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Women and the Global Imagination: Translating Sanitary Pads

by Liz Granger

This post is the first in an ongoing series of blog posts on the theme of Women and the Global Imagination. In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on this theme, and we were so struck by its contents that we wanted to keep the dialog surronding this theme going on our blog. Liz Granger's essay does just that, and shows us that ideas that are global in scope can have their genesis in the individual imagination. We hope you enjoy reading. To read more on this theme, visit our store and buy or Winter 2014 issue (print or ebook), or become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.

Translating Sanitary Pads: Why the menstrual care item is a language you don't speak.

Walk by a dumpster in 2007 in Jinja, Uganda on your daily commute to your internship at the rural development NGO. Pass the termite mound, pass the Islamic school, pass the motorcycle taxi stand. At 9AM feel the sun warm your face. Approach the dumpster and notice its metal walls rusted through like Swiss cheese. Notice what spills through its holes: cooking waste, biodegradables—cornhusks, banana peels, and potato skins. Notice the animals foraging along the dumpster: chickens, goats, dogs.

Arrive to your internship. Interview local women about their needs. Instead of the women saying "I would like goats," translate to your boss, "the women would like goats."

Realize one morning late into your internship that the dumpster has not been emptied in two months. The receptacle always looks fullish, but never overflowing.

Finish your internship in August 2007. Return to college. Procrastinate one afternoon, at your laptop with your view of a historic courtyard. Stumble across a Procter and Gamble advertisement on the Internet. Discover a recently launched program through which P&G donates sanitary pads to women in the developing world.

Daydream. Imagine P&G donated pads in Jinja, spilling through that Swiss cheese dumpster, the baby-pink wrappers and neon-white fluff alongside husks and waxy green leaves. Imagine the foraging animals.

In 2009 decide you want to return and apply for a grant. Draft a project through which you will study Uganda's waste removal streams–e-waste, nonbiodegradables, sanitary pads. One evening take a phone call from the selection committee to answer a simple question: "why sanitary pads?" You can't yet explain. You have a hunch. Piece together your story about the dumpster with a few Internet articles. Translate.

Granger Sanitary Pads Uganda Landfill

Receive the grant and fly back in March 2009. Visit Uganda's single landfill, the country's only such facility for its 30 million residents. Meet the people who sort through rubbish for money. Later you'll read Katherine Boo's book about the informal collectors who pick garbage in India, but now see the boy who forages in rubber gloves and a doctor's white coat. See the boy with the Walkman and the chemical spray bottle. See the woman who walks through the dumping grounds underneath a lacy yellow umbrella. See the pile of printer cartridges, of rawhides, of tiny coils from ballpoint pens. Watch the community graze their cows in the dump, across the leachate streams and meadows of soda straws.

At the landfill remember the Swiss cheese dumpster. Understand that it was a waste ecosytem, a place where the animals can graze for free, a place for discarded things to be useful, a holding pen for fodder.

Imagine how a heap of sanitary pads would change the nature of trash in your former city, would change the fare for the neighborhood livestock, would shift the dumpster's contents toward permanence, toward accumulation, would mean the dumpster would need to be emptied, would require someone to empty it, would require complaints or votes or money or ambition from the local people for the waste to be carried away to Uganda's only landfill.

Understand that trash doesn't always speak for itself. Understand that waste waits quietly until it flares. Understand that hidden things grow. These are the days of the Great Pacific Trash Gyre, the island of rubbish in the sea. These are the days of bottlecap-choked chicks and plastic plankton soup.

On one of your last afternoons in-country, interview a professor who makes biodegradable pads from the papyrus he harvests sustainably from the shores of Lake Victoria. Learn that the man hires local women in refugee camps to assemble his pads.

Know that the question isn't "should we donate pads to Africa?" The question is "what kind of pads?"

Finish your first grant. Return to the US. Set up Google alerts for "sanitary pads," "sanitary towels," and "sanitary napkins." Research.

Graduate college. Get a nonprofit job in Chicago. On your commute to and from your job, read. At your job, read. Know that girls drop out of school when they get their periods, but learn more about the complicated reasons why–the economics, the sexual advances, the familial obligations. Learn about the luxury tax on menstrual care goods. About politicians' promises for free pads. About Africa's attractive emerging markets. Read English translations of foreign newspapers. Scour.

Get a second grant. Move to Uganda for eleven months for one purpose: to report on sanitary pads. Pads seem boring, gross, inappropriate, off-base, and private. But the puzzle pieces make for a great story. To you the personal hygiene item reads in arcs and loops like a fine Russian novel.

Granger Sanitary Pads Uganda 2

Count 32 pad brands in Uganda in 2011, and compare them to the two that you counted in 2007. See glossy pad advertisements in magazines. Hear about the schoolgirls who prostitute themselves for money to buy commercial pads. About the way embarrassed girls dry cloth napkins secretly under their mattresses. About lawsuits over counterfeits.

Understand that yours is a story of need, modernization, politics, economics, public health, feminism, and the environment. Yours is a war of ideas, a space where traditional practices meet the power of marketing, where corporations invest in emerging markets, where misguided donors send burdens, where creative social entrepreneurs fail. Understand that menstrual napkins offer one of the most underreported and defining environmental problems of our era.

But as you progress with your research, understand something else, something heartbreaking: That yours is a women's issue.

Tell people about your topic: the pads! the trash! the women! Begin to tire of carrying such pressure in your mouth, such passion in your mind. At cocktail parties watch acquaintances ease away. Scare people.

Begin apologizing. Begin joking about the issue you care most about in the world. Begin calling it "your random obsession." Learn that acquaintances laugh when you joke about your obsession, that you can keep your audience this way.

Keep tracking your audience. Keep looking for the people who listen. Keep figuring how to translate for them.

Sell your story to a feminist magazine. They quote you $30, but when the check comes, see that it's $25. Keep quiet about this.

Get jobs. Get internships. Work late nights at a Chicago newspaper. Pitch.

Keep pitching. Almost run your story in a famous place. Have it pulled. Get a call from an editor at a famous magazine. Pitch. Get ignored. Almost run a piece in your dream publication. Get galleys. Get bumped.

Keep fighting. Decide that you're writing a book. Go to graduate school for this book. Study. Get asked by a famous agent about your manuscript, "Why would men care about pads?" Fail to answer the agent, but know that it's this book, this issue, that keeps language present in your mind.

Learn from your classmates. Hear their affection for characters and scenes. Keep adapting your story, keep gauging your audience, keep trying to share.

Submit to the weight and energy of your narrative, this ugly thing, this story about trash and blood and poverty and greed. Fear that the tale is too pockmarked for women's magazines, too vague for news, too speculative for environmental publications, too skeptical for the donor presses.

Until the Swiss cheese dumpster spills and the sewage channels clog and the pit latrines overflow, you don't know what will get people's attention.

But someone must take a small boat through the mist to an invisible island. Someone must cast a fine net down and through, down and through the soup. Someone must dispatch. When the island becomes known, someone must watch the birds swoop to feed and follow them elsewhere. Someone must find the nests. Someone must photograph the chick bellies full of caps.

Someone must translate.

Liz Granger is a North Carolina-based nonfiction writer. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Bitch, BREVITY and the Windy City Times. She has been a Fulbright student, Eric Lund Reporting and Research grantee and the Nebraska Student Journalist of the Year. Her website is www.lizgranger.com.