My Deepest Fear – This was the Ruby In The Rift Project

menstrual cup distribution Kenya Alyssa O'Connor ruby in the rift ruby cup

As I empty my bags from the past four months of traveling, I am profoundly aware that I am unpacking more than just “things”. Enveloping each item I pull from my bag are memories from a land far away, tokens of my time volunteering abroad in Iten, Kenya.

I fold my bright yellow patterned kanga, a traditional wrap skirt, and think of the sweet teacher that gave it to me on my last day of class. On my mantle, I set my rungu, a carved wooden ceremonial stick gifted from a Masai that I encountered along my journey. I open my journal and find small torn paper notes of love and gratitude from students sprinkled between my own handwritten pages capturing cherished moments, thoughts, and reflections.

The return home and the transition between cultures brings on a bittersweet wave of nostalgia. Differences lose their distinction, and I am left with the gentle reminder that at the end of the day, we are all human.

“So…how was Africa?”

Since I returned two weeks ago, I have often been asked, “So…how was Africa?”
Well, my friends, to capture the entire experience in a word: it was an adventure. There were highs, and there were lows. There were sacred moments, and there were scary moments. Kenya is full of magical places, cloaked in surrealism, but is also pocketed by troubled places, hardened by extreme poverty.

For those of you that don’t know, I’ve dedicated the last year of my life to Ruby in the Rift, a menstrual health initiative located in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. It all started with the conception of an idea, a seed if you will, and it slowly grew and blossomed from there. Cross World Africa, an amazing nonprofit dedicated to ending inequality in East Africa, aligned with my project goals and proposal and soon a partnership with Ruby Life Ltd., the makers of Ruby Cup, was formed.

menstrual cup distribution Kenya Alyssa O'Connor ruby in the rift ruby cup

We were initially granted 250 Ruby cups, which allowed us to turn our attention to designing the curriculum for the three-month long educational workshop at participating schools. Each month a new milestone was reached, slowly checking off to-do list items while simultaneously adding three more.

My goals of the project were simple:
– Puberty Guidance
– Sanitation Solution (Yay, Ruby Cup!)
– Empowerment

While we were still in the planning phase, I unavoidably came face to face with my own doubts and fears. I found myself asking, “Could I actually do this project?” “Who am I to lead such an endeavor?” “Why did Ruby Life Ltd. pick me?””I can probably teach them a thing or two about menstruation, but can I actually empower them?” “Am I an empowered female myself?” The questions, the doubts, and the worries spiraled until I felt small and incapable of bringing any light into the world.

“Your playing small does not serve the world.” – Nelson Mandela

Have you ever heard words, arranged in such a fashion, that they strike a chord in your heart? Open your eyes to things unseen? Inspire you to rise above your own insecurities, and escape the box of limitations in which you trapped yourself? The above quote by Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid revolutionary and former president of South Africa, did that for me.

Mandela as my muse

When I found myself struggling with doubt, I would read his quote titled “Our Deepest Fear”. With renewed inspiration, I would then return to devouring menstrual health management research and anatomy textbooks so I could cultivate an informational and empowering curriculum. I knew at the time there were certain things I could plan and prepare for, but for the rest that was beyond my control, I just had to stay positive and hope that, in the end, it would all work out.

With Mandela as my muse to believe in myself, I boarded my flight to Kenya armed with pounds of project supplies, a few outfits, and a heart full of dreams. With each new day, and each successive lesson, I felt my fears and doubts vaporize. I realized executing lessons in perfection is an entirely unrealistic standard to achieve, and the real magic happens when you let the class flow. I realized group discussions were an equally valuable tool as instruction, because all of us, at some level, are just longing to be heard.

menstrual cup distribution Kenya Alyssa O'Connor ruby in the rift ruby cup

But most importantly, I realized it wasn’t about me and what I perceived myself to be capable of; it was about the energy created when you bring people together. It didn’t matter whether the material was delivered with utmost teaching perfection. What mattered was that it was being delivered and that the girls, the teachers, and the whole village were talking about menstruation.

Empowerment straight from the heart

My last and final lesson with my students was labeled “Empowerment” in my planner. Honestly, it was the one lesson plan that I left blank. I knew that when the final day came, everything I did and said would have to come straight from the heart to be heard. Even though I have faced, and will continue to face, moments of self- doubt, I do strongly believe we are all capable of manifesting our own destiny, if only we have enough confidence to believe in it. As I stood in front of my students for the last time, I knew I had no choice but to kick off the class with the quote that lit my path to them in the first place.

I paused for moment of contemplation, listening as the April rain fell gently on the tin roof. Making eye contact with a handful of students throughout the classroom, I was warmly greeted with memories of time spent teaching these wonderful young women. I remember the student on my left, who I chased around the room with a piece of chalk as she tried to giggle her way out of writing on the board during a trivia game about the menstrual cycle. I turned and looked at a student on my right, who approached me in confidence about her pregnancy in her last year of school. All of these girls, with their stories to tell, their challenges to face, and their lives to lead, looking patiently back at me. What could I, a foreigner from America, possibly tell them about life?

menstrual cup distribution Kenya Alyssa O'Connor ruby in the rift ruby cup

I once heard a Native American grandmother speak at a peace conference in the United States about her challenging past, and why it was important for her to go through certain obstacles- anger, addiction, etc.- before she assumed her leadership position mentoring the youth in her tribe. She explained to the crowd, in a way that felt like she was speaking directly to me, “you can’t speak about that which you don’t know”. Undeniably, nothing resonates like the truth. With that in mind, I unpacked my story to my girls, sharing my experiences that have carved me into the woman I am today. I put aside the ego and laid bare the mistakes. I placed both the joys and the pains together on the altar, interwoven as they often are in this journey we call life.

And in that moment of honesty, I saw a familiar light in each girl’s eye. Despite our differences in language and culture, or the fact that our individual struggles are worlds apart, I could see that they shared the same worries and doubts as I did at the start of this adventure. More importantly, I could see that they desired to be more than what the world has told them that they can be. I saw a room full of hope, of fire, of young girls ready and willing to shine out their light and change their stars. And there, in that tiny classroom perched upon the Rift Valley escarpment, I realized that these girls and I not only shared this deepest fear but shared the resolve to succeed because of it.

Ruby in the Rift, by the numbers:

900: Ruby Cups distributed, in partnership with Ruby Life Ltd. and Cross World Africa, Inc.

340: Girls in the Rift Valley who participated in Cross World Africa’s educational workshops

12: Weeks of teaching, learning, and discussion about menstrual and reproductive health

3: Schools that participated in Cross World Africa’s first public health project

1: Amazing cross-cultural, cross-organization collaboration

With that being said, my sincerest gratitude to everyone involved in making hope a reality, and thank you to the communities that inspire us to overcome our deepest fear. Together, we are all changing lives with Ruby Cup.

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Alyssa O’Connor

Alyssa O’Connor is the creator and project manager of “Ruby in the Rift”, a Cross World Africa, Inc public health campaign located in Iten, Kenya. Alyssa grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the US, where she was a talented student-athlete with a passion for health and girl power. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Cornell University, studying Biology and Society while also earning academic all-american honors in Track and Field. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking with her dog, camping in the mountains, and convincing all the women in her life to pull the string on disposable products and make the switch to Ruby Cup.