Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Little Camp in the Big City

Camp de Vacances 2013

The Kedougou Peace Corps Volunteers and local counterparts hosted a 7-day leadership camp for 20 middle school students from all over the region.  All of the students came from their villages to the regional capital and stayed at a campement (motel with huts) where the camp took place.  Volunteers led various lessons, activities, and games based on their skill sets and interests, and they selected students from their villages to participate in the camp.  I invited two of my Jeune Relais, Diongnima and Fatoumata. Both of them are exceptional students and have been effective Jeune Relais.  Ngom told me that he would ride with them on the Niokolo to Kedougou and drop them off at camp.

Diongnima and Fatoumata are both from small, remote villages and attend the middle school in Nafadji.  Neither of them had ever been to Kedougou before, and although it may seem like a small town to us, it is a big city to them.  I could tell they were nervous as I greeted them when they arrived at camp, and initially all of the campers were shy.  I was worried my two students would have trouble making friends since they speak Malinke and the majority of other kids were Pulaar.  As camp wore on, the kids got closer and closer.  By the third day, all of the kids were dancing in a circle together, and Fatoumata was the one drumming!  I didn’t even know that she knew how!  She went from being shy and quiet to this outgoing girl who was drumming with her new friends.  My heart soared every time I saw how much fun my kids were having at camp and how much they were getting out of it.

Fatoumata learning to play the guitar

Diongnima in his costume for his skit

The volunteers in Kedougou have a wide array of interests and skill sets.  We had a challenge course, ballet class, zumba class, arts and crafts, career panel, hike to a waterfall, family planning lesson, life skills lesson, question and answer with a midwife, puzzle, and theater. 

Ian and I led the family planning lesson, and the kids were very engaged and interested in the material. Teenage pregnancy is a huge problem in most communities in our region, and these students learned some ways to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases and infections.  Our two Jeune Relais volunteered lots of information that they learned last year in their training, and I was happy that they hadn’t forgotten.  We talked about the advantages and methods of family planning and led a jeopardy game as a final review.  

Family Planning Jeopardy

Family Planning Scenario Role Play

We didn’t have time during our lesson for me to have each of the girls practice using condoms on the wooden phallus, so after lunch, I rounded them all up and we sat in a circle on a mat and practiced putting condoms on the wooden model.  I was shocked that every girl wanted to try it! 

Condom Demonstrations

By the fifth day of camp, everyone was very comfortable with one another, and we were able to have some frank conversations.  A local midwife came to do a question and answer session, and I was shocked at how open and honest she and the students were.  There were some pretty graphic questions asked, and I was impressed with how the midwife handled everything.  The students learned a lot!

By the sixth day of camp, the students had already talked about sex during family planning and with the midwife, and they were open to talk about anything.  Awa Traore, Peace Corps Senegal’s Cross-Cultural Coordinator came all the way from Thies to give a presentation about the importance of education, avoiding early marriage and teenage pregnancy, and gender roles.  She is a phenomenal speaker and made a huge impression on the Nafadji middle school girls when she came to my village do a presentation last fall.  She has overcome many obstacles to become the successful woman that she is today and is able to have frank conversations with students about gender roles.  She is full of energy, humor, and life and knows how to engage an audience.

Awa Traore's Presentation

Awa started off the presentation talking about female genital cutting, which is a very taboo topic in Senegal.  Most villages have renounced the practice but still do it secretly.  During the conversation, it became clear that most of the girls in the room had been cut.  Awa has been cut and was able to relate to the girls and explain why she chose to be cut but also why she did not choose for her children to be cut.  It was an incredible discussion to listen to, and the girls were completely honest about their feelings on the topic.  Many of them did not understand why the practice was harmful, and others didn’t understand why the practice was ever created as a rite of passage. 

After this intense discussion, she moved on to early marriage and teenage pregnancy, which was another emotional conversation.  Many of the volunteers found out things that they had no idea were going on in their villages.  One of the girls openly admitted that many of the girls in her village get pregnant because their teachers force them to sleep with them.  Many of them voiced genuine concerns about continuing school because they knew they were going to be forced into an early marriage by their fathers.  Fatoumata is one of the top students at the Nafadji middle school, and I learned that her father plans to force her into an early marriage, and she was vocal about this fear.  I think it was beneficial for all of these students to voice their fears together and to realize that they are not alone.  They learned in a life skills session how to practice assertive communication, and this skill may be able to help them to stand up to the pressures of their parents and teachers.

On the last night of camp, we were all dancing in a circle before dinner, and one by one, all of the girls started crying and went into a hut together.  At first I was worried that something bad had happened, but it turned out they were all sad that they would be leaving each other the next day.  This weeklong camp was short but very intense, and all of the students bonded and formed strong friendships.  Since they come from villages all over the region, many of them didn’t know when they would ever see each other again.  It was hard to see them so sad, but I think this was a sign that the camp was successful.   I was so happy to have been a part of this amazing leadership camp, and a big thank you goes out to Camille Bevans and Rob Mominee who did the lion’s share of the work of organizing this camp.  It was flawless.  I’m sure our campers will remember that week for the rest of their lives, and for many of them, this may have been the defining experience that motivates them to go on to achieve their dreams.  One can only hope!


  1. I must admit I got a bit teary eyed while reading this. Those girls are all so lucky to have you and the other peace corp volunteers showing initiative and helping them realize their potential.

  2. What a wonderful and much needed source of inspiration for these students. They will remember this for many years to come and perhaps it will make a difference in the choices they make.