50+ Living: A journey to Africa with the Schenectady-based MoonCatcher program

Advancing menstrual management education far from home
Ellie von Wellsheim demonstrates menstrual pad use for a group of schoolgirls in Kasungu, Malawi.
Ellie von Wellsheim demonstrates menstrual pad use for a group of schoolgirls in Kasungu, Malawi.

Six days into a two-week mission trip to Malawi, Africa, my fellow travelers and I were stuck on the side of a rutted dirt road with a flat tire, miles from our destination, dark clouds gathering overhead. 

Our driver, Yvonne Kamanga, whom we learned was crowned second princess in the 2017 Miss Malawi competition, looked radiant in her figure-hugging, hot pink dress, stilettos sinking only slightly into the dusty red roadway. But she was ill-equipped for tire changing. Anyway, the spare tire was flat too. 

We had budgeted several hours to shop for supplies in the capital city of Lilongwe, and were running out of time. Still, we chuckled as we watched our well-thought-out plan fly out the window. We were getting the hang of Malawi. 

I took the 24-plus-hour journey to this small African country in early April to assist with the Schenectady-based MoonCatcher Project, which makes reusable, washable menstrual management kits for girls around the world, with the aim of helping them to stay in school. Girls who can’t afford menstrual pads often skip school during their period because they lack an effective way to manage their menstrual flow. 

The MoonCatcher Project hosts kit-making sewing bees in the U.S. and does on-the-ground education, kit production and distribution in Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Uganda, Honduras and Haiti.

The organization’s founder, Ellie von Wellsheim, was one of those stranded on the dirt road with me, along with our translator, Mary Khumbanyiwa, and Lori Ludlow, my former college roommate and longtime travel partner. 

Our work that week began in the small village of Mtunthama, near the middle of Malawi. Home to St. Andrews Hospital, the town is more well-to-do than many we passed through. We stayed in a tin-roofed brick duplex with a gracious host family. The home had cold running water and electricity — some of the time. Like other homes nearby, it had a small garden. 

Roosters strutted everywhere, and served as our alarm clock. Children flocked to us, reaching up to hold our hands as we walked through the village. Yellowing maize plants rustled in the warm breeze and mountains were blue in the distance. The sky looked enormous and at night the stars were dazzling. 

In 2017, von Wellsheim started a 10-woman sewing cooperative that operates out of Mtunthama’s HIV clinic. Lacking electricity, the tailors use treadle sewing machines and work when daylight allows. Completed MoonCatcher Kits are donated to girls in nearby schools. This year, only three tailors remain, but they have made great progress, completing 300 kits. Unfortunately, many of the kits had not been made to von Wellsheim’s strict specifications.

“I want the girls to get a product that is pretty and well made, so they can last,” she explained. “And it’s important for the tailors to feel proud of what they’re doing.” 

We spent several days in the little sewing room, ripping out seams while von Wellsheim gently instructed the tailors. 

“It was a lesson in patience and understanding and was probably a good thing for me and for them,” she said. 

We were scheduled to teach a menstrual management class at local schools that first week, but found, upon arrival in Mtunthama, that the schools were closed for a week-long break. So, we instead headed to Lilongwe to buy sewing supplies, and then north to the village of Chituka, where von Wellsheim hoped to start a sewing cooperative. 

The trip to Lilongwe should have taken about two hours, but travel is tedious on roads that resemble riverbeds. Malawian taxis take you to your destination only after the driver has packed in as many people as possible. 

And then there are stops at police barricades, for bathroom breaks, and to fill the gas tank from a plastic jug. 

Four hours and three vehicle transfers later, we arrived, frazzled, at our destination. Lovely Miss Malawi was there to meet us with a rental car and it was smooth sailing until the following day, when that whole flat tire thing happened.

“Go with the flow,” the MoonCatcher Project’s catchphrase, became our mantra.

Flat tire finally fixed, we made it to Lilongwe’s bustling business district, with a bit of time before the shops closed. Vendors in makeshift booths and concrete stalls sold secondhand clothing, handmade mops, fried grasshoppers, even winter gloves. We rushed to purchase fabric for the tailors in Mtunthama and a year’s worth of supplies for the sewing cooperative in Chituka. 

The trip to Chituka took seven hours in the pouring rain, with six people crammed into the cab of a pickup truck. Swollen streams jumped their beds and rolled rubble across potholed roads. We walked across a bridge that had one lane eaten away by the river raging below, while our driver drove gingerly across what was left of the unstable structure. 

In Chituka, we expected to meet with three or four experienced tailors who had access to sewing machines. We were greeted by 20 women who sang us a joyous song of welcome. All wanted to be part of the cooperative, but only one had a sewing machine and the others lacked sewing skills. The sewing space did not have the promised electricity, so the electric sewing machines we had brought along were useless.

“Go with the flow,” von Wellsheim reminded us. 

Starting a sewing cooperative in Chituka was out of the question, so instead, for three days, we helped the women to hand-sew their own MoonCatcher Kit. Many had never sewn or even used scissors before. There were wonderful cheers of accomplishment when those kits were finally complete. 

The bulk of the remaining sewing supplies were given to teachers from surrounding schools, who will teach students to sew MoonCatcher Kits for their own use. 

Patience Longwe, a teacher in Malenga Mzoma School in Chituka, said many of her students use strips of material from old pairs of pants as menstrual pads. She said many girls won’t come to school when they have their period because they are afraid their makeshift pad will fail them. 

“I was one of the girls who was not going to school,” she recounted. “I was menstruating for six days, so I had to quit school for a week. I would lie to the teacher and say I had a headache for a week, so I was missing education.” 

Longwe expressed optimism that the MoonCatcher Kits will make it easier for girls to remain in school when they have their period.

Near the end of our trip, we headed south to the Chamama Community Day Secondary School in Kasungu, where von Wellsheim taught a menstrual management class to 180 girls who received MoonCatcher Kits with great enthusiasm. Von Wellsheim said those girls and others like them keep her passionate about The MoonCatcher Project.

“The smile on those girls’ faces when they realize that they don’t have to come up with money, they don’t have to rip up their clothes [to use as menstrual pads], they don’t have to be embarrassed, that’s what keeps me going,” she said, while sitting beneath a shade tree at the Chamama School. “And I think one of those girls, maybe right in this school, is going to be the one who’s going to do something amazing, and it’s going to be because she could stay in school.”

Reach Kelly de la Rocha at [email protected].

How you can help:

Everyone is welcome to help sew MoonCatcher menstrual management kits that will be donated to girls around the world. No sewing skills are needed. 

Upcoming MoonBees:

  • Sunday, May 6: 1 to 3 p.m., Unitarian Universalist Church, 21 Weeks Road, Queensbury
  • Tuesday, May 8: 7 to 9 p.m., Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, 174 Washington Avenue Extension, Albany
  • Saturday, May 12: 10 a.m. to noon, Macedonia Baptist Church, 26 Wilson Ave., Albany
  • Thursday, May 24: 6 to 8 p.m., First Congregation Church of Albany, 405 Quail St., Albany

For more information, visit mooncatcher.org.

Categories: Life and Arts

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