Red is the colour of shame. It is the colour of unwelcome transitions and unfamiliar unchartered paths. It is the colour of womanhood, the signifier of pain, the dawn of alien traditional practices and the becoming of an alien. When the depths of girl’s body sheds tears, red tears, it signifies that a bridge has been crossed. The colour that means one’s womb is capable of holding a seed, giving it warmth and life. That one’s opening can now push forth a child. For some of us, the colour red came when we least expected it.
I remember the first time. Vividly. I had been having a dull ache in my stomach all day. It did not feel like a normal stomach ache. It lingered below my belly button, coming in waves. Like a storm brewing in a vast ocean. My lower back also felt uncomfortable, a nagging endless ache that wouldn’t go away.
I suddenly felt uncomfortably wet. The same discomfort one feels when they wear wet socks. I was certain I had no urge to pee. I rushed to the bathroom, sat on the toilet seat, pulled down my old cotton underwear and stared, mouth agape, at the sight that befell me. Lo and behold, a bright red drop of blood stared back at me. This single drop that would apparently signify an end to my childhood and mark my entry into adulthood.
I was thirteen years old and I had heard enough dreaded tales from the older girls from school to last me a lifetime. Some spoke about it with pride, though those undertones full of uncertainty and filtered shame always seeped right through. They shared as we bathed in the communal shower that served all four hundred and something of us. “Have you started?” they would ask with a smirk and line up their panties all set with Always pads on top of the adjacent wall. They would take longer to shower, and bend awkwardly over the plastic basins that served as replacements for bathtubs and showerheads in our rural school.
The memories came flooding back. “If you sit on a boy’s bed you will get pregnant. His wet dreams will swim all the way up to your stomach” I recalled that particular point with horror. “Pads suck all the blood out of your body. If you wear one when the blood is not coming, it will suck you dry”. I did not want to picture myself wearing one. What if this ugly red drop was a false alarm? Maybe i had accidentally nicked myself down there, though I couldn’t picture how that could possibly happen.
I recalled the teacher’s lesson during Christian Religious Education. When he explained about puberty with a blank expression while we broke into giggles and fits of laughter. When he drew a penis and a vagina on the black board. He drew the fallopian tube. One boy said the female reproductive system looked like a goat’s head. A goat with horns curving out- and that a goat’s head was a representation of Satan himself, and that meant that all women are evil. He said his father told him. The boys laughed and cheered while the girls booed. I found myself tightening my legs though, as if I was truly carrying shame between my legs, the devil’s incarnate, and that is why its tears were red. Why else would blood flow out of one’s insides? I shuddered as I quickly put my underwear back on and rushed to my mother’s room.
“ Mama, I think I am bleeding”, I said, half whispering, voice shaking, eyes tearing. I didn’t know why I wanted to cry. Was it fear, or shame, or the pain that pinched my lower stomach, or a twisted cocktail of emotions birthed by a single ugly drop of blood. T he single drop that opened the flood gates of blood carrying with it literal pain, shame and uncertainty. This colour red meant a transition I felt unprepared for. This blood that was cursed because of the opening it flowed out of. That would require a change in how I interacted with my father and brothers and uncles, and that Oja would not be my best friend anymore because he was a boy. That meant for four days every month, I would sit uneasily in class, and check the back of my dress for that embarrassing stain that is every girl’s worst nightmare.
The stain. I felt uneasy even thinking about it. I remembered the day Ola stood up in class, and a small red map had drawn itself at the back of her dress. If shame had a shape and colour then that is what it would look like. Ugly. Unassuming. Glaringly bright. As if its origin had conferred upon it the unnatural ability to be almost luminous, and draw copious amounts of attention to the wearer of the dress when they least wanted it.
We all saw it. The girl sitting behind her pulled her back down quickly. Like she had made a deliberate mistake. It started out as hushed whispers. The boys in the corner, in their screeching breaking voices, pointed shamelessly. “Ananyesha (she is raining),” they said. The girls just looked at her, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. The hushed whispers got louder, and were punctuated by giggles and gasps. Mr Okwiri, the scary mathematics teacher, was busy writing a formula on the blackboard.
Ola tearfully removed her sweater. She wrapped it around her waist, then reached into her desk and quickly pulled out a pad from under her books. I could almost hear the sound made by its pink nylon wrapper as she tried to fold the pad into her twelve year old hands. She stood up, mechanically, and slowly made her way to the front of the classroom. The muffled laughs and sympathetic looks escorted uncomfortably.
“Excuse me sir, please may I go to the toilet?”, she asked. Her voice soft and shaky. I wanted to follow her, cover her, walk behind her and hid her shame. This colour red that had caused her so much pain. But I was afraid. It was as if walking with her would summon my own shame. I sat in my chair. Daring not to stand. None of the girls stood. Lest the red map of shame marked the backs of our dresses as well.
Mr Okwiri turned to look at her. She shrunk under his glare. “You know you must handle your business before my class.” He roared. She shrunk further into a pint sized ball of fear and shame. “Sir, I need to go to the bathroom. I have had…a small accident”. Again, the blame that befell her because of a biological process beyond her control. I pictured the red map getting bigger under the sweater around her waist. I wondered if it the color red would roll down to her ankles. Soak her knee high socks in shame. The colour of shame. Mr Okwiri seemed oblivious of the giggles that filled the classroom, and the awkward silence from the girls that was so loud it threatened to shatter the windows. Finally, Mani, the class prefect stood up shyly and walked up to Mr Okwiri. Ola’s face was now almost indescribable, her face fully defined by the embarrassment that had engulfed her. The tears rolled freely down her cheeks. “Sir, she needs to clean herself up”.
A look of realization dawned on his face as his eyes fell to the sweater around her waist. His face flushed as he curtly muttered an okay to her, and told everyone to get back to copying the formula. He quickly turned back to the blackboard, as if to hide his face from the taboo of a spectacle the colour red had caused in his classroom. Ola quickly walked out, her hands tightly clenching the sweater around her waist, the sweater that acted as a curtain, temporarily hiding the scarlet colour of her shame.
I recalled all this as my mother laughed hysterically and told me not to be afraid. She gave me a bar of soap, a fresh underwear and a thick pad. “Don’t cry Wefwe”, she said reassuringly using my childhood nickname. “You are a big girl now. The blood that flows signifies your transition. Every month, the blood will come. Embrace it. Every woman has a cycle my child, these cycles connect us. The cycles of our sisters, and mothers and those of our foremothers that now reside in the world that is yonder. They too had cycles, markers of time and age, and femininity. Your body is the earth. Your womb is the soil. It renews itself every cycle. Be careful, your soil is fertile now. If a seed is planted, it will grow. It will not care about whether you are ready for it or not. Guard your body. Protect the earth. The soil is your power source. The scarlet red is a sign that the earth and the soil breaths. Embrace your power Wefwe. Bathe in the essence of your womanhood. The pain in your stomach and your back, it is the war cry coming from the depths of your earth. When it cries, it cries scarlet red. It is not a curse child. It is the epitome of power. You are a woman. To be a woman is to be the essence of life itself. Don’t you ever forget that.”
As I carried the bucket of water to the bathroom, I felt the floodgates open. I smiled, through the dull ache that grew stronger. I smiled, fully embracing the essence of my womanhood.