I am the last of six children and five girls for my mom. the age difference between my and my sister who i come after is 2 years. I grew up in a typical extended family system (cousins, aunties who could pass for my big sisters, etc). My big sister had her first period around the age of 12 or younger - I didn't know what it was except I noticed my mom was a bit more attentive because she was 'sick' but this was different from the usual illness we all come down with every now and then. On the first day, they (my mom, aunties, grandma and even grandpa was in on it) gave her a meal made with mashed yam mixed with palm oil with eggs on it (this she struggled to it because she seemed to be in pain), with encouragement from the above mentioned cohort for her to eat. then I saw my mom kept prompting, 'is it wet, do you need to change'? This is a sister I did everything with and then suddenly, I had become an outsider - this piqued my curiosity. Days later, I found out it was her period.
Now I have a benchmark. At 12, nothing happened to me but was happening to my friends. and since my sister will not share the experience with me, I had to find ways to understand what was happening to their young bodies and wouldn't happen to me. It was the turn of a cousin who was close to me and I decided, I wasn't going to be shut out this time. So I asked her for us to go for a stroll - I told her I had heard 'it' has happened to her too. She initially pretended she didn't know what I was talking about, so I said ' you know, the monthly urination of blood. Do you want it to stop?'. She said 'yes' they I asked why she wants it to stop. She told me because it was not comfortable and why is she having and others like me are not. Then I told her she should tell me all about it because I think my mom has a medicine for it (ladies please note that my mother at the time was a petty trader and not a doctor, traditional medicine woman or anything like that!).
She then told me it is a monthly thing, some months are painful and heavy while others are 'ok'. Of course I had more questions: How do you care for yourself around the time and with what? are you able to sit, play (literally, live)? Her sisters showed her to use strips of cloth that she washes when she changes. She doesn't take anything for the pain because she was told it was 'normal with the flow'.
I guess you can say that my cousin was my resource on periods because I lied to her that my mom has medicine for something like that and by the time I was 14 and had mine, my mom was separated from my dad and I was living with my grandpa. At this point I had almost given up it will ever happen to me because I was a tomboy but had gone ahead to 'sew my sanitary' (something that looked like a bikini pant that you tie on both ends but with the base 'adequately' padded). My periods were heavy and lasted for 7days the first two years or so.
My grandpa noticed the frequency of taking my bath and just called me one day and asked 'are you a woman now?' Of I said no. Then he rephrased, 'are you having your period?' I responded in the affirmative. He told me, 'you seem to be doing the right thing, you don't want to smell so take good care of yourself down there and change frequently.' I said thank you and was ready to go when he added 'oh by the way, now if any boy/man touches you, you will become pregnant. You don't want that, do you'?
Ladies, you can imagine my life after that, how do I tell my friends I cannot play with them like we used to do before? Well apparently, if they touched me I will become pregnant and obviously, my mother did not have medicine for periods. Today, I have a daughter who is almost 22. We had the period discussion when she was about 7, assured her it wasn't a sickness and she could come back to ask me questions, especially on things her friends are saying around the subject. We even had an emergency kit in her school bag every term from when she was 9. As fate would have it, she had her period at 12, she was staying with my sister while I was working out of town the week it happened. It was the pain with which she had her periods that surprised both of us but she was prepared for it because of my experience.
Parents, including fathers need to see periods as part of growing for a girl and must help to de-stigmatize it and prepare our girls to be ready and the boys to be supportive of the girls during that period (no pun intended).