Friday, 26 April 2019

I’ve given up work to help women in remote Africa

I’ve given up work to help women in remote Africa

A WOMAN who travelled around Africa after finishing university has started a campaign to provide sanitary products to women on the continent.

Widge Woolsey, 47, founded Ufulu, named after the
Chichewa word for freedom, when she returned to Africa last year and realised many women don’t have proper access to tampons or sanitary pads.

She now hopes to raise £150,000 to pay for moon-cups, silicone containers which can be used by women during their periods. The cups only need to be emptied twice a day and are easily cleaned at the start and end of the menstrual cycle. They last up to 10 years.

Ms Woolsey, who lives with her parents Peter and Finella in Binfield Heath, has spent a lot of her life travelling and has given up her job as an executive PA in the finance industry to pursue the appeal.

She said: “I’ve had a lot of jobs and moved 47 times in 22 years. I first went to Africa in 1994 after university and hitch-hiked from Cape Town to Ethiopia on my own. It took me the best part of a year to get to Ethiopia but the border with Sudan was shut so I turned around and went back.

“I came back to the UK and worked in advertising for a year before realising I didn’t want to be in London. I went back to Africa and blagged my way into a safari lodge where I worked for a year.

“I was the project manager for the building of a private lodge for a year. When that was finished I didn’t know what to do but a friend said why not try the film industry? I worked in the industry for five years as a production co-ordinator and assistant director and even did stunts at one point.

“I ended up working for the BBC on a wildlife documentary where I got to spend 18 months on the Okovango Delta in Botswana being paid to watch wild dogs. It was amazing.”

After returning from Africa in 2003, Ms Woolsey worked in London for five years before moving to the Gower Peninsula in South Wales and later the family home in Binfield Heath.

She said: “I took another job in finance and then last year, having not had a holiday in eight years, I went back to Africa for extended leave. I stayed with a friend called Andrew Came whose parents live in Henley. He’s also from Binfield Heath and I’ve known him since 1994. He has lived on Likoma Island on Lake Malawi for 30 years. I realised I missed Africa and it was where I wanted to be.”

Ms Woolsey travelled to the island, which is between Malawi and Mozambique, and then during a chance conversation with a local realised how difficult things are for women during their periods.

She said: “While I was having a conversation with a local woman called Nandi, who works for Andrew, we were talking about women’s stuff and I gave her some tampons.

“That was when I found out she used cloth rags. I was absolutely horrified. She earns about £50 a month, which is a decent wage for there, but she has nowhere to buy anything.

“I was embarrassed that it hadn’t occurred to me that all these women have nothing to use. The sanitary products are limited out there and probably out of reach financially for a large proportion of the population anyway.

“I gave her all the supplies I had and when I came back here the idea started in my head. I thought, ‘there has got to be something I can do to help these women’.”

Ms Woolsey returned again in October, taking another load of tampons with her. She also began to think of alternatives that would be more long-lasting and easier for the women to deal with.

She said: “There is a waste issue there. Likoma is a small island,
18 sq km, and there is no rubbish collection. Most people use drop toilets.

“By this stage I had a moon-cup and when I showed Nandi she said, ‘wow’. I promised I would send her one for Christmas and spoke to the other women who work for Andrew. They were all amazed but couldn’t afford them.

“The average woman there earns £1 per day but the moon-cups cost £20 in the shops. That’s where the idea came to me that I needed to do something to help these women. It’s wrong in the 21st century that women are having to use cloth rags for something that happens to most women every month.

“Moon-cups are re-usable and last for 10 years. They are made from medical-grade silicone, there’s no plastic or latex in them. You only have to empty the cup twice a day, there’s no smell or leaking and you only have to wash them at the beginning and end of the cycle.

“These women are having to wash these rags every day and dry them somewhere clean, which is hard. There is a stigma attached to periods. A cup takes five minutes to boil and then goes into a bag and no one knows.

“They have to be boiled for five minutes at the start and end of the cycle to sterilise it. You also get them in a cotton bag to keep them clean.”

Along with the moon-cup and bag, Ms Woolsey is also providing antiseptic soap for the women to use to wash their hands and is making pouches from beeswax to keep the soap in.

She plans to return to the island next month and speak to locals using Mr Came’s connections.

She said: “I’m going on April 1 and will be running workshops for between five and 10 women to introduce them to the cup, explain how to use it and impress upon them the importance of hygiene as well as answering any questions about their cycle.

“Because Andrew has lived on the island for so long, he’s very well known. He’s so well respected that the chief of his village has given Andrew his surname. Through him, I have access to all the chiefs and will be going to them first to get theirs and their wives’ blessings.

“I know the head of most of the local schools and I’ll be working with him to introduce the cup to girls at school because they miss out on one week of their education every month because of biology.

“Periods are not a choice and it’s not right that a girl should miss out on her education just because she has her period.”

Ms Woolsey plans to start the campaign in the Nkwazi village, where 300 women lived and Mr Came is based. After three months there she will move on to  the island’s other 12 settlements where 5,000 women live.

She said: “There are no tarred roads and just four cars. There is electricity and a 4G phone mast so I will be able to update my website and social media.

“I predict it will take two years to supply the women of Likoma. I’m going to be doing it slowly and carefully and also running workshops for the men of the island to help remove the stigma surrounding periods.

“Once I’m finished with Likoma there’s another island called Chizumulu with about 1,500 to 2,000 women.

“I also have contacts in Mozambique, where it’s remote and the women have even less. The nearest town for them is 800 miles away. I plan to use my contacts there and in mainland Malawi.

“My initial fund-raising target is £8,000 and my total for the whole of Likoma is £150,000.”

As well as appealing for donations, Ms Woolsey plans to approach larger trusts, funds and foundations, including Comic Relief, to grow the campaign.

She said: “The idea is to train up women in each district to act as a liaison person.

“I will be linking with a project to make reusable pads, called Supreme Sanitary, because there will be some women for whom the cups don’t work.

“While they are great because they are reusable you have to dry them somewhere and in the rainy season that’s four months when they will struggle to dry them.”

The campaign has been supported by the Spoon café in Duke Street, Henley, with a coffee morning on Wednesday last week where 10 per cent of sales of coffee and red velvet hot chocolate went to the project.

A team from the Love Fitness gym at Henley Rugby Club spent the morning on a rowing machine and exercise bike outside.

Owners Massimo and Jo Antinoro, along with staff from the café, managed to cover 52 miles, the width of Lake Malawi.

Inside was a hamper with gifts including candles, vouchers for business and a Seiko watch, while a map of Likoma Island was divided into squares which customers could buy to have a chance of winning a Spoon supper club invitation.

Jeweller David Rodger-Sharp cleaned jewellery in return for a donation and will continue to offer the service at his shop in Duke Street.

A total of £833 was raised, bringing the total so far on her Go Fund Me page to £6,573.

For more information, visit
poverty or search for Ufulu Malawi on Facebook or Instagram.

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