Monday, April 23, 2012

Jeune Relais Training

The cycle of teenage pregnancy is difficult to break.  Mbamoussa gave birth to Diabou when she was 15.  She now has 9 children and is only 30 years old.  She has wanted so much for her children to succeed, especially her oldest daughter.  She worried about her and talked about how she wanted so badly for her daughter to finish school.

I recently heard that Diabou, who is currently 15, is pregnant.  My heart dropped when I heard the news, because I knew how much it meant to Mbamoussa for her daughter not to follow along the same path she had.  Diabou is a good student and was selected to be a Student Relais for the training Ian and I had planned.  My head was full of questions, and I didn’t know what my role should be in the situation.   Mbamoussa and Diabou had been keeping the pregnancy a secret, so I felt uncomfortable confronting either of them about it, and I didn’t even know if it was my place to say anything. 

That night, I found myself sitting alone with Mbamoussa outside the compound, and I decided to just ask her straight out if Diabou was pregnant.  I told her I noticed Diabou was getting a little bigger and wondered if she was pregnant.  Mbamoussa confirmed what I already knew, but it was better to hear it from her.  Right then, some others walked over and sat down, so we stopped talking about it.  Later that evening, when I returned to my hut for the night, Mbamoussa followed me and knocked on my door.  This was a big step in our relationship, because she confided in me and explained her fears and worries.  With this conversation being in Malinke, I probably wasn’t as useful as I maybe could have been, but I think we both understood one another.  I asked her if Diabou planned to stay in school, and she said she didn’t know yet.  I think Mbamoussa wants her to continue school, but she doesn’t know how that would be possible.  So many girls drop out due to pregnancy or early marriage.  Only 3 girls have made it to the final year of middle school this past year.  I told Mbamoussa that I wanted to try to help as much as I could to convince Diabou to stay in school.

Ian and I have been planning the Student Relais training for the past 4 months, and we planned to train 12 students (6 girls and 6 boys) to teach others about Sexual Education, Family Planning, HIV/AIDS, STI’s, Early Marriage, Teen Pregnancy, and the Importance of Education.  We knew that these areas were important for students to know about, but it became a lot more real to me once I found out Diabou’s news.  I realized that these students need to be educated about sexual health.  If we had done the training earlier, maybe things for Diabou would be different. 

The 3-day Student Relais training just ended yesterday, and it’s a relief to have that under my belt.  Ian was an amazing work partner, and the training was very effective.  Planning was a challenge though.  I think the most difficult aspect of putting this training together was the village and health system politics.  A few weeks before the training, some villagers told us that we should have put together a committee of villagers for the event and that there had to be a committee meeting before the training could happen.  Unfortunately, no one had told us this earlier when the information would have been more useful.  Ian and I received grant money from USAID, but they require a community contribution as well.  The chief did not seem to understand this concept and was unhelpful.  The week of the training, we finally put together a committee, had a meeting, and figured out the final preparations for the training.  We had to organize for a group of women to cook lunch each day and had to mobilize the community to come to the graduation ceremony at the end of the training.  So many little things came up that needed to be done that I never would have thought of.  For example, I had to find students to search for bunches of wood in the bush for the women to make fire with to cook the lunch.  Getting the T-shirts we had made in Dakar was a fiasco.  We had to plan a menu and buy all the ingredients from various places for the lunches and coffee breaks.  We had to get money out of the bank to pay for everything, and both ATM’s in Kedougou were broken.  On top of that, Ian and I had to plan the curriculum and work with the head midwife at the hospital to figure out exactly what the students would learn. 

Finally, the day of the training, I thought we had everything in order and that we were set for a smooth training.  Wrong.  The morning of the training, Sarr dropped a huge bomb.  He pretended everything was fine right up until the training was about to start, and then he refused to come and told me he could shut our training down since Nafadji is within his health zone and he is in control of all the health activities that happen.  He was angry that I had asked the head midwife in Saraya to lead the training instead of him.  He had offered zero help the entire 4 months leading up to the training and was all of a sudden saying I made a huge mistake in not doing everything through him.  I was furious.  Ian and I had worked so hard to get everything together, and the students were excited for the training, and now Sarr was making it all about him and his authority.  Through gritted teeth, I apologized for not involving him more, and he seemed to accept my apology.  He no longer threatened to ruin our training, but he still refused to have any part in it.  But, the show went on.

We got an amazing group of 12 students for the training.  They were excited and motivated to learn.  We did a pre-test before the training started to gauge their base knowledge, and we found that they didn’t know much about sexual health.  By the end, they were able to answer every question and showed phenomenal improvement.  The head midwife in Saraya was a great leader and taught the students about Puberty, Sex, Family Planning, HIV/AIDS, and STI’s.  Every one of those students now knows how to properly do a condom demonstration, and they are excited to teach their friends.  Along with the midwife’s lessons, Ian and I led games and other activities throughout the training.  My favorite part was when we did a tea time health talk, where we all sat around, drinking tea, and talking informally about health.  We learned how much the students were retaining, and listened as they taught us all about everything they had learned.  The last day, we did a “Draw Your Future” activity, where each student drew where they wanted to be in 10 years.  A lot of them want to be doctors, teachers, nurses, and midwives.  We had them write out a step-by-step plan for how to achieve their goals, and I hope they get there! 

Having Diabou as a trainee made me feel a little awkward as the head midwife talked about the risks of teen pregnancy and how bad it was not to protect yourself.  I was happy to hear her talk about how important it was to stay in school even if a girl becomes pregnant.  She said that the girl had made one mistake by getting pregnant but didn’t need to make the second one by dropping out of school.  I hope Diabou was listening.  Ultimately it’s her life and her choice, but I would love to see her become a teacher, which is what she said she wanted to be some day. 

This training really opened the lines of communication about sexual health in the village.  We had a great turnout for our graduation ceremony, and our trainees sported their new green “Jeune Relais” t-shirts.  The community knows what these students have been trained in and sees the value in the training.  Too many young girls get pregnant or married too young, and now more students will have knowledge about how to plan and protect themselves. 

Ian and I are very excited to work with this group of Student Relais in the coming year.  We will continue to give them homework assignments and work with them to educate their peers and local communities.  This weekend, they will be doing a health talk in front of the community about some of the subjects they learned.  Within the next month, each Jeune Relais will teach at least 5 other friends about something they learned.  Slowly, the knowledge will spread. 

Despite all the hiccups, I think the training was a big success!  The students learned a lot and are ready to teach the community.  A topic that may have seemed taboo before is becoming easier to talk about with the community.  Hopefully we see less girls dropping out of school in the coming years and can start working to break the cycle.

The Jeune Relais Group