She peers between the bright blue, vibrant yellow, and outrageous orange cloths draped in a dizzying array across a humble market stall. Next door, a clashy combination of pink and lilac flowers adorn plaid offsetting psychedelic prints. A vendor arranges a colourful display of sandals on worn metal shelves as others haggle or harass shoppers to buy their wares. 

Searching for her friend in the crowd, Yasmine follows her mother and brother as they snake through the bustling Saturday market in central Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, in West Africa. Yasmine is clad in her favourite polo shirt, yellow wrap, and best headscarf―dressed to impress on market day.

Her mother, Safiatou, stops at her usual spot to buy some millet, sorghum, and maize, then proceeds down a few stalls to pick through an assortment of tomatoes, peppers, and yams, feeling for those that are hardest.

Yasmine feels a tap on her shoulder. Hoping it is Alain, she turns to greet his smiling face as he playfully flees through the crowd, goading her to follow. 

Safiatou shakes her head in warning. 

“I will catch you next time!” Yasmine calls out after him, as Alain gets swallowed by the crowd. 

Alain could usually be found running through the market on Saturdays, while his mother sold potatoes. Yasmine had developed a friendship with him over the years; they were about the same age and ran into each other often. If her mother had a lot of shopping to do, she would sometimes allow a game of tag or hide-and-go-seek, as long as Yasmine’s older brother, Frederik, was included.

Today, Yasmine’s mother seems to be in a hurry to get home. She carefully bundles her vegetables and wraps them around her back, as they walk towards the spot where they’ve parked their bicycles. 

As they peddle home through the busy Ouaga streets, dodging street signs and rocks on the semi-paved road, Yasmine feels an odd dampness on her bicycle seat but gives it no further thought. 

Once home, they walk their bicycles up the short entrance steps and park them in the back alley of their building. Yasmine fidgets with her skirt as they walk up the three flights of stairs. There is more moisture now; it feels like it’s dripping down her leg.

Yasmine heads straight for the bathroom and squats over the floor-level porcelain toilet hole—a rare luxury in her country. As she finishes urinating, she grabs the plastic cup of water to wash herself and, as she looks down, she is shocked to see bright red water streaming down the hole. She opens her legs wider, trying not to dirty her favourite skirt, and empties the entire cup of water. More red. She notices a brownish line stretching halfway down her left leg all the way to her knee. 

It looks like dried blood, she thinks. But why is she bleeding? She inspects herself for a cut but can’t find one. Nothing hurts either. 

As she reaches for her panties, she notices that they’ve been soiled red too, so she refills the wash cup and tries to scrub the blood off with her fingernails. She doesn’t want to leave her wet panties in the shared family bathroom, so she puts them back on and heads to her bedroom.

Fear sets in. Is she dying? Feeling the dampness permeating her skirt, she rolls her wet underwear into a ball and stuffs them under her bed, then puts on a fresh pair.  

Yasmine tries to forget about what’s happening, as if ignoring it will make it go away. She sits down to do her reading homework. But less than an hour later, she feels the dampness between her legs once again and dashes to the bathroom; this time, it is occupied. She leans against the door, biting her lower lip. Her eldest brother Malick emerges a minute later, grimacing at his sister’s nervous demeanor as he heads to the kitchen. 

Yasmine nearly slams the door in her rush to get to the toilet. There is bright red blood, again; but this time, she hasn’t just soiled her panties, there’s a dark red stain on her printed yellow wrap as well. This will be harder to hide, she frets.             

After hurriedly washing herself, she storms out of the bathroom back to her room—the room she used to share with her older sister before she went away to university. Yasmine is thankful to have the privacy but wishes she could ask her sister what is happening. Why is she bleeding? 

Frowning, Yasmine changes her underwear again, and her skirt. She does this another four times over the course of the afternoon and evening, the wet wad of clothing growing under her bed. At the end of the day, when she falls asleep, she dreams she is swimming in a sea of red.

Yasmine wakes the next morning ready to get into her Sunday best for church. But, as she pulls back her bedsheets, she sees a dark red stain. The blood has soiled her nightgown, sheets, and mattress. There is no way she can avoid telling her mother, now. 

She peeks around her door at her parent’s bedroom. Their door is closed, as well as the one to her brothers’ room. Relieved, Yasmine sneaks ever so silently down the hall, gently opening her parents’ door. Safiatou stirs and then looks up. Yasmine motions for her mother to come.

Safiatou gets up slowly, yawning as she unwraps her hair, and then proceeds to her daughter’s room. 

“What’s wrong?” 

Yasmine stares solemnly at the floor. 

Safiatou sees the stained bedsheets and understands. “Oh, I see. Let’s sit down,” she says tenderly, choosing a spot away from the blood stain.

“Yasmine, this blood is called your menses, or your period. It means you have now become a woman.”

“A woman, already?” Yasmine is startled. “But I’m only twelve!”

“Yes, but a woman’s period signals that her body is ready to have babies. . It means you’ll have to stay away from boys to make sure they don’t make you pregnant.”

“How does a boy make you pregnant?” asks Yasmine, cringing.

“Well, he can plant a seed inside you with his, you know,” explains her mother, pointing to the groin area.

Yasmine has never asked how babies come to be in a woman’s belly and is horrified at the idea. She is far too young to have a baby, she thinks, so she’ll have to stay away from boys.

But Yasmine still has many questions: “When will the bleeding stop?”

“Well, usually it will last around four to five days. But it will come back again in about a month.”

Yasmine doesn’t like the sound of this but is grateful that at least it won’t be constant.

“Did you get your menses when you were my age?” 

“Well, I was fourteen―a little older. I married your father just two years later when I was sixteen.”

Her words, and their implications, fall hard, making Yasmine feel that she has unwittingly entered a forbidden realm that she is not prepared for. 

After a long silence: “What can I do to stop the blood?” 

“Of course,” her mother sighs, walking to a closet near the living room where she keeps scraps of cloth leftover from her seamstress work. She re-emerges with a large square piece of yellow cotton, which she folds over several times. She takes one of Yasmine’s panties out of the drawer and shows her where to place the cloth. 

“You cannot stop it, but you can absorb the blood. You must wash well and be careful not to let others see the blood,” she continues, “especially men or boys.” 

There is an air of shame and secrecy to it all. 

Yasmine wears the folded cotton cloth for the rest of the day into the night. 

The next morning, a busy Monday, the blood has leaked through to her mattress again. Her mother asks if she’s been wearing the same cloth since yesterday, which of course she has. Her mother didn’t give her a replacement. 

“Then that’s my fault,” Yasmine’s mother tells her, as she removes the bedclothes and goes to her closet to fetch more cloth. She comes back with two neatly folded wads, telling Yasmine to put the other in her school bag in case she needs it. 

Yasmine is nervous on the way to school. Does she look any different? Will her friends be able to tell that she is now a woman? 

As if sensing her newfound apprehension about the opposite sex, her friend David is the first person to greet her in the schoolyard. 

“My cousins from France came to visit this weekend and we had a huge feast!” he boasts, lightly nudging her, as he is used to doing. 

Yasmine shrugs and walks away without a word, leaving David looking confused and a bit hurt. “What’s wrong with you today?” he mumbles, but she is already out of earshot.

Class begins and Yasmine nervously adjusts her underwear before sitting. She can feel a wad of cotton lumping on one side. She prays that the blood won’t leak onto her chair. 

A couple of hours later, Yasmine needs to go to the bathroom, so she excuses herself and grabs her school bag on the way. Some kids stare at her as she walks past and she imagines what they’re thinking. Why does she have her school bag? Is she going home sick? 

Yasmine waits outside the dingy three-stall room that all of the boys and girls share until she is sure she is alone. She fills a cup with water for washing. There’s no lock on the door so she holds it closed with one hand while she lifts her khaki school uniform awkwardly with the other. Squatting, she can see that the cloth is soiled enough by now that she should change it. She takes the fresh scrap of cloth from her school bag, wondering where to put the dirty one; there’s no garbage can in the bathroom. 

After rinsing the dirty cloth with water, she rings out the blood, carefully folds it, realizing there’s only one place she can hide the soiled cloth.  Yasmine stuffs it into her school bag, trying to keep the soiled part from touching her materials, and then hurries back to class. 

“Did you go for a field trip?” asks Mr. Sawadogo sarcastically, when Yasmine returns.

Some children snicker. “There is no reason to take so long, or to take your school bag,” he says in a chiding tone. 

As the morning wears on, Yasmine starts to notice the distinctive smell of dried blood emanating from her school bag. 

“What stinks?” a girl on her basketball team blurts out.

“You farted!” David jokes, before the teacher hushes them.

Painfully aware that her cloth is behind the smell, Yasmine prays they won’t discover the source. 

As her teacher walks by her bag, he pauses, sniffing the air, and then he stares at her with a furrowed brow. Yasmine feels heat spread over her face. She wants the floor to open and swallow her up. 

After such a tense school day, Yasmine skips basketball practice after school and returns home to find her mother angry. Safiatou has discovered the lump of wet, stained clothes and panties Yasmine had forgotten about under her bed. 

“Damp cloth breeds mold and the blood has attracted flies and insects to your room,” she scolds. “Next time, you are to put your soiled cloth, panties, and clothes in a black plastic bag and hang them behind the door to the washing area, on the balcony.” 

Safiatou then shows her how to wash them.

The next day is the fourth day of her period, which Yasmine hopes will be the last. There already seems to be less blood. She decides to wear the same cloth all day; that way, she’ll avoid having to take her school bag to the bathroom, or risk one of the boys walking in as she’s changing, or the embarrassment of the smelly wet cloth in her school bag. 

But her mother is speaking with her brother when Yasmine needs to ask her for a new cloth. She knows she’ll be late for school if she waits much longer, and her mother doesn’t seem to notice her attempts to interrupt. So, Yasmine sneaks off to the closet where her mother keeps the cloth. Scouring the shelves in semi-darkness, she feels for a piece of cloth and then runs to the bathroom. She is disheartened to find that it is a stained, ragged cleaning cloth instead of a clean sewing scrap, but it will have to do, as she’ll be late if she doesn’t hurry. Besides, it will get dirty anyway, she reasons.

Her day goes smoothly and, to Yasmine’s relief, the bleeding finally stops by bedtime. She sleeps soundly for the first time since the bleeding began. 

When Yasmine wakes, she feels as though her life has returned to normal; she is no longer ashamed to be around her brothers, or her father, who is returning home from his latest mission. Donning his military uniform, he greets her by picking her up and throwing her into the air, something he has done ever since she was a baby. Yasmine is particularly relieved that she is no longer bleeding. 

The next morning, a Thursday, she wakes before dawn feeling the need to pee. When she goes to the bathroom and relieves herself, there is an odd burning sensation at the end. She heads back to bed and collapses into her pillow. There is a mild stinging sensation but she tries to ignore it. Within minutes, she is up again feeling the urgent need to pee, but when she goes to the bathroom, only a slight trickle of urine comes out, and it burns even more than before. 

The entire day at school she feels uncomfortable, periodically rushing to the bathroom. It happens so many times, Mr. Sawadogo calls her out about it. By the end of the day, Yasmine is writhing in pain. She tells her mother when she arrives home. 

The next morning, her mother takes her to the doctor.

Yasmine and her mother describe all of her symptoms.

“Has your daughter had her period yet?” the doctor asks.

“Actually, yes, she got it for the first time last week. She had just finished bleeding a day or so before she started feeling this way,” Safiatou says. 

Yasmine is mortified. Why is her mother talking about this to a man?

“What kind of sanitary napkins was she wearing?” the doctor asks. 

“Folded pieces of cloth.” 

“Were they clean and changed regularly? Dried in open air?”

“Yes, yes,” says her mother. Meanwhile, Yasmine thinks back to that last day when she wore the dirty rag and did not change it, but she doesn’t say anything.

Noticing the guilty look on her face, the doctor addresses her directly: “Did you only wear clean cloth?”

Yasmine looks at her mother, who expects her to reiterate her response. She knows she has to be honest if the doctor is to help her get well.

“Mostly, yes,” she says, hesitating, “but on the last day, I was late for school and couldn’t get my mother’s attention. So, I went to the closet and got a cloth, but it wasn’t very clean. I wore it all day to avoid having to change it at school.”

The doctor nods and asks Yasmine to pee in a little plastic jar. His assistant comes to retrieve it, inserting a paper-thin plastic strip that instantly changes colour. She nods at the doctor.

“Yasmine, you have a urinary tract infection, which is caused by germs entering the vagina or the bladder, where your ‘pipi’ comes from,” he explains. “I suspect it was caused by the dirty rag. Because it was not changed, the germs festered there.” 

Safiatou closes her eyes and shakes her head. 

“You should also be sure to wear cloth that has been dried in direct sunlight, to avoid germs or infections,” he adds. 

Safiatou reassures him that she always washes and then hangs cloth on the laundry line on their rear balcony, which gets direct sunlight in the morning and isn’t visible from the busy street. She only does the laundry when the men of the house are at work and school.

“If you can afford it, I would suggest using disposable sanitary napkins,” the doctor says. “They are the most hygienic.” 

The doctor prescribes Yasmine some antibiotics for the infection. When they stop to get the medicine at the pharmacy, Safiatou also buys a bright yellow package of disposable pads. Yasmine opens it when they get home to inspect the immaculate white pads, running her fingers along the soft, thin plastic mesh coating on top. 

Her next menstruation arrives a few days earlier in the month than the last time, catching Yasmine by surprise at school. As she stands up to answer a question in her corner front-row seat, she suddenly feels the dampness between her legs. Then, the laughter begins, slowly amplifying until the whole class is mocking her, some pointing at her stained khaki skirt. She has never felt more embarrassed in her life. Mr. Sawadogo, looking cross and uncomfortable, tells her to go home. 

When she gets home, Yasmine feels deflated. In tears, she collapses into her mother’s lap. 

The next day she refuses to go to school. Her mother tries to insist, telling her if she wears her new sanitary napkins, everything will be fine, but Yasmine feels traumatized by the mockery and doesn’t want to go back until the bleeding is over, if at all. Her mother reluctantly acquiesces. 

When Yasmine returns to school four days later, she discovers that she has missed an important test as well as a decisive game for her girls’ basketball team. Although one of the youngest, she was one of the key players; she believed they’d lost the game without her. 

By her next cycle, Yasmine is determined not to miss any more school, so she decides to wear the disposable white pads. At recess, she feels it’s time to change, so she quickly unzips her school bag and shoves one of the yellow plastic-wrapped pads under her shirt. Once in the bathroom, she removes the old pad, remembering there is no garbage can. She looks down into the white ceramic hole and then drops the soiled pad inside. 

When the end-of-day school bell rings, Yasmine sees a janitor mopping up a bunch of dirty water on the floor as she passes the bathroom. He then posts a sign on the door of the same stall she had used earlier: “Out of order.” She wondersif her sanitary napkin could’ve been the culprit.

Near the end of her cycle, Yasmine’s mother is surprised to learn that she has already gone through an entire pack of the expensive disposable pads. Her work as a seamstress is sporadic and while her husband’s military income is stable, they don’t have much room for luxuries. 

“What if you switch between the cloth pads while you’re at home, and the disposable kind while at school?” suggests Safiatou. 

“Mother, I think I might have clogged the toilet at school with one of my pads,” admits Yasmine. “There are no garbage cans in the bathroom, so I have nowhere to throw them! And when I used the cloth, I had to put a dirty one in my school bag and it made the whole classroom smell bad!” 

Safiatou ponders her daughter’s conundrum. She hadn’t faced that problem herself since she’d stopped going to school when she got her period at fourteen. But Yasmine is younger, and she wants her to at least finish middle school and hopefully go on to get a better education than she did.  

“Well then, I’ll have to speak to your headmaster about that,” says her mother. 

The following day, Safiatou politely leaves the school office in a silent rage. When she’d used the word menses, the headmaster looked disgusted and said he didn’t discuss taboo subjects. When she gently pressed him to simply add a garbage bin to the bathroom, he rejected the idea outright, saying it would attract flies. But Yasmine would be permitted to stay home from school whenever needed. 

Fuming, her mother clunks down her purse as she enters the apartment and heads for the kitchen. Yasmine can tell the meeting did not go well. 

Safiatou tells her about it over dinner that evening. Proud of her mother for at least trying, Yasmine thanks her with a worried look on her face. “But I don’t want to miss school anymore.” 

“I don’t want you to either,” Safiatou says. “We need to figure out a way for you to go to class while bleeding, without being embarrassed or risking an infection—and hopefully without spending so much money. You know those disposable pads cost many many francs.” 

Yasmine hadn’t thought about that part at all. 

“What if we make something?” she ventures, bright-eyed. “Mother, you are a seamstress! Could you sew something that looks like the disposable pads? Maybe something that could wrap around the edges of my panties? Maybe it could have an opening in the back, where I can place and replace the cotton scraps?” 

“That is a fantastic idea!” Safiatou heads to her closet and returns with a few rolls of new fabric, some scraps of cloth, a button, a pen, and some scissors. She gets to work, drawing the outline of a pad with long wings on each side. She draws an X on one flap for the button and cuts a small hole on the other wing. 

“Nice!” says Yasmine, excitedly. “Oh, and maybe you could make a little purse where I can put the pad so no one will know I’m taking it to the bathroom. That way, I won’t have to take my whole school bag.”

“Good idea. I’ll use the same cloth,” says her mother, as she threads the needle. 

“But what will I do with the dirty cloth when it’s time to change it?” 

Safiatou thinks for a moment and then cries out, “I know! You could keep one of those small plastic bags with a zip-top in the purse. You could put the dirty cloths in that sealed bag, so they won’t smell. Then put that in the purse. I’ll make a zipper at the top so no one will see what’s inside.” 

Yasmine smiles. It is the perfect solution. 

The following month, Yasmine is anticipating her period for the first time. She can’t wait to try her new home-made pads and purse, stored in her school bag, and even started wearing the pad in her underwear a few days early, just in case. She is ready when the blood starts to flow this time. 

When it’s time to change at school, she takes her little purse and no one suspects a thing. Yasmine is so excited she jumps on her mother to hug her when she gets home. 

“Mother, it was perfect! Thank you! My friends even said my purse was pretty!” she squeals. Eyes widening, Yasmine has another idea. “What if you sell these at the market? I bet other girls and women will want them too!”

Safiatou had already made a pad and purse for herself, and another as a surprise for Yasmine’s older sister when she was back from university. But she hadn’t considered making a bigger project of it. 

In their culture, people didn’t talk about periods, so it might be a hard sell, she knew. But business had been slow; she’d had fewer and fewer women looking for custom-made dresses this year. So, Safiatou tells Yasmine it’s at least worth a try. They will just have to figure out how to spread the word, discreetly. 

About the Author:

Jen Ross is a Chilean-Canadian journalist with hundreds of nonfiction articles published in newspapers and magazines around the world. She also spent ten years working for the United Nations before moving to her husband’s country, Aruba, where she took time off to write her first fiction and now lives and works as a freelance writer and editor. Her poetry appears in an anthology by The Poet Magazine, in Better than Starbucks, Descant and The Other Side of Hope; and her short stories have appeared in The Pine Cone Review, The Global Youth Review, Evocations Review and the Everlast anthology by Dragon Soul Press (and is forthcoming in the Arlington Literary Journal).Twitter: @jenny_ross   Insta: jen_ross27 

*Featured art by Walt Ward