So we just finished Camp GLOW Parakou 2013 and I wanted to share with you some of what happened during the week. It was a great experience, much like last year, and I again thank all of you for your various types of support for the project. Between 17 Peace Corps Volunteers who are based in the region, we brought 52 girls between 6th and 9th grade to the University of Parakou, where they spent a week staying in the dorms, speaking French, meeting new people, pushing their limits, and learning about the possibilities that exist outside of the village life they know.
(I tried to post some pics but the internet refused, so that will come later)
The week went fairly well despite some bumps in the road (to be expected anywhere, but especially in Africa, where even the best laid plans often don’t equate to reality). We borrowed the same university classroom that we used last year (though the dorms this year were much nicer!) and each volunteer chose several sessions to lead the girls through while the rest of us helped guide our assigned campers along. I taught about hand-washing, malaria, clean water, and domestic violence, as well as escorting the campers on a field trip to an NGO that’s doing interesting work in agriculture and livestock raising at the end of the camp (the thirty minute drive to and from the field trip site felt much longer with a van full of girls singing camp songs at the top of their lungs the entire way…). The most interesting session that I led was on domestic violence–I presented with my friend Rachel and we decided to emphasize the need to address this problem on a community level; the community is aware when a husband is beating his wife, and the neighbors and family are likely to be the ones capable of making a difference in the situation. At the end of our session, we passed out different scenarios to each group of campers to see their thoughts on various domestic violence situations and to let them try their hand at resolving the various problems. This was an intriguing activity that brought about an involved discussion about gender roles and what each person was expected to do in a relationship. In the end, we arrived at the conclusion that a man never has the right to hit his wife, no matter the error she has made, but left many other gender questions unresolved.
Much of the program was the same this year as last year, but there were some good changes to the schedule as well. We added in a session on sexual harassment in schools, led by my friend Mariah (an English teacher posted near me who also plans to extend for a third year). I see this as one of the most important sessions because it is such a huge issue in Benin, and it’s so widespread and typical that there are very few people telling the girls that it’s not actually acceptable behavior for a teacher. The frustrating thing is that there are relatively few concrete actions that a girl can take if she has this problem (technically sexual harassment is against the law, but I’m not sure if any teacher has ever been convicted for it unless he has actually impregnated a student), but I think it’s equally as important for them to just be reminded that it’s not something they have to put up with and to do what they can to be strong and to avoid engaging in those situations. Another change to the program was the addition of a relationship panel, featuring three married couples–one Beninese, one American, and one Beninese-American. The couples were asked a series of questions relating to the roles of each person in the relationship and ideas on gender roles, having/raising children, etc, and they discussed the differences in answers. The girls seemed to enjoy this session, and it was an interesting discussion. The responses to the questions actually didn’t differ terribly much, probably because all of the couples were composed of young-ish, educated individuals with fairly progressive attitudes, but it seemed good and positive to have the girls see several varied examples of healthy relationships and the way that men and women can work together as equals.
For me, what stood out this year about camp is the way that it encouraged the girls to speak French and what a great thing that was. Even during the school year, it’s rare to hear students speaking French outside of the classroom, and inside the classroom it’s mostly male voices who speak, because many girls are afraid to make mistakes in their speech for fear of being made fun of (and this is a valid fear–it’s an accepted practice in Beninese classrooms to harshly correct anyone who mis-conjugates a verb or can’t find the right vocab word, etc). And especially in a rural environment like where I live, once school is out, students very rarely speak French. I see the students that I live with forgetting their French week by week as the summer progresses, due to lack of practice. And while I think it’s good for them to use their local language, because it’s part of their heritage and culture, it’s also important to have a mastery of the French language, because it opens up so many more possibilities for a young person, not only in Benin, but in the larger world. When French can be competently spoken, youth can communicate with their counterparts from all over the country, and from other French-speaking countries, whereas the person who speaks only local language will always have to rely on a translator and thus will be less independent and less mobile, restricted to areas where their local language is spoken. But during camp, because girls are interacting with people from many different regions and with volunteers who don’t understand local language, it’s necessary to speak French, and because there are no boys around to make fun of them, they feel more free to try, even if they’re still nervous about it.
I brought five girls with me to camp this year and again relished seeing the transformation that occurred in even a single week. I think I was a more competent chaperone this year after having done it once last year and I knew to walk them through the small things that I didn’t think of last year, like how to use a flush toilet (really rather different from a latrine or from other things that are practiced in village), and I regrouped them for a small, informal village reunion every night to check in and see their reaction to the day’s activities and to make sure there were no problems. There was a bit of turmoil amongst the group, especially in the first few days, which I think largely comes from them being pushed so far outside of their comfort zones, combined with living in close quarters. But generally, they seemed to really enjoy the camp and responded well to the experience.
Now that camp is over, I’m reflecting on ways to reinforce what the girls learned and to bring more girls into the group of leaders, so that it’s not just one week out of the year that inspires them and me. I’ve decided to start a girls’ club this year with the high-schoolers, where we’ll meet once a week and talk about things, do fun activities, etc. Other volunteers have these, and some work better than others–many have problems with attendance, which is why I’d avoided this idea before. But I’ve decided to give it a try and to have confidence in it. One thing I’ve learned from my two years spent here is that often, if you believe something will work, it will work. If you’re not sure, other people pick up on your uncertainty, and it flops. Additionally, I’m recruiting the ‘graduates’ of Camp GLOW to help me lead sessions during my academic camp on the subjects they learned about during camp. That way, they’re given the chance to serve their community, to be a role model, and also to be a translator between the strange language of yovo and the way younger students understand things. I’m pretty excited about this idea. I’ll let you know how it works out.
Academic camp is set to start next Monday and will run for a month before school ‘starts’ in October. I put that in quotations because the first month or so is usually taken up by the kids doing manual labor and the administration trying to put together a working schedule. It drives me crazy. But then again, how else are you going to essentially ‘mow the lawn’ of the school campus when there are no machines to do it and no money to pay someone else to do it? It’s just accepted that the kids will work for their education. The main unfortunate thing in my opinion is that it takes away from instruction time, which is already limited to begin with.
When thinking about problems like these, there’s a quote that often floats into my mind, the origin/exact wording of which I’m unsure of, which I find to be quite fitting for the problems one faces in a Peace Corps experience:
God give me the strength to change the things I can,
The grace to accept those I cannot,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
In other news, I recently got two rabbits! They live in a largish cage behind my house and run around my concession during the day. Their names are Etin and Oto, two words that mean “ears” in local language. Their American names are Betty and Otto. They’re adorable, as you can see if the picture posts here. They’re not really much work to take care of since they can run around with the other livestock and they eat the by-product of the soy cheese that my concession family makes most days, as well as leaves that one finds in the fields, and I can buy rabbit food at market for fairly cheap. I’m really happy to have them around, and I love to sit and watch them–they’re hilarious, cute, fluffy creatures.
The first night I got them, I didn’t have a cage yet and so they stayed in the house. My cat wasn’t there when they arrived, and so I wondered how he would react to them. I closed one of them in a spare room in my concession family’s house, and one in my living room and went to bed. Around 5AM, Awi started meowing at the door and I thought “oh boy, show time!” I got up and let him in, and in he pranced as usual, invigorated by his nightly prowl. He got about halfway across the living room when he caught sight of the rabbit. He froze. He stared at the rabbit. He didn’t hiss, he didn’t growl, he didn’t try to pounce, he didn’t try to run. He just stood there and studied it. The rabbit was actually fairly unconcerned by the cat. She looked at him a little, and then carried about her business of investigating the house and eating anything in sight. They played a funny game of slowly chasing each other around for about an hour (sometimes she would slowly hop after him and he would walk away, not wanting to seem like he was afraid, but also not wanting to get too near her, and then the tables would turn and he would follow her while she made her way away from him) before I became convinced that he wasn’t going to eat her and I went back to bed. After a little bit, he made his way up to the ceiling, where he rested aloof until the rabbits were out of the house. Now they co-exist peacefully and have virtually no interaction.