Marni Sommer is the Associate Professor of Sociomedical Studies, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University. She worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small village in Eritrea as an English Teacher for two years, where she came to appreciate how very important access to basic health care and education were for the girls and boys.
During her doctoral degree that brought her to Tanzania for the first time, she was interested in exploring girls’ experiences of menstruation, puberty and schooling. She lived in the Kilimanjaro region where she had the good chance to do participatory research with adolescent girls in and out of school.
She has written many books on puberty. In Tanzania, there are three books namely girl’s puberty book (Vipindi Vya Maisha), a boy’s puberty book (Kuwa Kijana), and a new book for older adolescents (Afya Njema Kipindi Cha Ujana). She shares with Success more about her books.
How did you begin writing and how do you manage to keep up?
I have to write a lot in my current job, including grant proposals, articles about our research findings, and the puberty books that we develop in different countries. The puberty books are the most fun because I work on them with teams in each country, and they include the stories that adolescent girls from each country have written, so it is very fun to include the content from the girls themselves! For all my writing, I have to block out time, preferably a few days, when I do not have any meetings or classes to teach, so that I can really focus. I’m a slow writer so I need that time to think and write.
Why did you choose to write about menstruation and puberty?
I chose to write about menstruation and puberty (for the 10-14 year olds), and more recently about healthy adolescence (our new content for 15-19 year olds in Tanzania), because I thought about how little information young girls and boys get about their changing bodies in societies around the world. Parents in the US, in Tanzania, in Cambodia, in Pakistan, in Indonesia, many of them are shy to talk about these things. Schools may also not have enough content. And yet it is an important thing for girls to know about their menstruation, to not be afraid about what is happening in their bodies, but to feel proud of the changes and supported in how to manage menstruation.
For boys, they also need information, and adults often think they can learn on their own, but all young people need answers to their questions. Adolescence and the changing body are confusing and there are many peer pressures and embarrassments they can experience.
I think it’s good to have a book so that the young people can read and learn on their own, as these are very private topics. But they can also ask questions of parents, teachers, aunties and uncles, and sisters and brothers, showing them the books and asking for more information if they want to learn more. The book opens the door to communication.
Say something about the gained experience when writing your books
It was wonderful, the people I spoke to were so wonderful in sharing their experiences with me, and it was the learning I gained from that experience that provided the content for the Tanzania girl’s puberty book (Vipindi Vya Maisha or Growth & Changes). The insights from the adolescent girls also provided important learning around how schools in Tanzania could be more “girl friendly” for those who are menstruating, such as improved toilets with doors that that have locks, water inside the toilets, and information (the puberty book) for those in Standards 5, 6 and 7.
Did you intend to become an author, or do you have a specific reason for writing each book?
I did not plan to become a writer! I decided to write the puberty books, with many other people helping to write them, as it seemed like girls (and boys) growing up today really need more information in many countries.
So this seemed like a good way to have older adolescents share their growing up experiences with younger adolescents (we have stories written by youth in each book), along with providing basic puberty guidance adapted from the national curriculum, so that parents and teachers would be comfortable with the books too.
What did you enjoy most about writing?
I think that what I have enjoyed most is that the books are written collectively – they are a combination of my writing, of the writing we gather from the girls and boys in each country, and of my fellow team members. So it feels like a group project that is stronger because of all the important ideas that are brought from the different people who are contributing, particularly the stories from the youth.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
I think that one of the most surprising things was how very popular they are! It was wonderful and so interesting to learn that parents and families all over the world wanted them – a reminder of how we are all so similar – in that many parents feel uncomfortable to discuss these topics with their children, but they want them to have the information and feel supported. I like to be reminded of the common humanity of the world!