Motivational speaker and mentor Sylvia Khasoa Maina has come a long way since her humble beginnings. Through a series of unfortunate events, she found herself roaming the streets in search of food and shelter by the age of six. Now, she runs a program called Simama Na Dada which seeks to provide assistance to children and youth in need.
I interviewed Sylvia on how she transformed her life.
Q: What was your childhood like?
I am the second-born in a family of three. Living in a separated family was not an easy thing. It was very hard for me to develop normally like other children. Many times, I went to bed on an empty stomach. One could smell the abject poverty in our family. I decided to join the street children to at least get food to eat and a place to lay my head.
On the streets, we used to spend the whole day collecting used cartons and plastics so as to sell them for recycling purposes and gain a few coins out of that. At times, we would scavenge for leftovers in dustbins, which eventually was our main source of food. To make matter worse, I was not going to school because my mother couldn’t afford school fees.
Q: Did your family know where you were?
Yes, they knew but there was nothing they could do. My mother was bedridden and didn’t have a job.
Q: What happened next?
Just when I thought of resigning my life to fate, I was rescued by a children’s home – Mully Children’s Family Home. I had to go back to school and started at the nursery level. In addition, I now had all my basic needs met, including shelter. I went through the system until I completed high school.
Q: What was your experience with menstruation?
My first experience with menstruation was embarrassing. It happened while I was in Grade 7. In my class, children would have to share desks, three pupils per desk. I was sitting in between two boys and it was towards the end of the afternoon class. I was feeling weak and wet and I realized that something was terribly amiss. Luckily, the class was over and other pupils started moving out of the classroom. I didn’t move an inch until they had all left. I stood up so that I could leave, but heard one of the boys shouting, “Sylvia, you have blood on your back!”
I was so shocked and sat on my desk wondering what was happening and what I was going to do while the other pupils were laughing at me. I was so ashamed! I thought I had developed a wound in my vagina. But in a moment, I gathered courage and covered myself with my sweater to protect my back.
I went to see the matron and told her that I had a wound, which was why I was bleeding. She told me it was not a wound, but a period, which every girl must experience during her life. She gave me tissue paper to use for my menstruation.
It was really difficult for me to handle my period because I had low self-esteem and confidence around other pupils especially during my menses. I used tissue paper until Grade 11. I was not comfortable using tissue paper, but I had no alternative since I could not afford to have safe sanitary towels to use.
Q: How have your experiences shaped you?
Through it all, I managed to beat all odds and became a successful woman in my society because I never gave up in my life journey that was full of challenges. I am so proud of and happy for my experiences in life. I have learnt to appreciate life because there are so many girls and young women who are less privileged and needy in my country. I have so many friends and have interacted with many women, and I have seen them going through what I experienced as a young girl. I thought of sharing my life journey with girls and young women and supporting them in different aspects of their lives because I know how it feels to lack basic needs and safe health facilities as a woman.
My motivation really comes from my experience. I have decided to always speak up whenever I have the chance to reach out to girls and young women about menstruation because in my Country it’s a taboo subject. As a result, many girls and young women are suffering in silence because of fear. So many school-age girls have been missing school because of menstruation, which has led to school dropout, early marriages and pregnancies. This tends to cut their dreams short.
Q: Tell us about your initiative?
Simama Na Dada is the initiative that I lead. It is made up of young people from different professions. We volunteer ourselves through service time and financial support to make sure that we have sanitary towels and mentorship in different schools, churches, and communities. Mentorship is the key pillar in our program and distribution of sanitary towels ensures that every girl stays in school.
I believe it is my responsibility to inspire, mentor, motivate and empower all the girls and young women in my country and beyond. Campaigning for their rights to education and safe health products is my philosophy of life.
I know I am accountable to God to make sure that every girl and young woman out there achieves her goals and dreams.