Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Girl's Camp

The last week of March was reserved for a girls’ camp in my town of
Koulikoro. I was so pleased with how it went that I think it is the bit of work in Peace Corps I’m most proud of (of course, I was not alone in its planning and execution). The camp was concerned with women’s empowerment/youth development. The girls who attended were encouraged to continue with their studies, they were taken to see women leaders in the workplace, and given a range of lessons on ‘life skills,’ as we call them.

I live in the small city of Koulikoro (which may be a misleading description because when my family came to visit they thought of it more as a village). Four volunteers, who actually do live en brousse (in the bush), each brought five girls into my city. Another five girls came from Koulikoro itself. They were all the equivalent of six graders in the US. It was an amazing group of girls. They were attentive, enthusiastic, and easy-going. It was a bit discomforting to see the enormous difference between the brousse girls and the ‘city’ girls, but maybe that was just because one of the ‘city’ girls was already speaking better French than me (not that that’s saying much).

We brought the girls to see a couple schools and women in the workplace over a range of sectors (health, military, government, NGO, business). Most of the girls live where there isn’t a high school, let alone a middle school. Though some came in from over 100km away, my town is where they find their nearest high school (lycée). And any kid looking to go to high school, professional or technical school here would have to find a relative to put them up. I have 5 ‘brothers’ in my compound who come from brousse in order to attend high school, and they are very distant cousins of the family. So it’s not a particular difficult task to find some living arrangement, but an obstacle nonetheless. Chances are, if you are a girl coming into the city from brousse, it’s to work as a house servant. You will make 5,000cfa a month ($10), and you’ll be obliged to send that petty amount back to your family in brousse. It’s a bit bizarre to see how the families in my neighborhood are poverty-stricken by any general standard, and yet they all have a house servant. In my compound, we seem to have a different house servant every few months. None of them are educated. They can’t recognize the numbers 1-10. They have all been teenagers, and their reason for leaving was either pregnancy or theft.

So the camp tried to catch these girls just before they normally drop out to spend their days on the side of the road selling peanuts to passers-by, get married or pregnant, become a servant, or a combination of any of these likely life paths. Peace Corps volunteers did what I think we do best as Americans (the world experts in ‘camps’)…we held ice breakers, team-building activities, and life skill sessions. We invited our Malian partners to cover the more difficult topics: goal-setting, gender roles, and sexual education (the first time and probably only time any of the girls will see a diagram of the female reproductive system). We took the girls to meet and talk with working women: a political head of the region, a maternity warden, an accountant/NGO worker, a woman high up in the military, and an entrepreneur (woman who had a small factory producing juice, dried fruits, and cereals and had a woman’s group to run the place).Of course, we had a lot of fun as well. We had a dance (combined with sketches on family planning topics), we did henna and nail polish, we had a film night, and my favorite…a trip to the zoo in Bamako. In the US, kids go to the zoo to see the big mammals of Africa so the irony was evident from the beginning as this was the first time any of our camp girls had seen an elephant, a lion, a hyena, a warthog, a chimpanzee. It was a comical experience which I’ve recounted at the end of this blog. At the end of the camp, the girls were exhausted, but I think incredibly happy for the experience. Whether or not they were able to grasp all that was said to them, I have no doubt that they at least went away with the understanding that they could have the same kind of goals as their brothers.

Food preparation during the camp.

Trip to the Zoo

I’ve always found zoos terribly depressing in the states, so I could only imagine what a zoo in a poor country like Mali had in store for me. The experience surpassed my fears. Trash littered the park as it does the rest of the country. The park guide took us to see an adult chimpanzee and told us it would dance in exchange for a soda. He taunted the chimp with a plastic can as the crowd commenced a chant (coupled with clapping) which (I swear) translated directly as “Dance, monkey, dance.” A slightly, horrifying experience in my opinion, but I moved on with thoughts of the infamous manatee I’d heard tales of. I’d been totally by an ex-pat that the manatee had died in its tank and had been left to rot there, still on display. When I located the tank, it had more recently caught on fire, and now, amongst the shattered glass, lay only the charred remains of the manatee. When I approached where the lions were kept, a horrible scent entered my nostrils. I peaked over a ledge and saw decapitated donkey heads piled high along with their rib cages. There’s already an NGO in this country for the maltreatment of donkeys (they are often worked to death dragging carts around). I shouldn’t be surprised they also share the awful fate of being fed to the lions. After the tour, once I’d left the park grounds, a man motioned me over to look at something. He uncovered a crate to reveal a tense, snarling, teeth baring leopard. New arrival, he told me. I was absolutely terrified. I didn’t trust that crate, and quickly beckoned all the girls to get on the bus home.

But, it wasn’t all bad. The girls seemed to be learning a lot, taking copious notes at every cage. An adorable baby elephant was the first animal the girls approached. It was sticking its snout through the fence to be touched. The girls were terrified…‘n be sira. n ta fe ka tege dama.’ ‘I’m scared, I’m not going to shake its hand.’ “It’s hand?” I exclaimed. “That’s not its hand, that’s its nose!” I told them they didn’t need to be scared, it was, after all, just a baby. At this point, I was the one apparently being silly. “That…a baby? Come on!” Unfortunately, the zoo didn’t have an adult elephant to prove me right. It was a hilarious, terrifying at times, but ultimately educational experience at the zoo.


Dan Oxenburgh said...

ne dogo muso. e blog, ne bafe.

but...e ye a fali ye! stop swimming in the niger!

kambe so'ni

Anne-Jette said...

Great pictures :-)