By Njoroge Kinuthia
Street News Service
Inside a huge auditorium at Mukuru primary school in Nairobi, 500 schoolgirls from some of Nairobi's most impoverished shanties clap their hands and stomp their feet while singing at the top of their voices. The songs are punctuated by intermittent bouts of laughter.
Through the windows curious boys peer in to see what all the fuss is about, all just as interested in taking part in the excitement-- but this is no business for them.
To the outsider this may have the feel of a jamboree but the reason for the outburst of high spirits is altogether a bit more serious than what appears on the surface. One of the girls talks excitedly about being given an early Christmas present.
Laid out in front of the girls on a long table are dozens of blue drawstring bags, each inscribed with a simple logo, a picture of a butterfly, its red and yellow wings outspread and the word 'Huru' below it.
Huru is Kiswahili for "freedom." And from the radiance on the young girls' faces, that's exactly what they have been given.
The bags, being tagged "Huru kits," are manufactured by Huru International, a charitable organization run by an American tour company, Micato Safaris, and donated by the Kenyan mobile phone company Safaricom Foundation. They contain a solution to one of the country's most nagging problems -- lack of sanitary pads.
In every kit were eight reusable sanitary pads for each girl present, three pairs of underwear to be used with the towels, a bar of soap (to wash the towels) and a brochure featuring information on HIV/Aids.
As the kits were handed out, excitement grew into a crescendo as the girls shouted with joy.
But it was not only the girls celebrating; the teachers too have a reason to smile.
"I'm deeply relieved," said Magdalene Ng'ang'a, a teacher in one of the beneficiary schools, St. Bakhita.
"This [donation] is very important for me. It removes a big burden from my shoulders as the girls keep asking for sanitary towels from us the ladies [teachers]. We are forced to give them our towels. But you cannot afford to give all of them. Some even ask us to buy them panties.
"We request other people to step forward and buy the sanitary towels for more girls as the problem is prevalent in many schools."
Too much ado about some maxi pads and some underwear? Aren't sanitary towels just mundane things, almost a fundamental right for adolescent girls, and women?
True for many in the world, but not for these girls.
For most, sanitary pads are a luxury in a country where the priority remains getting food on the table.
These girls and most impoverished women in this country end up going for unhealthy alternatives like pieces of old clothes, bits of mattresses, leaves, newspaper, even shared maxi pads.
Statistics show schoolgirls lose an average of four days a month due to menstruation, putting them at a huge disadvantage with their male counterparts.
The problem is going a long way to undermine the second Millennium Development Goal, which seeks to ensure "that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling."
Indeed, a study conducted by the Federation of African Women Educationists (FAWE) in 2005 found that about 500,000 Kenyan girls miss school every month because they cannot afford sanitary napkins.
In the same year, a study by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) revealed that one in ten school-age girls in Africa either miss school or drop out entirely because of lack of sanitation.
It's a major concern for Kenya which introduced free compulsory primary education eight years ago, a move which greatly enhanced enrollment in schools countrywide.
In an effort to ensure girls compete on an equal footing with boys, Micato Safaris started Huru International to manufacture reusable sanitary pads to be distributed to thousands of schoolgirls from poor families in the country in 2008.
Huru International, with the help of its partners, including the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, Johnson & Johnson and Warner Brothers, set up a workshop in the heart of Mukuru Kwa Njenga, one of Nairobi's slums, to develop the reusable maxi pads.
"Since 2008, we have mostly been doing research to develop an appropriate product. The official distribution of the sanitary towels started only in February this year," said Wanjiru Keffa, senior administrative manager of AmericaShare, the non-profit arm of Micato Safaris.
Huru International started as a program under AmericaShare but is now an independent charitable organization under Micato Safaris.
The organization now believes it has come up with sanitary pads made of several layers of cotton that can be washed and re-used for up to a year. Samples of the products have already been submitted to the country's standards body, the Kenya Bureau of Standards, for assessment and Huru is confident that they will be approved.
Huru workshop is run by 60 workers hired from the local community and produces up to 1000 sanitary pads daily. To date, Huru has distributed more than 10,000 kits, costing $25 each, to needy schoolgirls in various parts of the country with the help of its partners.
Every time the organization distributes the kits, Nancy Gachie, a trainer with Huru International engages the girls in a subject which is taboo in many Kenyan families: Sex.
She advises on dealing with men who are out to lure them into premarital sex, often with the offer of money, and how avoid rapists in their impoverished and how to avoid crime-ridden shanties.
The overall message is that the best thing for girls to do is to "chill," which in Kenya means to avoid sex before marriage.
Besides Huru International, various other organizations and individuals have over the years grappled with the problem of lack of sanitary towels in schools.
In 2008, Procter & Gamble partnered with a local NGO, Girl Child Network (GCN), to provide 3.2 million pieces of its Always disposable sanitary napkins to more than 15,000 girls over a period of two years under a program called "Always Keeping Girls in School."
Johnson & Johnson has also been involved in donating sanitary pads to schoolgirls. In parts of western Kenya a group of teachers has been training their students on how to make hand-woven sanitary pads known as vichere.
But Micato is doing much more to ensure that children access education as well as address the key issue of using safe, clean feminine products.
For every person who goes on safari with the tour company, Micato sponsors one child to study in community-based schools, according to the Marketing Manager Cliffe Limbasyo.
The company has also launched another program where clients sponsor slum children to study in boarding schools.
So far, 400 children have been supported by Micato's customers. That's certainly a reason to celebrate.