Camp Glow has begun and it’s going great! The kids here are the top 60 students from 15 different schools. They’re very well behaved and very smart.
I ran the tie dye session and it made me miss Cal Aggie Camp (CAC) back home! Tie Dying in Africa is not the same as at home. The Burkinabe had never heard of what we were going to do when I told them about it. When I taught the students how to rubber band their t-shirts, I only had to demonstrate it once and they all had made perfect spirals and targets. The dye we used is very toxic and burns your skin. We bought the thickest gloves we could find and it wasn’t enough so we ended up doubling up and wearing two pairs each. When we mixed the ingredients, it bubbled up and smelled awful. It felt like a science experiment. During week 2, some of the die got into my gloves and burned my arm pretty badly. Since the dye is so toxic, we couldn’t let the students apply the colors themselves. We had to soak their t-shirts into the dye for them and they could only pick one color. When we were mixing the colors, they would look like one color in the bucket and when on the t-shirt, then 5 minutes later when they were ready to rinse, they would rinse out to another color. So I was worried the entire time that the shirts wouldn’t turn out good and the kids would be disappointed! So, when we were making yellow shirts, they would be dark blue in the bucket of dye and afterwards they looked brown, then when they were rinsed out, they turned bright yellow! In the end, they all ended up looking great and the kids were so happy with their work!
The kids seem like they’re having a great time. They’re so proud of all the work they’ve done. At the end of our first full day, they were beaming about their t-shirts and the journals they had decorated. Burkina doesn’t have anything like summer camps for children, so they’ve literally never seen or heard of anything like this. I think they’re overwhelmed with happiness and excitement because they’re experiencing for one short week the kind of childhood that most of us experienced for years. So, it’s easy to incorporate education into fun activities for them because they cherish anything that resembles a game.
We had one mishap in the beginning. One kid laid down during some downtime and took a nap. We lock the kids’ rooms when they’re not in there to avoid thefts. Well, we ended up locking in one of the students. He was trapped in the room for an entire session and missed tie dying his shirt! Nobody was around to hear him calling to be let out, so he just waited until the next person opened the door. I felt terrible about this, but he just bounced right back and jumped into the sports rotation he was up for next. That’s another difference between camp back home and camp here. We don’t constantly watch the kids and treat them like babies. Burkinabe children are pretty responsible, so we don’t have to constantly be checking if the entire group is present or stay glued to our group the entire time. They listen to what they’re told to do and for the most part, they go where they’re supposed to go. They don’t want to miss out on any of the sessions, so they don’t. It’s very refreshing! The downside of this is that I’m not getting to know my campers as well as I do at CAC.
We made a rule that everybody has to speak French at the camp so that we could try to avoid campers from the same schools being exclusive with each other. There are many local languages in Burkina so people usually stick to local language when possible. When a camper is caught speaking anything other than French, they have to wear a sign that says “Arachide” with a picture of an arachide on it (a peanut!). Apparently, campers don’t like being called an arachide, so having to wear this sign is a bad thing. They’re having a ton of fun with it and they keep catching up speaking English with each other and making us walk around with our arachide sign around our neck until the next meal.
We started having problems with our Burkinabe counterparts after only a few days. They have a completely different work ethic in this culture. Burkinabe (especially the men) will not take the initiative. They are not aware of the work around them. They can’t see what needs to be done around them and do it themselves when they’re available. You have to delegate tasks to them if you want anything done. For instance, after every mealtime, the lunch room is filthy. So, 3 times a day, we need to sweep this room. Me and the other volunteers are always in there after a meal to sweep. We’ve asked the Burkinabe many times to help us with this task. They will never just show up and do it. They only help when you specifically go up to them and ask them at that very moment if they can come help you. And even then, you sometimes have to return 3 times to ask them before they’ll actually get up and do it. The men in this country really do NOTHING productive or helpful! It’s so confusing because they don’t like being told what to do by a woman but they won’t do anything if you don’t tell them multiple times!
Once the girls’ week of camp came around we had new problems with our Burkinabe counterparts. They wanted to make the girl campers do all of the work because it’s their culture. Out of habit, the girls were offering to wash our clothes, sweep the rooms for us, get water from the pump and whatever else they saw that needed to be done. They’re used to beginning household chores when they’re as young as 2 years old. And they usually get in trouble if they don’t take the initiative and do something when they notice it’s needed. They’re the exact opposite of Burkinabe men. We told the men that we wanted the girls to have an equal experience as the boys since we’re teaching gender equality. They got furious with us and said that’s not how their culture works. They said the girls needed to do these chores for them because they need to learn how to please their husbands since it’s their inevitable future. We were sick of sweeping the meal room by ourselves so we asked the counterparts to come help us. They said “No, I don’t sweep. That’s a woman’s job. Make the girls do it.” This really set us Americans over the edge. I started yelling at them about the main objective of Camp Glow, which is equality of gender! I said they were being terrible role models and I was disgusted with their attitudes. Then other volunteers got upset and started saying that just because it’s Burkinabe culture does not mean it’s right and that they’re culture is the reason we are here as volunteers because it’s wrong! They got really upset and we had a huge fight of Burkinabe men vs. American volunteers. We had to have a meeting to diffuse the situation. We explained to the men that this is an American summer camp and it’s going to be run with gender equality. The girls were going to be treated exactly as the boys were the week before- which meant no pumping water for the men to shower, no washing the men’s clothing, no sweeping for the men. This camp is a place for the girls to learn important topics that they don’t get a chance to learn otherwise because they’re doing all the work in the community.
During camp, all of the volunteers and counterparts sleep at the school with the students. We’re they’re chaperones. One night all of the counterparts disappeared. They didn’t tell anybody they were leaving. We just walked outside and they were all gone. We signed a contract to be here for the kids and not to leave camp without permission and not to drink alcohol during camp. It was midnight, so we decided to lock the school up since they were nowhere to be found. So, we basically locked them out to teach them a lesson. We can’t leave the gate open because we have 60 students sleeping here and all of our supplies. The next morning they were all there. I don’t know how they got in! They must’ve scaled the wall because the gate can’t be opened from the outside. They never mentioned it to us and we never brought it up. I guess they learned their lesson because it never happened again!
There was such a drastic difference between boys’ week and girls’ week. The boys were exploding with personality. They were so much fun to be around! We were constantly goofing around with them and laughing. They demanded a lot of attention and they loved to participate. If you asked for a volunteer, every single hand shot up with kids saying “Me! Me! Me!” Boys’ week was really energetic and tons of fun. We taught them a lot of important information, but I would say we had more fun with the boys and they maybe didn’t learn as much as the girls. The girls were much more timid, reserved. They definitely opened up more after a day, but they still stayed pretty calm. It was interesting to see the difference. During outside activities and sports games, they had fun but were much calmer than the boys. During classes, the girls seemed engrossed by the topics like they were absorbing so much new information. They were so interested in the sessions and it seemed liked they loved the opportunity to learn, which is not something they’re always given. Girls’ week felt much more rewarding for me.
I ran sessions on reproductive health and puberty. We discussed the genital organs for males and females, how they function, what changes occur during puberty and how sexual relations work. We discussed menstrual cycles and how pregnancy occurs. The girls were so interested in learning about their bodies and what’s happening inside of them. They don’t have science classes like we do in the US and they certainly don’t have Sex Ed classes like we do. Male and female reproductive organs are not really discussed here. There are so many topics that are just not discussed ever, like girls getting their periods and what having sex means exactly. How can you tell a population of young girls to not get pregnant if they don’t even understand how it happens? I also taught sessions on different forms of contraception available in this country and the importance of protecting yourself.
Then, I ran a session on making reusable pads for their periods. When a girl gets her period in this country, she is usually forced to stay home because she has no way of living a normal life during it. There are pads and tampons available in big cities, but they’re expensive and not accessible to villages. Most women use extra fabric they have or tissue (which is only available in cities). We discussed with the girls that they can live a normal life while on their periods- they can still go to school, play sports, be active and not just stay at home in solitude. So, we worked on a design for a reusable menstrual pad made out of old fabric that they have lying around the house. I had to type up instructions in French, which was not easy. I made a prototype, wrote out all of the steps, and then I had to ask one of the male counterparts to help me correct some terminology so it would make sense to the girls. The Burkinabe men didn’t really understand what I was doing, so I had to get the prototype and a pair of my underwear and demonstrate for them. It was EXTREMELY AWKWARD! I was not surprised when all the Burkinabe sat out during that session…the girls loved each making one. It was a little difficult at first. They never had arts and crafts like we do when we’re young, so they don’t have basic skills like tracing something and cutting it out with scissors. It was really difficult for them to trace the patterns onto the fabric and cut them out. We had to walk around the classroom and help every single girl with their stencil and scissors. But, we made it through alright and afterwards everyone asked for extra instructions and stencils so they could show their friends or family! It felt great that they liked the activity because it’s sometime that they can definitely use in village and teach to other people.
We try to encourage questions so we have an anonymous questions box always available. Some of the questions we get are really funny and some are really intelligent. The box is always full! One day we were answering the box questions and we ended up having a discussion on excision and fistulas. These are topics we’re taught with the Peace Corps to not bring up on our own for our own safety. They’re very sensitive topics in this country and it can be dangerous for a volunteer if older members of the community disagree with us putting down their traditions. So I was really excited that this topic came up and I was able to explain it to the girls. I talked about the different degrees of excision and why it’s dangerous. We discussed how it can lead to a fistula and what that means exactly. The girls seemed really interested and a little mortified, probably because the majority of them in the room were excised. When I help with prenatal consults in my village, every single woman has a second degree excision. EVERY SINGLE WOMAN. There is not one woman in my village that is not excised. This has been a really challenging topic for me. I’ve heard my family talk about excising their girls and I’m not allowed to talk about it! One day I couldn’t stay quiet any longer and I got into a fight once with one of the wives in my family. I told her the dangers and that she could kill her daughter. She completely disagreed and started getting angry at me. We reached a point where I had to walk away because I didn’t want to completely ruin my relationship with her. So I was happy to have a safe and open environment with these 60 girls at Camp Glow to discuss this taboo topic and to tell them the truth about it.
On the last day of camp for the girls I taught a session on self-esteem and having confidence in yourself. I talked about how negative comments and thoughts can weigh you down so it’s important to give yourself and others positive reinforcement. At the end, we did an activity where each girl had a piece of paper on their backs. We all walked around and wrote down positive things about that person. I told the girls it was an activity so they could see the positive qualities they have that others see in them. Everyone had a great time and we even extended the time because people wanted to comment on each other’s. At the end, I had the girls remove their papers and read all of the positive comments about them. Some of them came up to me and showed me that people had written negative comments. Some girls had written things like “bête” (stupid or beast), “impolie” (impolite), “villageoise” (poor) and “sale” (dirty). These girls that came up to me were so upset and embarrassed. I felt terrible and guilty that I had caused them so much pain with my activity. I had intended for this activity to be a self-esteem booster. I told the girls beforehand that whenever they were feeling bad about themselves in village, they could look at this paper to remind themselves about how great they really are to feel better. Some selfish girls had ruined the activity for their peers. To see the hurt in these girls’ faces made me feel absolutely terrible. I announced to the group that I was upset at what had happened and asked why people had written such mean things about their peers. Then, others came forward and showed the negative things they had on their papers too. Some girls were laughing while I was trying to discipline them and the offended ones started to cry. I went and got one of the Burkinabe counterparts to help me diffuse the situation. She came in and asked the girls what happened and why they wrote hurtful things. One of the girls said “Well, it’s the truth.” I couldn’t believe the amount of hatred in the room and I couldn’t control my emotions so I left to cry in the other room. Some of the other volunteers got upset by the situation also and had to leave the room. Two of the Burkinabe counterparts came in while I was crying and said I needed to come back so the girls could apologize to me. I said I wasn’t ready to yet because I was still processing the situation and still very angry and crying. Then the counterparts got upset with me that I wouldn’t return. In this culture, people don’t show emotions and you’re not allowed to cry. Their favorite motto is “ça va aller” (it’ll be okay).
I didn’t know what to do so I called the director of Peace Corps Burkina who was in town to help out with some camp sessions. She came over and we had a meeting with all of the camp counselors. All of the Burkinabe said that agreed that what had happened was not okay. However, their reasoning made it seem like they didn’t quite understand what was wrong about the girls’ actions. They said “they’re kids and kids are mean to each other,” “they say they didn’t understand the exercise so it’s ok,” “some of them cried so you have to forgive them,” and they also said they were mad at me that I didn’t come directly back into the room and accept their apology. I didn’t want to accept a false apology. The girls did not understand why it was wrong to write hurtful things on each other’s backs. They absolutely understood the exercise, they were just being mean and they thought it was funny. The girls who cried were the ones who had their feelings hurt by other girls. I felt uncomfortable and like they blamed me. I honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to finish out the camp because it was so uncomfortable. I sat there red-eyed and sniffling while the other counselors discussed the situation with the director. In the end, we sort of just agreed to disagree, blaming our differences in culture, but to move ahead with the rest of camp. We all hugged it out (which is not normal for a Burkinabe) and then we went to talk to the girls. We told them that they need to support each other because when they put each other and themselves down, it empowers men to belittle them as well. The kids apologized and we moved on with camp. I knew I had to get over my feelings quickly and put on a positive face and attitude even if it was fake to continue with the rest of the camp. This is another example of the almost unbearable cultural differences we deal with every day here.
Overall, Camp Glow has been an unbelievably rewarding experience. I have so much more confidence in my ability to make a change here and teach about these difficult topics.