Near the end of our stay in Endoynolasho, I asked one of our translators how to say the word "beautiful" in Maasai. I don't know why I hadn't thought of it earlier, when over and over I'd searched for some way to communicate with the mothers and babies who had come to our clinics. If I had learned the Maasai word for beautiful earlier in our stay, I’d have used it many times more. It would have been circling in my head when I sat in a room full of thirteen and fourteen year old girls from the school in Endoynolasho. This was earlier in our stay, after a full morning clinic and then a round of health trainings with students and teachers. The women on our team – four of us – had decided to extend our training with one more session just for the girls. We would give them the chance to share their experiences of being girls in this community, and a chance to ask us questions. We would share our wisdom.
We gathered the girls in one of the rooms of the small clinic. The girls sat on the patient exam tables and in chairs pulled into the room. A few put an arm up on the shoulder of a girl next to her. Each wore her blue-gingham school uniform and had hair cut close to her head. The girls were shy, and, unprepared, the four of us stumbled with our questions, which were likely culturally skewed to our American understanding (or misunderstanding) of what being a girl in rural Kenya might be like. Still, we wanted to make up for an obvious lack of female leadership at their school and in their community. All their teachers are male. The government will not post a female teacher in this remote area for safety reasons. And while the local community also sponsors a few young teachers at the school - young people who had come from and still live in that same community - no female in Endoynolasho had ever continued schooling past class eight. That means no woman in the area has an education past fourteen years of age.
Eventually, a brave girl broke their silence and our awkwardness by telling us, “We need sanitary napkins.” A few more girls joined in. We pieced together the story: the school provides every girl with a package of eight pads each month. But none of the girls had received a package since the beginning of May. Now, it was nearly August. We didn't ask them what they did without the pads. I’m not sure that any of us had expected to hear such practical concerns. I nodded slowly as one of the other women promised to work with the local NGO we partnered with, who would be able to provide the girls with a regular supply of sanitary napkins.
Here is what I might have been expecting to hear from these girls: boys try to have sex with me against my will. I am worried my father will marry me off young. I want to keep going to school even though my family tells me I should marry or stay home. None of these are concerns I have had to address in my own life, and yet we – the four of us women, all of us now middle-class Americans who were either born in this country or to immigrant families who successfully settled here with reasonable ease – we all assumed these worries were tantamount to anything else in these girls' lives. Instead, the girls expressed needs that are practical, bodily, universal among women: I need something to absorb my monthly bleeding. Now, I am pricked by my ignorance and wonder at their faith in us.
After we had talked a little while longer, all of us stood on the porch of the small clinic to have our photo taken together. Now, when I look at that photo, I think of how much I still have to learn. When the translator had tried to teach me the Maasai word for beautiful, I'd botched it. A few hours later, I realized I'd been saying the wrong syllables and sounds. Unfamiliar with having the language in my own mouth, I thought I heard letters that weren't there, and made it one word when really it is two. Later, one of these young girls wrote down the words for me. And when I look at the photo, I always think of the Maasai words for beautiful: ira sidai.