Ties that bind

A group of women in Nigeria holding up their packages of tampons

Every month when I had my periods, my family banished me to an “outhouse”. The “outhouse” was a damp room as big as a walk-in closet. It was in our backyard, surrounded by mango trees and coconut trees. It had a naked incandescent lightbulb, no furniture, and no plumbing. At night, you could hear frogs croak and crickets chirp. I slept on the floor. Once I felt a scorpion crawl along my arm as I was sleeping. I have heard stories from other women of snakes and centipedes.

My family was not rich, and we could not afford sanitary pads. I used rags and washed them by hand. I was routinely late to school during that time – with all the protocols I had to follow to not “infect” others with my “uncleanliness”. Throughout I felt profound horror and shame.

That was more than 20 years ago. Fast forward to today. I live in America, I work for Microsoft and my house has several bedrooms. I buy $4 lattes every day, and the tampons and pads in Microsoft restrooms are free. There is no one who can banish me from my house, and I can most definitely afford sanitary pads for all my cousins back home. Yet, that memory of being frightened and ashamed and shunned has not left me.

So when Damilola talked to me about girls in Africa routinely dropping out of school due to lack of access to pads, I first felt a pang. Then I felt a connection.

Damilola is one of the 25 Nigerian entrepreneurs who are fellows of our #Insiders4Good program. His business is to deliver affordable pads to girls in rural Nigeria. When I heard him talk passionately about his business, I realized how subtle, common threads bind us together as human beings. There are surely many things that divide us: Damilola is a man, I am a woman. He is Nigerian, I am Indian. He is an entrepreneur with little background in engineering, I am an engineer with little background in entrepreneurship.

And yet, and yet…. he and I are bound together by a common story. Story of girls and women that do not have some very basic needs. Story of people that want to do something about it. Story of passion and drive to make things better. Story of a developing world in need of most fundamental things. (And let’s face it: sanitary pads are a fundamental need to a woman.) Damilola and I are surprisingly more alike than different.

Indeed, all our Nigerian fellows are working on something as fundamental as what Damilola is working on. The more I looked, the more I found common threads. Hearing Paula talk about her Cogno-Aid venture, I was reminded of my cousin who killed himself – and his family that was utterly unaware of any mental issues he might have had. I understood why Paula was so driven, and why she needs to succeed. Hearing Muhammad talk about lack of waste management facilities, I was reminded of the time I lived opposite a dumping ground. The filth and the stink were inescapable, and something like eTrash2Cash would have been such help! Mubarak’s story about his uncle getting kidnapped reminded me of the chiding I used to get for staying in my computer labs past twilight. My family – like the ones Mubarak is trying to help – was afraid bad things would happen to me if I stayed out too long.

So many common threads – and I just had to stop, ask questions, and properly listen.

This, I realize, is why I do what do. Why I am an engineer at Microsoft, why I signed up to be an Insider, why I volunteered for the Insiders4Good effort, why I want to create for global good, and why I so LOVE our mission to empower every individual on the planet. Our common humanity screams at us and, if we still ourselves and listen, we will hear its call. We will have no choice but to empathize, support and empower.

We do this because there are more things that bind us together as humans than things that divide us.