Monday, October 17, 2011

Girls Leadership Camp 2011

The last week in September, I joined 14 other volunteers and 4 Senegalese counterparts at the University of Bambey (just about 25mins from my site) for a Girls Leadership Camp.  Planning for this camp started just a couple of months after we swore in as Peace Corps Volunteers.  It was a project that justified meeting up for group lunches every now and again and was always in the back of our minds until late this summer, when we started working on it full throttle.  Luckily, the group that came before us initiated the camp the year before so there were some good “lessons learned” to consider when planning it.  Not that we didn't leave room to make our own mistakes along the way.  All in all, the camp was a big success and everyone pitched in to educate, motivate, and entertain 52 bright Senegalese teenage girls.

The girls were all recipients of the Michelle Sylvester Scholarship, a Peace Corps-run program that provides tuition, school supply assistance, and mentorship to middle school girls who exhibit academic potential, financial need, and lack of family support.  Throughout the year, many Peace Corps Volunteers work one-on-one with these students and their families to encourage the girls to stay in school.  The literacy rate in Senegal is 52% for males and only 33% for females over the age of 15 and the drop out rate for girls increases dramatically from primary to tertiary education.  
As with most projects in Senegal, you never really know when and if something is going to happen until it actually happens.  The “inchallah mentality” (where people add “God willing” to the end of anything they agree to do) gives an entire society the right to be vague about their commitments.  We’d budgeted for 40 girls to attend and really didn’t know how many would actually join us until the morning of the camp when they met their volunteers to be escorted from their home towns out to Bambey.  Surprisingly, instead of a shortage, we ended up with 12 extra girls, Allhumdalilah (another favorite Senegalese phrase-ender which means, “Thanks be to God”.)

Our week unfolded like this:

Sunday morning, the Volunteers who were not bringing girls prepped the facilities to get ready for the week ahead.  This was originally planned for Saturday afternoon, but we were all delayed due to a couple of big rain storms that came through.   Later in the afternoon, the girls arrived, settled in, made nametags for their doors, ate dinner, and got to know one another while forming teams.  That first evening we discovered that not only was it incredibly hot and humid in Bambey (living so close, this was no shocker to me) but there were no fans and the campus was infested with blister beetles and earwigs that tormented us every evening while seeking the overhead lights when the sun went down.

Monday morning, I led a yoga class to start our day.  This was a lot of fun, but a little intimidating at first because it was such a large group and I had to teach the class in French. Luckily, I had Wolof interpreters when I needed them. The girls were enthusiastic about the practice and seemed to enjoy it, as later evaluations confirmed.  In fact, one girl wrote that here favorite part of the entire camp was doing the Corpse Pose every morning. I’m sure both my yoga friends and my non-yoga friends can appreciate this desire to lay on the floor in complete relaxation all the same.  Each day had a theme and Monday was “Our Health Day”, which started with a lesson on how to make Oral Rehydration Solution (aka homemade Gatorade) and why it’s important to drink it when you exert yourself in the heat.  After that, we had a lesson on the health benefits of Moringa, or in Wolof, Nebedaay (the well-documented “miracle tree”), and after that we used dried Moringa leaves to make beignets (yummy little fried donut balls)—see, anything that can turn a donut into a healthy snack IS a miracle.  A nurse joined the girls in the late afternoon to answer health-related questions ranging from “why don’t men have periods?” to “why do some girls smell like trash?”  Girls will be girls!  Every evening, before sunset, we had some sort of physical activity led by La Rouge, the only male Senegalese counterpart we had at camp.  La Rouge adopted his name to reflect his affiliation with the communist party and we only once caught him proselytizing his political beliefs to the girls. Other than that, he was great with them.  For Monday night’s health activity, I lead “Spa Night” which was a lot of fun.  We made an oatmeal facial scrub and then an egg and lemon face mask.  None of the girls had ever seen oatmeal before and were very curious about it.  It’s available here, but usually only “toubabs” buy it or can afford it, so this was a real treat.  After our facials, we painted our nails, which almost didn’t happen, as we were informed at the last minute by our counterparts that the girls would have to remove any nail polish before their next prayer (and remember, the Senegalese pray 5 times a day.)  I’d only brought enough nail polish remover to correct the mishaps I’d anticipated.  This was certainly a lesson learned.  I can’t believe I’ve lived here a year and didn’t know this already.  Clearly, not all girls follow this rule.  My host mom regularly wears the stuff, but then again, she's "Khady Toubab."  Luckily, we were able to scrounge up enough acetone in the local market to allow those girls who wished to participate to paint and then un-paint their nails.  I’m sure this felt very exciting and decadent to some and probably scandalous to others.  Not all girls participated, so we got out the back-up supply of paper and crayons.  Another obstacle I hadn't anticipated was having to use only our right hands (not including our "dirty" left hands) to wash off our facial products because we were using communal basins. This proved more challenging than you would think.

Tuesday was “Our Environment Day”, which included activities about identifying and defining the various cultural and micro-climate environments that are found in Senegal, creating micro gardens in old tires and in water bottle planters, and an educational scavenger hunt that unintentionally resulted in live animals being carried back in sacks—not our proudest moment--but we did give those teams extra credit for thinking outside the box.  After dinner, the girls put on skits or performed dances that represented the various ethnic groups that make up the Senegalese population.  One thing about this camp that amazed me the most is how quickly the girls took to one another.  They'd come in groups of 3-9, but other than that they didn't know each other beforehand.  They were split up into new groups the first evening and roommates were selected randomly.  Within the first few hours of camp, these girls were happily interacting with each other.  No cliques were formed and they worked together as if they'd always known one another.  I guess that's the result of Senegalese communal living.

Wednesday , on “Our Career Day” we made self-portrait collages that representing what the girls like to do or what they’d like to become.  After that we played a fun game where girls had to take a stand agreeing or disagreeing with a series of statements that started out mundane and increasingly got more substantial (e.g., “Ceebu Jenn (a rice and fish dish) is better than Ceebu Yapp (a rice and meat dish); A woman should not work outside the home; A man has the right to beat his wife; Birth control is only the responsibility of the man, etc..).  This activity generated a lot of discussion as girls were called upon to defend their position, whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement.  After lunch, we invited a panel of professional women to speak with the girls.  I’d been corresponding with Ofeibea Quist-Archten, NPR’s West African correspondent, for many months and both she and I had hoped that she would be able to attend our career panel discussion, but unfortunately, her schedule changed at the last minute and she had to fly from “Daakaaaar” to attend a family event in Ghana.  Despite her absence, and the last minute cancellation of both my host mom AND my neighbor who has also agreed to attend (but of course, carefully added "Inchallah" when agreeing), we ended up having four impressive women on the panel.  The pinnacle of our camp experience occurred when one of the girls stepped outside after hearing the woman from the Helen Keller Foundation speak and started crying because she was so moved by the woman’s talk and hoped to someday grow up to be as inspirational as her.  So, for those of you who helped sponsor our camp, THANK YOU.  We didn’t just use the money we raised to by markers, paints, supplies, and food, we used it to create an environment where young girls could form dreams about their futures.

Thursday was another big day for me.  In addition to my morning yoga class, my friend Kelsey and I lead a session all morning on how to make Neem lotion and Shea Butter lip balm.  Then, we followed that up with a class on Costing.  This was “Our Business Day”.  Teaching business concepts here is always challenging, but I think we got our points across fairly effectively.  I had to leave camp after this session to teach another round of Safe Zone (gay awareness and sensititivy) Training back in Thies, but the rest of the day at camp involved other business related games and marketing exercises.

Friday was “Our Imagination Day” and focused on activities that encouraged creativity.  Some of the other volunteers led the yoga class in the morning and then the girls tie-dyed camp t-shirts, watched a movie about women in Senegal, worked on various other art projects, and practiced for a talent show that was held that final evening.

If the camp could be evaluated by the state of exhaustion we were all in when it was finally done, then I’d have to admit that WE ROCKED!  The girls were amazingly well-behaved, tolerant of the heat and the bugs, and enthusiastic participants in all of our planned activities.  We definitely could not have pulled off the week without the help of our Senegalese counterparts who, hopefully, will come back next year to work with the next set of Volunteers.  Ultimately, as with any good Peace Corps project, we hope that the camp will be a sustainable project and that lasting partnerships are formed.

Click on the photo below to open an album of pictures from the week.

Girls Leadership Camp 2011


  1. Hi April,

    Hope you've enjoyed your time in the US. Keep up the good work.

    Dan (Bilbo Baggins Server)

  2. Hey Dan, good luck in your upcoming Peace Corps Service!! Enjoy the holidays.