Like a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers, I’m not always sure about the impact of the work I’m doing. Maintaining a garden that demonstrates different agricultural techniques and offering trainings to those interested in learning more is work, for sure. But sometimes it’s difficult to have measurable results, even though I do literally see the fruits of my labor. (My bosses would probably respond with something regarding follow up with people I work with and measuring yields in the garden, but I digress.)
Last week I had the opportunity to switch gears completely and work on something I could definitely feel the immediate impact of. For the second year in a row, volunteers got together for Camp Gëm Sa Bopp (translation: believe in yourself), a five-day camp for middle school girls held at Université Gaston Berger in Saint-Louis. This camp was completely conceived of, created, and organized by a handful of Peace Corps Volunteers in northern Senegal (Saint-Louis, Richard Toll, Louga, and Linguère if you’re looking at a map).
This year’s camp was made up of 40 middle school-aged, high achieving campers; five Senegalese counselors; as well as some eighteen odd Peace Corps Volunteers (doing everything from balancing the camp’s budget to bringing out string for friendship bracelets).
Organizing an overnight camp of this scale might seem like a logistical nightmare, but everything fell into place amazingly well and the girls seemed to love the activities we came up with. Sessions included: morning zumba workouts, a field trip to the beach/trash cleanup, talks from guest speakers (current university students, a human rights activist, a midwife), tie dying, and (fun) nutrition lessons, among many others.
Many people here in Senegal still believe that a girl’s education is not as valuable or important as a boy’s, and that a woman’s sole role is to care for her family. For this reason, in many communities, girls are not encouraged to continue schooling past collège (middle school). Because we feel that this is such a key issue, we incorporated into many of our discussions the idea that it is possible to go far in school and have a career, while still being a good mother and helping to run a household.
We aimed to expose our campers to inspiring women who are balancing a family and a career, as well as to start a dialogue on different and changing gender roles (“What were things like for your grandmother when she was young? Could she go to school? How are things different now?”) and what that might mean for these girls and the resources they can take advantage of.
During one discussion on gender roles in Senegal, the girls had the opportunity to examine the ways that women’s roles might be expanding, as young women have greater access to schooling and more career opportunities present themselves. Some volunteers offered anecdotes about their fathers playing a larger role in their upbringing than their mothers—this was shocking (and hopefully thought-provoking?) for many of the girls.
(As an important sidenote, these conversations were largely facilitated by our Senegalese counselors.)
In true summer camp style, we tie dyed our camp t-shirts…
Obviously, Équipe Verte was the best.
Environment Day took us to a nearby Peace Corps Volunteer’s garden, where the girls learned about compost, fruit trees, moringa, and mulching. Emilie and I demonstrated the benefits of mulching with this okra bed: mulch protects those living organisms in the soil (which plants use as nutrients) from being killed by the sun; it keeps competing weeds from growing by preventing them from accessing air and sunlight; it reintroduces nutrients into the soil as the mulching materials decompose; and it is a water saving technique (not as much evaporates in the hot sun), meaning your plants need to be watered less frequently. (There’s your gardening lesson for the day!)
After our trip to the garden, we drove through Saint-Louis…
In case I haven’t mentioned it, Saint-Louis is super close to me (hour and fifteen minute drive) and is an awesome city.
We stopped at the beach, allowing many of these girls to put their feet in the ocean for the first time. (!!!)
In a departure from American-style summer camp, we had a campfire with lots of fast drumming, singing, and running around the fire. Semi-dangerous and pretty exhausting, but still fun. No sitting back, roasting marshmallows, and telling ghost stories here.
Thursday morning’s Olympics were super competitive and pretty inventive—the second event involved carrying a bowl of water on one’s head and emptying it into a bucket; the first team to fill the bucket won. It felt to me like one of those old Nickelodeon game shows, except that none of the girls spilled, and they were carrying water instead of green slime. We also had rice sack races, three-legged races, and a water balloon toss.
Most of the campers were pretty honest with their tossing…
On the final day of camp, Awa Traoré, Peace Corps Senegal’s language and cross cultural facilitator, came to talk with our girls about education, her own experiences, the importance of remaining strong and confident, and just generally being amazingly inspiring.
Awa works closely with Peace Corps Senegal’s SeneGAD organization, working to promote girls’ education, focusing on girls’ empowerment, and acting as a catalyst for conversations on current gender roles in Senegal and how they might be changing.
The girls loved her.
We’ve already started talking about next year’s camp and how we can make it even better (carnival night?, making our screening of The Lorax on Environment Day a bit clearer, etc). Seeing these girls go from being hesitant to raise their hands and offer opinions on day #1 to volunteering what they see themselves doing in the future (journalist! doctor! agricultural engineer! business owner!) on day #5 was amazing, encouraging, and convinced me that this is one of the best ways I’ve spent my time here so far.
(You can read more about Camp Gëm Sa Bopp here! And feel free to pose any questions you might have via comments.)