The Girls Who Lead Our World

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. 

GLOWing in the Dark

The Peace Corps experience is a huge roller coaster. Most returned volunteers will tell you that. It’s even part of the appeal of the thing–you take the terrible times with the incredible ones, and some say that one feels more alive this way than in the static sort of life that many find in the U.S. I probably rode the high part of that roller coaster for longer than many volunteers do, so it’s only fair that now I seem to be hitting a lower spot in the ride.

Recently, things have been getting a little difficult in both my personal and professional lives here (which, as I learned early on, are so intertwined here that they’re barely worth trying to separate). First (and I almost don’t want to write this because I have a feeling it’s not going to go over well with my readers), I lost Rafiki about a month and a half ago. Like many cats, he used to like to go out during the night–run around, chase things, sit in the cool shadows of the darkness, etc–and come back in the morning to sleep in the house all day. But one night he went out and never came back. I took the whole thing fairly well, I guess–probably because since arriving in Benin, I’d heard from other volunteers that the chances of having a pet survive the whole two years were perhaps a bit slim, so I had been trying not to get too attached to the little guy. I guess it worked. Emotional walls…they’re effective. Around that same time, I hit a stage of huge frustration with my work. I know I haven’t written a lot about “work” here, probably because it is generally so touch-and-go; just when I start feeling like I’m finally making progress and things are moving along, we hit another bump in the road and BAM, we’ve stopped again. And while most days, I feel like I find something useful to do, none of my projects are really coming together as they should be, and it’s so infuriating. I’m also losing patience with the state of the health center where I am based. The same problems that existed when I got there a year ago–lack of medication, equipment, trained personnel, etc–are still rampant and might actually be getting worse, despite my attempts to work with the people in charge to make improvements. I am someone who generally has a great deal of perseverance, but there are only so many times one can try and fail before the drive to try again starts to fade.

Then, in the most recent edition of “things Christina is going to complain about before she gets on with the rest of the blog already,” a couple weeks ago, I went with a bunch of other volunteers to Benin’s annual Yam Festival in a nearby city (yes, that’s right–a festival of yams…it occurs on the 15th of August each year to celebrate the first harvest of yams after the off-season. Mostly it’s a big party with a lot of yam pilé–it was awesome except for one thing) and got my purse stolen with my cell phone, camera, key to my house, and a bit of money inside. As you might imagine, this put me in a pretty bad mood–first because those are many useful and expensive things to lose in one fell swoop, and second because I should have known to be more careful in a situation like that. It’s funny, generally I feel like living here is making me more “street smart;” I’ve noticed in particular the development of that sort of 6th sense that tells you there is something wrong or danger is approaching in some way, and as such, I think I’ve avoided several potentially bad situations. But also, I’ve become so comfortable in my village that I seem to have forgotten some common sense about cities and events where there are a lot of people. The bag-snatching happened on the morning of the 15th, when a couple friends and I had gone to get breakfast. We sat down at a table near the back of an outdoor restaurant and I hung my bag on the back of my chair, as I didn’t want to put it down in the dirt. It seemed like the whole city was tired from partying the night before, and there were very few people out and about. We had a nice breakfast of omelets and coffee, interrupted only by one strange moment where a man came up in front of us, greeted us, and was saying a bunch of things that didn’t make sense. That must have been the moment when someone else snatched the bag because when I looked for it later, it was gone. It sounds obvious when I write it here, but that kind of strange interaction happens all the time here, since we stand out as foreigners and people like to talk to us despite the frequent language barriers, so at the time I just laughed and commented on how strange life is sometimes. We asked the staff of the restaurant if they had seen anything, but they were unhelpful (probably either hungover from the night before or still awake from the night before…not in the mood to help stupid yovos who can’t keep track of their personal belongings) and at any rate, it was pretty clear that the bag was gone. So that was that. Not pleased about it…as they say here “ça me fait mal”–literally, “it hurts me.” But what’s done is done, right?

So all by way of saying, it hasn’t been the best couple of months… Which is why it was so wonderful to have a really positive experience in the middle of it. Two weeks ago (or is it three now that I’m finally getting around to posting this?), we finally had the girls’ camp that I wrote you all about a long time ago, and it went splendidly. The Camp GLOW experience started on a Sunday morning, when I met up with three 14ish girls whom I barely knew, but who had been chosen for me by the administration of the school. I had expected them to be running late, as is typical here, but they surprised me by arriving even earlier than I to our agreed meeting spot. I greeted their parents, assessed the three young bodies huddled together on a bench, and asked them cheerily, “Are we ready?”
“Oui,” they answered in unison.
A pause, as I looked at them again.
“Are we scared?”
“Oui,” they responded more quickly, and with more gusto than I expected.
I tried to assure them that this would be fun and that there was no need to be nervous, but tension was definitely high as we met up with nearby volunteers and their girls and traveled the 3.5ish hours in several crammed taxis to Parakou, a city which none of them had ever seen.

As we entered the University of Parakou gates, a flock of young Beninese women welcomed us with a chorus of “Bon arrivé!” and helped to carry the girls’ stuff. These were the tutrices and junior tutrices of the camp–essentially the counselors/junior counselors, a role that we the volunteers shared with them. The tutrices are model women who are chosen from each participating community to act as sort of mothers away from home for the girls, and the junior tutrices are girls who had participated in the camp the year before and were chosen to come back as helpers because of their good behavior/performance. We were led to the home base room for the camp: a classroom that usually hosts the university’s English classes. The room was big, open and airy, and reminded me more of an elementary school room than one of a university. I remember feeling that way about university classrooms in Uganda, too, and I think it’s due to the climate; because it’s so hot, everything needs to be open, whereas in the climate-controlled environment of American universities, we prefer to close our rooms to keep out distractions. At any rate, the room had been decorated by the tutrices/junior tutrices prior to the campers’ arrival and was quite welcoming. The girls, tired and hungry from traveling all morning, were given a local frozen juice treat, bissap, and a fish sandwich on a baguette as they arrived and checked in.

After they were done eating, we took them to settle into the dorms where they’d be staying. The university has some extremely nice dorms that look kind of like modern apartments and have twisting staircases and are generally beautiful. These were not the dorms that we secured for GLOW. Our rooms were in an old, somewhat dingy, two-story brick building (apparently the less expensive option for students who don’t have the money for the nicer lodging). The locker-room style communal bathrooms seemed to be perpetually flooded and the rooms themselves were tiny, containing only a sole bunk bed and a tall, skinny cabinet for depositing personal possessions. Fine for a week, but hard to imagine spending my entire college career in a room like that. Even so, considering what the girls were used to from home, I think this dorm ended up being a good choice. My girls were assigned to a room on the second floor of the building, and it was the first time that some of them had ever been on the second floor of anything. I didn’t even consider this as I plowed up the stairs and wondered why they were taking so long to follow me. My friends and I realized later that stairs might be a tricky thing for people who had never used them before. The dorm also featured electricity and running water, neither of which was a thing my girls were used to. They were so excited to have their very own lightbulb with a switch in their room, and I knew they would sleep at least the first night with the light on all night, just because they could. (Unfortunately, the power went out that first night and they actually ended up being rather in the dark…) The rest of the campus was nice and rather college-esque, and I think it was a good environment for the camp. As we were standing at the bottom of a huge, shiny lecture hall on a tour of the university, I mentioned to the girls next to me that they could be back there in a few years as students, sitting in those desks, which is a possibility that probably doesn’t seem real to most village young people, but I hope that somehow for at least a few of the girls, seeing it may have helped it to become more real.

The camp followed a pretty normal kind of trajectory for that kind of thing: the beginning was a little rough and we were all wondering if we’d make it the entire week, but by the end the time was flying and it didn’t seem like enough. I think participating in camp gave me a good glimpse of why people enjoy teaching. It was the most amazing thing to see the transformation in the girls over the course of the week, and I suppose teachers see even bigger changes over the course of a year. The girls arrived quiet, shy, nervous, and reserved. Then as they got to know each other and us, they started emerging from their shells. Some of the activities we had were a lot like school–they were sitting in desks, and there was a lot of talking–but without the boys to overshadow them, we started seeing them participate and really shine. We had discussions about all sorts of things, ranging from the practical and straightforward, like malaria, clean drinking water, and book-keeping to the more taboo and complicated, like birth control, sexual harassment, and violence against women. We had three sessions in the computer lab, where many of them used (or even saw) a computer for the first time, while practicing the basics of Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Paint. We had a panel of professional Beninese women come in to share their experiences–a session that was truly inspiring and seemed to leave a big impression on the girls. And we had fun–playing with a gigantic parachute, making friendship bracelets, painting and drawing. And as the week progressed, I felt the change in the atmosphere of the entire room, as well as seeing individual girls blossom and grow. In those six days, in a safe environment away from the obstacles of everyday village life, I think many of the girls were able to forget about all the things that tell them “no you can’t” and started feeling that it was really possible for them to do big things in their lives. And during the closing ceremony, each girl’s face was shining as she walked to the front of the room to receive her certificate of participation and a surprise bag of goodies that we put together for them each, including a new school uniform, which is actually a pretty big gift and was highly appreciated.

The day my girls and I returned to village after camp, I was walking home after a busy afternoon of attending a funeral and then an impromptu trip to see a concert in a neighboring village when a man called out to me from the restaurant/bar on my way home. It was the father of one of the girls who I’d taken to camp, and he had been looking for me because he wanted to thank me. He insisted on buying me a drink, and as we were drinking and attempting to communicate through my limited Fon and his limited French, he told me that his daughter had told him all about camp and showed him what she learned and presented the new uniform. He kept telling me how happy it made him, because he was just a farmer and he had never gone to school, but now his daughter was doing so well and had so many possibilities open to her and now she had seen Parakou and the university, and maybe she would be president of Benin someday.

And so I think the darkness will not last forever. Until next time, CMK.