Thursday, June 14, 2012

Help Fight For Girls' Education!

The Michele Sylvester Scholarship (MSS) was established in 1993 in memory of a Peace Corps Volunteer dedicated to girls’ education in Senegal.  Every year, SeneGAD (the Peace Corps Senegal Gender and Development group), helps Volunteers run the scholarship program in their community.  This year, I’m implementing the program in Nafadji!

The goal of MSS is to help close the gender gap in education.  According to the scholarship program, nine girls are chosen by the middle school, based on academic strength and financial need.  To make up the nine, three girls from each of the three grades (Sixieme, Cinqieme, and Quatrieme) are selected by the school principal and teachers.  All of the nine girls will receive financial aid towards their school registration fee next school year, and three of the girls will receive money to buy school supplies. 

When I started this program in Nafadji, the principal was not in the village, so he told me to work with Ngom to choose the nine candidates.  Ngom has been a wonderful counterpart for the project and has wowed me with his speed and efficiency.  Within a couple of days of starting the project, he called a meeting of all the teachers, and they picked the top three girls from each grade for the scholarship.  It’s difficult for them to assess financial need from the information they have, which is where I come in.

After the teachers gave me a list of the nine girls’ names for the scholarship, I called a meeting to explain the program to the girls.  In Senegal, it is common knowledge that if you call a meeting at 9am, people may start rolling in around 10 or 11am.  There is not a strong sense of urgency, and people’s lives don’t revolve around a clock.  While the whole slow pace of life in the village may sound charming, it can make it incredibly frustrating to get work done.  The same day I called the meeting for the Michele Sylvester candidates, I also held a meeting for my Care Group.  I told my Care Group ladies to meet at 3pm and the Scholarship girls to meet at 5pm.  Of course, the Care Group women finally started showing up around 4:15, and we started the meeting at 4:30pm.  I figured the girls would show up late so we wouldn’t have a problem, but these girls all showed up at 5pm on the dot, and some of them even came early!  I was the one who was late to our meeting!  When I walked into the classroom, and all of them were already seated, waiting for me to start, I realized that this was a special group of girls who took their education seriously.

At our meeting, the girls filled out basic information about themselves and their families, and they also wrote brief essays about what they want to be when they grow up and why girls’ education is important.  At the end of the meeting, I scheduled interviews and home visits with each of them, and I’m slowly making the rounds to all of their compounds.  From the nine girls that the school chose, I will choose six candidates whose applications I will give to SeneGAD to review, and from those six, SeneGAD will choose the three who will receive money for school supplies.  In order for me to choose the top six, I need to interview the girls and visit their homes to assess financial need. 

Most of the students that attend the Nafadji middle school are not from Nafadji.  Students come from villages way out in the bush and lodge with families in Nafadji during the school year.  To get a real idea of each girl’s financial need, I am now traveling to their home villages to meet their families.  Some girls only live 6k away from Nafadji, but 2 of the candidates are 25k away, and one girl is 45k south of Nafadji, on the border of Guinea.  I’m getting some good exercise on my bike this month, trekking out to interview the girls and their families. 

I’m really enjoying getting to know these girls and their families.  It’s great to visit villages that don’t have a volunteer and to see how excited these girls’ parents get when they find out their daughter has been chosen for this scholarship program.  From the interviews with the girls, I’m learning how hard it is for them to study and to stay in school, but these girls are extremely motivated.  They want to be teachers, nurses, and midwives in the future, and I hope this scholarship can help give them a boost towards these goals. 

Not only will these girls be receiving financial aid from the scholarship but I will be working with them next school year on girls’ leadership activities!  Finding these hardworking girls has motivated me to want to do more work with girls in my community.  

To fund the nine girls’ registration fees and school supplies for the top three, I need to raise $180.  If you are interested in donating towards a girl’s education, you can donate here:
This donation will go into the Senegal Country Fund.  Please specify in the comments section that the donation is to support the Michele Sylvester Scholarship program in Nafadji and include my name.  Thanks for any contributions!  Every little bit helps!

Too many girls drop out of school, and lack of finances plays a large role.  This past school year in Nafadji, only one girl made it to the last year of middle school.  With this program, we have identified nine girls who are motivated to continue their education.  Let’s help them stay in school!

Nafadji Michele Sylvester Scholarship Candidates

Friday, June 8, 2012

"Greet your mouse for me!"

It’s so nice to be busy!  This month, I have lots to do and time is flying.  Earlier this week, the Jeune Relais passed through all of the middle school classes to do a 10 minute presentation on family planning, HIV/AIDS, and STI’s, along with a condom demonstration.  The 12 Jeune Relais divided into 2 groups of 6, and I went with one group and Ngom (an English teacher) went with the other group.  I felt so proud of these students as I watched them teach their peers with such confidence.  It was interesting to watch them do the presentations in front of students who had no prior knowledge of any of the issues being discussed, and none of them had ever seen a condom demonstration.  Sporting their green t-shirts, the Jeune Relais looked like pros, spreading sexual health knowledge to the school.

I was extremely impressed with the openness of the principal to allow the Jeune Relais to talk about these topics that are taboo in most other villages.   One teacher told me that he’s never heard of students this young teaching other students about these issues, and he was excited that it was happening at his school since many of his female students are getting pregnant.  Ngom and I had a good conversation about the project, and he said he’s interested to see what this community will be like in 5 to 10 years, since these students are gaining important health knowledge at a young age.  Maybe less teens will get pregnant.  Maybe less people will get sexually transmitted infections.  One teacher told me he never knew how to properly use a condom and learned from the students that it is necessary to leave room at the tip. .  We’ve opened the door for discussion, and people are willing to talk.

Now that the rains have begun, malaria has started hitting the village.  A couple kids on my compound have already gotten it, but thankfully Mbamoussa took them to the health post right away to get them on medication.  Since malaria is a pertinent topic, our Care Group has continued to work on ways to help the community protect themselves.  Last meeting we sewed and washed mosquito nets, and this week we made neem lotion, a natural mosquito repellent.  We held the meeting under a tree, and all the women took turns boiling neem leaves, cutting soap, stirring the lotion, and bagging it.  Neem lotion is very easy and inexpensive to make.  All you need are neem leaves, water, soap, and oil.  Fighting against malaria in my village seems futile sometimes, since everyone seems to get it every year.  All I can really do is encourage people to sleep under mosquito nets, wear neem lotion, and go directly to the health post to get tested for malaria if they have the symptoms. 

Another project I’m working on right now is a scholarship for middle school girls for next year.  I’ll explain more about this in another blog.

The rains have brought a whole new batch of creepy crawlers.  It’s scorpion season again, so I’m scanning the ground with a flashlight when I walk anywhere at night now.  Luckily, whenever I see one, there is usually a group of kids who are happy to kill it with a stick.  My fight against the massive brown ants that nested in both of my doors is back.  The other day, there were so many crawling all over that I couldn’t even see part of the wall.  A mouse has also decided that my hut would make a nice home for it, and it has been trying to create some sort of bed out of the straw in my roof.  I have swept the little nest away multiple times, but this mouse is persistent.

My host family and I have very different fears when it comes to bugs, rodents, and reptiles.  They are deathly afraid of lizards and toads and believe that if they bite you, you will die.  I laugh at this and make fun of them all the time.  But, they think it’s hilarious that I’m afraid of a mouse.  They always tell me the mouse wont do anything, but I still hate having it in my hut.  I don’t mind the lizards, because they stick to the walls, but this mouse could be anywhere!  Diabou and I now have a running joke about toads and mice.  She tells me the mouse is going to crawl into my bed at night, and I tell her the toads are nice and warm in her room.  When I go to bed at night, she tells me to greet my mouse, and I tell her to greet her toads.

Sounkharou is still waiting to get the papers to go to Spain and came back to Nafadji with Sira for a little while.  It has been so nice to play with Sira again!  She’s talking so much more now, and she makes me laugh every day.  Her cute little voice makes it difficult for me to understand what she’s saying a lot of the time though.  The other night, she was tugging on my leg, saying “Aitata, m’taa, m’taa”.  Finally, I realized that she was standing there asking me to pick her up so she could fall asleep in my lap.  Aww, I love Sira.

The other day, I was weighing babies at the health post, and Khadidia (the woman whose birth I helped out with) brought her baby girl, Kanio, to be weighed.  She’s so big now!  Babies really do mark time for me here.  It doesn’t seem that long ago that I saw Kanio being born, and now she’s 6 months old.  Where does the time go?