You might think the worst part about getting your period is that unexpected first time. That was what I thought too until I got it. The pain is also not the worst part. The worst part is that second day when you wake up on stained sheets and realise you will have to miss school because the bleeding is still coming down hard and the little pieces of cloth your grandmother gave you are not enough to absorb. This is the nightmare that is Day 2 of my periods.

“Vikile, it will help you to wake up right now and go fetch firewood.”

That is my grandmother putting me to work since I am home anyway. My four brothers are all at school and I was hoping for a day off. Well, not in the Ngcobo household. I crawl out of bed and quickly freshen up while the water is still hot. I wash my bloody cloth and hang it in the discreet place my grandmother showed me. I hate this part so much I want to cry. But what can I do? My grandmother can barely afford to feed all five of her grandchildren, she cannot add pads to her expenses. The boys already eat too much; at least they compensate by needing nothing but the green sunlight bar we bathe with, one roll-on that they all share, and a big tub of Vaseline for cosmetics. And then there is me, a light eater who needs special monthly facial products and now sanitary pads.

“You’re lucky your brothers filled up the firewood for you,” my grandmother says, her lisp pronounced as usual.

I only smile, tired of arguing that my brothers doing chores isn’t helping me out since the chores are as much their responsibility as they are mine. I know she tries all she can to provide for us. Since our parents passed away a year apart due to an illness, when I was still a toddler, she has had multiple jobs as a domestic worker but could not keep up due to her osteoporosis. Sometimes she could function normally, other times her bones would stiffen and she could not even move. We are surviving on grants then, thankful for the little we have.

As I take the short walk to the river to fetch water, I moan: I’m missing today’s English class. It’s pop quiz day — the only thing I’m good at. English is the first period again on Tuesdays. I can’t help imagining what could be happening in class at this very moment. But as soon as I reach the river, the noise from other villagers and the chore itself distracts me from all thoughts of school. Before I know it, it is early afternoon and grey and blue uniforms fill the streets while I start making dinner. My brothers arrive a few minutes apart, bringing with them noise and chaos. Our grandmother, who had been tending to her garden for most of the day, comes back to monitor chores (more like yelling out instructions) and resume her knitting.

If it wasn’t for the occasional abdominal pain and blood rinsing, this would be a normal Tuesday afternoon. Just as I am falling into my habit of catching up on school work from the brother who failed a grade and is in the same class as me, a familiar jolly voice catches my attention.

“Zethu,” I murmur, as I get up from the kitchen floor and run outside.

“Aren’t you happy to see me?” she shouts, doing her crazy dance that involves moving her hands back and forth as if beckoning me to her.

I laugh because my friend is talented at a lot of things but dancing isn’t one of them. She is still in her school uniform so she must have come straight here.

“You couldn’t go a day without me, huh?” I say, when we are finally standing side by side.

To someone else, she might seem like she is her usual cheerful self but I can see the uneasiness in her eyes. I frown in expectation.

“Miss Gumbi sent me.”

For the first time, I feel embarrassed about missing school. I know many girls miss school during periods because of the hectic pain and other complications, but I missed it because I did not have sanitary pads. Poverty is so embarrassing.

“You don’t have to feel bad, she understands,” Zethu says softly. “She told me she was so troubled by not finding pads at school yesterday that she started an initiative where she collects donations of pads to assist the girls at our school. She says the donations come in slowly but since yesterday, she has collected a few that she will keep at school for all of us.”

I watch silently as she opens her backpack, takes out two pink pockets of thick pads, and hands them over to me.

“These are yours, so you won’t miss school tomorrow. Hopefully, the initiative will help many more girls to stop missing school because of periods.”

With a smile, I hug her and whisper, “Thank you.”

There is still a long road for us to fully escape poverty, but at least menstruation isn’t going to be a hurdle in me getting an education, which in turn will help me get a better life. Miss Gumbi’s initiative is a first step in a very important direction towards helping young women in our village. I make a silent promise to myself to work so hard at school that I too become an activist and help girls who might find themselves in my situation.

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