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Madhvi Dalal: Brave enough to start afresh


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Madhvi Dalal: Brave enough to start afresh


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Madhvi Dalal, social entrepreneur and founder of PadMad Kenya, yoga instructor, choreographer, pharmacist, during the photo session on June 3, 2021. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

How Madhvi Dalal left their home in Wales and her successful chain of pharmacies, HealthPlus Pharmacy, and relocated to Kenya seven years ago was foreseen by a gypsy. The gypsy said, “you’re soon going to move to Kenya to work with children.” She scoffed and thought, “no way! I’m moving to Australia and I don’t even like children that much.”

The gypsy turned out to be right because a year later, she and her family moved to Kenya without a plan. While volunteering in the slums, she stumbled upon a sobering realisation that spurred her to start Padmad Kenya whose mission is to end period poverty.

“Pre-Covid studies had shown about 65 percent of girls and women couldn’t afford sanitary pads in Kenya,” she says.

“A quarter of the curriculum is missed by girls in secondary schools due to periods.”

Padmad develops reusable sanitary cotton pads. Travelling across Kenya, she educates girls and women on menstrual health.

A trained pharmacist, Madhvi is also a yogi, meditation instructor, and a professional traditional Indian dancer. She and Jackson Biko had coffee at Serena Nairobi’s poolside.

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So a gypsy lady predicted that you would end up in Kenya? Wild.

Actually, before that, we had been thinking of relocating. When we were holidaying at the coast one time, my husband said, ‘let’s move here.’ It was 2am and we were at the bar. I said, ‘talk to me in the morning.’ [Grins]. He did, but I thought everything here was different; the ethics, the field of pharmacy… Then Westgate terror attack happened.

It took him two years to convince me. When we came to Kenya with our two children, I had no plan. We had sold our business and leased the pharmacy building.

I started teaching yoga and mindfulness in the slums. I was shocked at the financial discrepancy. I also realised the girls were missing school, not because they’re sick, but because they don’t have sanitary pads. It was just alien to me. So I decided to do something biodegradable and long-lasting.

You travel all over Kenya’s poor villages, what have you had to change about your life after seeing how other people live?

I’ve had to ground myself. Before I’d get deeply affected by all these stories and I’d take it out on my children. I used to wonder why they have these privileges; parents, food, comfort, and others don’t. I work with a big community in Eldoret that has second-generation street families. Their stories are heart-wrenching. These stories would affect me emotionally. Have you ever heard of the starfish story?

No, afraid not.

An elderly gentleman walking on the beach saw this little boy picking things from the beach. He asked the boy, ‘what do you keep picking?’ The boy said, ‘I’m trying to save the starfish.’ Soon the whole shore was full of them. The man said, ‘well, there are just too many, millions, to save.’ The boy bent and picked one and said, ‘yes but all I know is that I’ve saved this one.’ That story changed my perspective and informed me what I do with these girls.

I like that story. Do you believe in destiny, that everything you have lived and gone through has been preparing you for this moment in life, doing selfless deeds?

I don’t think I’m doing a selfless thing. It’s almost selfish because I find pleasure in what I’m doing. But yes, I believed in destiny. We named our daughter Destiny because in Wales we were caught in the life of making money and all, and one day we stopped and asked ourselves, ‘what’s the meaning of life?’ We named her Destiny because at that time we thought we needed to make better choices.

My husband has a very strong spiritual outlook and he believes that this is where we are supposed to be as a family. I can see all the pieces falling into place. My achievement now is giving 109 single mothers jikos, blankets, food, or helping them start small businesses. Or helping girls keep girls in school.

Has your involvement with people with very little or nothing changed your relationship with money?

Frankly, I don’t have a consumer lifestyle mentality, even in the UK. I have clothes I have worn since I was 12. I sometimes feel guilty going to a restaurant and ordering a glass of wine that costs Sh700.

When do you find yourself out of your depth?

In the flashy bling Nairobi societies. I feel very uncomfortable with them. What keeps coming to my head is ‘you spent $10,000 {Sh1.07 million} on a party when we could help sustain these many poor families.’ I’m the one who normally orders soup and salad. [Chuckles] It’s unhealthy though. It’s not a good mentality.

What did you struggle with the most when you came to Kenya?

The lack of purpose because I was career-driven. My life was my work. Suddenly I was here, with a one-month-old colicky baby, and a four-year-old. I felt very lost. I wondered how we would sustain ourselves.

If you were to edit a bit of your life, what part would that be?

Moving away from home when I was 12. [Pause] I think it has its advantages; you become tough and all that. But you fail to connect with your parents and vice versa. I struggle to love and I think if I had had more time with my parents it would have helped. But then it did make me tougher. I wouldn’t be where I am.

Do you feel guilty if you’re unable to love as you imagine you should?

I don’t recall ever being the kind of girl who always wanted children. However, we had conversations after conversations and arguments after arguments with my husband.

He wanted our own children and I wanted us to adopt. We pulled and tagged for a long time, 10 or maybe 12 years. I was very unhealthy mentally when I was pregnant. I was feeling guilty.

Would you have children again if you had a choice, now?

I would still rather adopt. I keep having these conversations with my girls saying we should adopt. My older girl has friends in the slums, really nice girls who are orphans and it would just be great if the process in Kenya was simple.

But I must add that my children give me peace, immense happiness and perspective. They teach me tolerance, patience and I’m a different person now that I’m a mom.

At 45, what are you currently learning about yourself but also unlearning?

I am learning self-acceptance. I preach about self-love and self-acceptance in my yoga classes but for me it’s hard. I’m learning to understand who I am, where I’m headed. I have unlearned to not always be in control, to surrender.

When you talk about struggling with self-acceptance, is there a particular thing you’re struggling to accept?

The ability to love unconditionally as a mother is expected to. Maybe I’m just looking for a definition. Some moms live for their children; I’m not one of those even though my children give me untold pleasure. And so there’s guilt around that; why am I not one of those who dedicate their lives to their children? Why is my purpose in life not built around them?

What’s your favourite yoga pose?

[Giggles] A headstand. It makes the blood flow into the brain.

What’s the story of that tattoo on your wrist?

A midlife crisis, I think. (Chuckles) We had gone to New York, and I was going through this phase where I was thinking, okay, we have a pharmacy and we’ve got seven awards in six years, so what’s my next step? I was feeling a bit lost.

About 10pm, I told my niece, about 10 years old then, ‘let’s go get a tattoo done.’ She drew it, and I had it done. It’s a butterfly with wings allowing it to fly. There’s a dragon and a butterfly. So the dragon is from the Welsh, the butterfly is freedom.



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