Monday, January 3, 2011

A Summer Camp Counselor Meets Her Match

Back in my pre-Peace Corps life, I was pretty much a youth worker by trade.  While I've held a lot of jobs, i think I can say that where I've felt most competent, comfortable, and effective is in my time working with kids.  So it seemed natural and obvious that I would try to work with kids during my service here in Senegal.  After installing myself in Ngaraff, I started to feel the distinct drive to focus my attention on the female adolescent population.  

Last week, I convened my girls' group for the first time -- I decided to have two clubs, one for each of the two oldest classes at the primary school in Ngaraff.  That means six girls in each group and - for the most part - girls between the ages of 11 and 14 because kids tend to start school late in the village.

This first meeting presented me with a lot of surprising truths about women and youth in Senegal, and it also turned on end a lot of my assumption about working with kids.  We started out the first meeting with some traditional ice breakers from days at Camp Warren and suggestions I had gathered from a PC-issued "Life Skills Manual."  First "Roses and Thorns" (which I gave a Wolof-translated title): a simple exercise where, one-by-one, each person in the group says their favorite thing (rose) and their least favorite thing (thorn) that they've recently experienced.  I explained and re-explained the activity, and then the girls that thought they got it tried to explain it to their peers, but to no avail; these smart, capable teens and pre-teens just couldn't really wrap their minds around what they were supposed to do.  I don't think the problem lay with my Wolof. Rather, I think it had to do with the girls in this country not being remotely familiar with the idea of sharing details of their lives, at least not in a semi-formal setting structured around creative, independent thinking.  Once I extracted some sort of a response from one brave girl, the best I could get from the rest of them was, essentially, a regurgitation of what the first one had come up with, both for their rose and for their thorn.  (on a side note, the thorn they all repeated was having been physically disciplined by their teacher that morning - yikes!)  

The pattern continued with the other ice breakers; simple little activities that I do with eight-year-olds at summer camp were entirely foreign and confusing to these Senegalese adolescents.  While i could positively pinpoint why, a hunch told me that it had to do with the lack of opportunity for original or imaginative thinking in their lives up to this point.  The school curriculum here is strictly demarcated by a centralized federal agency and most learning happens by rote memorization.

After ice breakers, we did a basic collage project -- I had gathered a bunch of magazines, ranging from Time to Oprah to US Weekly to National Geographic -- and I instructed them to make a "C'est Moi" collage.  First, it once again required several rounds of explanation before they timidly started thumbing through the magazine.  Then, I was shocked: they didn't know how to use the scissors and glue to create a collage!  Once I showed them, they continued to be hesitant to cut into the magazines, saying they didn't want to "ruin" them. In the end, however, they loved it, and returned to their compounds at the end of the meeting proudly toting their new homemade collages.

Because I want one focus of the club to be HIV/AIDS education for the girls, our final activity of the meeting was to watch a few brief films from the AIDS-related series "Scenarios from Africa" (which have versions translated into Wolof, thank goodness!).  First, though, I asked the girls what they already knew about AIDS (SIDA, in French and Wolof).  "SIDA, C'est une tres grave maladie," was the piece of the knowledge they were able to offer me in robot-like voices, along with a few other bits of into on how it is transmitted.  Then we watched the films, which provided basic awareness on the disease's transmission and thoughts on sensitivity to those living with it.  

As the girls went home, happy and full on popcorn and candy, I felt pleased and proud and humbled by their appreciativeness.  At the same time, however, I felt a pang of something that made me recoil at my own hypocrisy: I felt just a teeny bit nervous and apologetic about having monopolized their time for an entire afternoon, thinking that their mothers would be peeved at me for keeping them away from their usual chores of making dinner and pounding millet.  Coming back to my senses, I was struck by my personal realization of how pervasive gender roles and limitations are in rural Senegalese society, and how impactful they are for adolescent girls -- If I'm worrying about letting these girls have too much fun for too long . . . you can imagine what kinds of obstacles they face as they try to have normal social lives and to continue their education past primary school . . . essentially, in their attempts to lead lives as as typical teenage girl should.

All that I witnessed in the girls at the first meeting - specifically, their stunted ability to engage in activities such as arts & crafts and free thinking exercises - coupled with my aforementioned thoughts on the importance of challenging gender roles for Senegal's girls has only fueled my fire to devote myself to this club.  

They were so sweet and excited!  Here they are:

My room, ready for the first club meeting
Group #1 shows off their collages 

Group #2

Pleased with their collage work!


  1. i am really impressed with the work you are doing. the impact you have on their lives is really great

  2. What an interesting afternoon...
    If you can think of any way I can assist from here, please feel free to ask. I have been a mentor to a girls group off and on for quite a few years. It is always eye-opening no matter where you are! How do the mothers and other ladies in the village feel about your "club"? I always found it a positive to include them in 'some' of the activities, too. For what it's worth... ;)