair to everyone. I will try to get down to the sewing space early to pack us up and be ready for the trip. We return to Mtunthama on Monday.

Day 4: Visiting Schools with the Team

This morning, I woke to chicken clucking and roosters crowing. I wouldn’t feel at home here if it weren’t for those noisy birds. I think it beats an alarm clock, but I may be in the minority about this. It was sunny and breezy most of the day though we did get a downpour mid-morning, that dried up before we could wonder how to stay dry having forgotten raincoats.

 We met Olipa at the sewing guild, gathered our MoonCatcher kit packed suitcases and waited for our crew to arrive. Later than planned, but with plenty of time we loaded everything and everyone into a van outfitted with narrow wooden benches along each side. It makes for a bumpy ride, but you can fit lots of people and supplies this way.

 Our first school had about 120 girls crammed into a classroom two sizes too small, but everyone was in good spirits and happy to be there. Olipa and I had our first experience teaching together. I spoke, she translated. Ends up she knows a lot about the subject, so she added lots of useful information and held the girls in the palm of her hand. They loved her and felt free to ask questions and add to the conversation. Charlotte was our model. She really hammed it up and got the girls screaming with delight. They loved that part. We had our tailors hand out the kits to the girls.  Because they had made them, it seemed just right!

Ellie and Olipa teaching our menstrual and reproductive health curriculum

Ellie and Olipa teaching our menstrual and reproductive health curriculum

As Ellie and Olipa show the students the contents of a kit, Charlotte gets ready to be the perfect model!

As Ellie and Olipa show the students the contents of a kit, Charlotte gets ready to be the perfect model!

The next school was a ten-minute drive down the road and had even more students. We were able to expand on our class a little because we had more time. Olipa was fabulous, Charlotte delighted the girls and the tailors gave out another 150 MoonCatcher menstrual kits. Some girls stayed behind to ask private questions and eventually everyone met outside to have pictures taken

Our MoonCatcher tailors with Olipa and Charlotte

Our MoonCatcher tailors with Olipa and Charlotte

This is why I love coming here.

This is why I love coming here.

The deputy head teacher asked to show me around the school. He mostly wanted me to see where the girls live. The dormitory was dirty, crowded, messy and in need of mattresses and mosquito nets. The doors have large gaps and the windows are missing most of their panes. The bathroom was worse. There is no door, no place to set anything down and no privacy of any kind. Menstrual supplies are dropped into the hole used to urinate and when that fills up there is no money to clean it out.  It’s smelly, dark and unfriendly.  The kitchen was smoky and had chickens roosting on and under the counters. 

Yet I could tell this guy really wants the best for these girls and was trying his hardest to do right by them. He asked for mattresses and I said I’d see what I could do.

Once we dropped everyone off, three of us went into Kasungu to shop twin bed size foam. We found it but have to figure out a way to transport it to the school so haven’t purchased it yet. We’ll work on that tomorrow after teaching at another two schools.

I’m so tired. Time to sleep.

DAY 3: Heading to Mtunthama

We woke in Lilongwe, had a leisurely breakfast and left our lovely little house for Mtunthama - where our sewing cooperative is located. We loved our hosts here, Phoebe and Davidson and will miss them. They made us feel so welcomed and pampered.

 After three stops we were able to find the voltage converters that we need for the electric sewing machines that I’d brought from home. These machines were donated by our generous MoonBee volunteers and will be put to good use here.

 Once we had the converters, we set off for Mtunthama. It takes about 3 and a half hours to drive there through beautiful farm land and small villages. The clouds that always blow me away here were putting on an amazing display today and the sun shone bright and strong. We stopped once to stretch our legs and watch the outdoor market going on across the street. A few vendors came to visit with us, but we didn’t have any need for cabbages or handmade brooms. It’s always fun to see the beautiful African fabrics tied around women’s waists creating a really colorful scene.

A typical road-side in Malawi.

A typical road-side in Malawi.

Driving into Saint Andrews Hospital compound (where our tailors work in a sewing room donated by the hospital) it felt a little like coming home. We drove straight to Peter and Jackie’s house and were greeted by Jackie with big hugs and smiles. We found our lodging, (I’m pleased to be living with Alice and Andy again) our suitcases and more old friends. Charlotte is living across the compound from me, but she gets to stay with the Anglican priest Father Pedro. His house is warm and friendly and filled with children and guests. She’ll enjoy herself I’m sure. To get there you walk across a field holding the hands of as many children as can hang onto you at once. Charlotte is in love. She’s already worried about saying goodbye in two weeks.

 We are off to a meeting soon to talk about tomorrow’s schedule for visiting schools in the area. 

Day 2: Shopping and More Shopping

It was warm and sunny today. Like one of those hot, hot, hot summer days that actually feels good after the cold winter. I’m always surprised that all you have to do here is step into the shade and you feel cool and refreshed. I’ve read many books that take place in Africa and they always mention this. I can tell you that it’s absolutely true and I love it. Is it like that at home? I can’t remember.

Our Rotarian friends, Lon and Dave, left for a dairy farm where Rotary International is working to expand and update an existing  project. It’s dark now and they have yet to return but I’m thinking they probably are having a great time as they were incredibly excited about this venture.

It’s been a productive day for us. After three years of coming here I finally feel like I have a sense of how to get the supplies we need to make MoonCatcher kits. Our dear friend Mary who helped us last year was able to direct her sister-in-law, Olipa, to every shop needed and the ones that didn’t have what we wanted directed us to new venues. We started at about 9:30 and were mostly finished by 2:00. 

Choosing fabric for the drawstring bags.

Choosing fabric for the drawstring bags.

In the middle of our shopping spree I ran out of converted money and asked Olipa if she would help us get more. We drove to a fairly busy parking lot and sat there until Gideon, a hefty and cheerful man slid into Olipa’s seat next to me and conducted business. We were given large piles of Kwacha that needed counting and it took all of us to get it right. We carefully counted with our hands well below the windows and moved the bills back and forth between the seats to each other. There is nothing unusual about this in Malawi but for me it always feels like what I imagine drug deals must be like. 

Charlotte was in the back seat trying to discourage art dealers from offering to sell her more paintings. She figures the two she brought yesterday are enough and she’s getting pretty good at firmly saying no and closing the window.

Fleece fabric for MoonCatcher pads.

Fleece fabric for MoonCatcher pads.

We had lunch at a little cafe that served yummy cheese and tomato sandwiches with perfect avocado. We went over our purchases to make sure everything had been entered in the “blue book” just the way Linda likes it to make it as easy as possible to do the book keeping.

“The Blue Book” goes everywhere with me so that I can carefully keep track of our expenses.

“The Blue Book” goes everywhere with me so that I can carefully keep track of our expenses.

We’ve bought enough materials for kits in both Chituka and Mtunthama. The car is bulging at the seams, but we made it all fit with room left over for five passengers. Tomorrow we head to Mtunthama.  I’ll get to see the MoonCatcher tailors there and get caught up on their lives. Next will be Chituka where we are planning to establish a second sewing cooperative in Malawi.

Charlotte and Olipa packing up for our trip tomorrow.

Charlotte and Olipa packing up for our trip tomorrow.

Ready to go!

Ready to go!

Off to take a shower and relax for the evening.

Day 1: It's Good to Be Back in Malawi

I’m sitting in our sweet little rented home having just finished a breakfast of fresh-from-the-hen eggs, garden tomatoes and bread with peanut butter and jelly.  Phoebe, our host here, came early to cook the eggs and set the table.  We look out on a rose garden with paths of broken tile pieces winding past a succulent garden and the chickens.

The lovely garden near our little house.

The lovely garden near our little house.

We arrived mid-day on April 6, made our way through customs and met up with the group from Bridges to Malawi – an organization that does medical work in here.  Every year, they bring a group of high school students who are interested in medicine to experience life in this country.  Dr. Brian Lisse, the leader of the group and the man who brought me here three years ago, does a lot of other projects too.  He is interested agriculture, wind energy, eradicating malaria and a lot more.  It is an honor to be around him.

Olipa greeted us at the airport.

Olipa greeted us at the airport.

After settling into this house, Olipa, our driver/translator and now, dear friend, took us to the crafts market to stock up on merchandise for sale at MoonBees.  The baskets, earrings and crafts that we sell help us to finance the production of MoonCatcher Kits – at home and abroad.

It is always and experience to buy from the artisans here.  They descend on me quickly, asking questions and telling me about their goods and their families – with everyone talking at once.  The prices change as we discuss last year’s costs and they begin to understand that I won’t pay the initial asking price.  I’m not fond of haggling and hate feeling that I have to be on my guard but that is how it works here.  I just keep thinking about the money we can raise by selling these lovely crafts and how that money will help girls in Malawi.

Charlotte and one of the vendors at the craft market.

Charlotte and one of the vendors at the craft market.

I ended the day at a pretty little restaurant with my traveling companions, Lon and Helen from the Glenville and Niskayuna Rotary Clubs, and Charlotte, who has been helping at MoonBees for years.  They had their first taste of Malawian food as we listened to live music and enjoyed the warm evening air.

It is so nice to be back – to see the beautiful yellow flowering trees and to smell the smells of Africa.

Project Update and Heading for Malawi

After having to cancel my trip to Uganda last month, I am relieved that my back is much better, and I will be able to leave for Malawi on Friday (April 5th). For anyone who doesn’t know where Malawi is, it is the country in the east of Africa surrounded by Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique. It’s one of the countries that was hit by recent cyclones along with Mozambique and Tanzania. Many people died, and countless more are left homeless and hungry. My heart breaks for them.

I will be going back to the areas that I visited in 2017 and 2018. The people I know are in the central and northern areas of the country and haven’t been affected by the cyclones. Though this is good news, I am so sad for this poor country that often suffers at the hands of Mother Nature.

We will be working with our tailors, going to schools to distribute our kits and health curriculum as well as helping to build a new girls’ bathroom at one of the school where we have been working. My friend Charlotte who is going with me will be teaching some art classes too. I’ll get to help her which will be a blast. I’ll be writing this BLOG but internet is spotty, so you may not see much until I return on Easter Sunday.

The MoonCatcher Project has been pretty busy in the last few weeks. Our Birthday Bash event brought in over $1500 worth of disposable menstrual supplies that we immediately sent home with 5 organizations that serve women and girls who need these products. We had birthday cake and punch for everyone who showed up.

 

Ellie’s Birthday Bash 2019

Ellie’s Birthday Bash 2019

There have been plenty of MoonBees and presentations too and we’ve managed to put together over 200 kits to bring to Africa – all made by volunteers in our community. Thank you all.

MoonBee at St. Kateri Takakwitha Parish on March 30.

MoonBee at St. Kateri Takakwitha Parish on March 30.

Some of the 200 kits we have completed to take to Malawi.

Some of the 200 kits we have completed to take to Malawi.

I’ve got to get back to packing but wanted to write a quick update and heartfelt Thank You to all the people who make this project work. I am so grateful.

A Change in Plans

I woke up the other day not being able to easily get out of bed or walk across the room. I’ve twisted and turned my poor back and can barely walk much less sit in a plane for 15 hours. I kept waiting to feel better, went to see the osteopath and iced and heated the affected area diligently but yesterday morning I decided, after lots of angst, that trying to go to Uganda was not going to be possible right now. It feels like I’m letting lots of people down though every single reply to my emails about this change of plans has been answered with understanding and concern. We will reschedule once I feel better.

I believe in life lessons. There are probably more here than I now understand but I’m thinking this has something to do with letting go of control and “going with the flow.” Always that MoonCatcher lesson to remember.

Let me tell you what has been happening though. We’ve had a bunch of MoonBees and some presentations and people from all over the country are reaching out to us, asking to be part of this project. In Uganda Phoebe, our partner extraordinaire, is going to go to Kasese, the forgotten area in Uganda where we have begun to send our kits.

We are gearing up for our visit to Malawi in April and working with a Canadian group that has asked us to provide kits for 150 students in a school near Mtunthama, Malawi where we have our sewing guild. 

Completed kits ready to go.

Completed kits ready to go.

March 28 is our annual Birthday Bash at Congregation Gates of Heaven in Schenectady. Once again we will collect disposable pads and tampons for people in our own community. We have a link on Amazon for people who can’t come to the party and want to contribute. I’ve been receiving boxes of supplies from people all over the country. My back porch is beginning to look like the Rite Aid isle filled with menstrual products. I’m delighted.

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If anyone reading this knows of anyone going to Uganda or Kenya in the next month or so and can carry some of our supplies, we’d appreciate that. Meanwhile I’ll be taking it slowly and doing MoonCatcher work from the couch for a while.