I meeeeeeeaaaant to write a blog called “Gearing up for GLOW. “In fact, I started writing it- there it is, right in my documents folder, a word document called “Gearing up for GLOW.” I wanted to write all about the preparations we were doing for GLOW. Unfortunately, the preparations ended up overshadowing the writing about them. Alas, gearing up quickly just became GLOW, and here I am writing reflectively about it.
You may remember that last year, I was involved in the organization of two national leadership camps for youth- Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) and Camp BE (Boys Excelling). These camps are global Peace Corps initiatives, undertaken by Peace Corps Volunteers serving in countries around the world. My participation was fun and empowering, perhaps one of the most fulfilling activities I have been involved in since I began working as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda.
There were some changes to how we organized the camps this year, in order to make them, well, more Peace Corps-y. In the Peace Corps, we value community grassroots development, and holding camps managed by Peace Corps Volunteers at the national level with little local involvement hardly fit this approach. In an attempt to mitigate this breech, Peace Corps administration required that the camps be organized differently this year.
The biggest change was the shift from national to regional level camps. This enabled more participants, both youth as well as adults to act as facilitators, increased local image, awareness, and involvement in the project, as well as allowed us to address specific issues relevant to each region.
The second biggest change this year was that, since it was our first year organizing regional camps, my fellow volunteers in my region and I opted to only have a GLOW camp, with plans to expand to a BE camp the following year (although I won’t be here to see those plans through, but will have to place my faith in the succeeding group of volunteers). Admittedly, I was a little disappointed by this decision, because it is my belief that you can’t pursue the goal of girls’ empowerment without the participation of boys, and the two camps were necessary compliments, but sometimes, in the name of good team work, you learn to choose your battles, compromise, and ultimately accept when to surrender. And that’s what I did, pouring my energy into making our regional Camp GLOW the best it could possibly be.
Third, Peace Corps Volunteers from the education program were much more involved in the project this year. Last year, the project was primarily undertaken by health volunteers, like me, because the focus of the camp is on HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, among other health topics. Peace Corps Rwanda just received a large influx of education volunteers with more than 70 arriving in one group. This was the biggest group of volunteers Peace Corps Rwanda has ever accepted (may I remind you that I was one of the first groups to come to Rwanda, my group consisted of only 35 members, and we are now down to about 20). Naturally, this large group of education volunteers seems to invade every corner of Rwanda and overtake every project here by sheer numbers. It is not a bad thing, but their presence creates a different dynamic. Whereas health volunteers are trained and experienced in teaching health topics in Rwanda, the education volunteers offer insight into teaching, targeting youth audiences, and maintaining a school environment at camp (with the added funships of camp, of course). The result is a balance of two different sets of knowledge and skills that combine to make a camp that is of better quality.
My role this year was also different, but that was an individual change. Last year, I was Activities Facilitator, and I spent the camps running different afternoon activities- what we refer to in development jargon as income-generating activities, meaning activities that could be used to generate an income, as the name implies- including beeswax candle making; paper mache; lip gloss, lotions, and scrubs; etc. I was also being trained by a preceding health volunteer to overtake her responsibilities as Activities Coordinator at next year’s national camp when she would be back in America (unbeknownst to either of us that camp would undergo such changes that rendered this training, not useless, but less useful) This year, my role was Program and Scheduling Coordinator. My responsibilities included making the curriculum for camp, developing the schedule and agendas, and general administrative and logistical duties about running camp. Given the nature of these duties, most of my responsibilities and contribution took place before camp even began, hence the reason I never had the opportunity to write the Gearing up for GLOW blog I had planned.
Let me lay out the big picture of Camp GLOW Eastern Province 2011. Our camp took place at Ecole Secondaire in Rukara (or ESR), about a 20 minute ride down the (only) road from my home village of Kiramuruzi. Rukara is a rural town, isolated from the road in the mountains, but surprisingly developed (granted this is coming from a girl who has been living in Africa for the past two years). Approximately 50 girls from the Eastern Province were invited to participate, about 3 girls from 18 different schools across the province with some connection to a Peace Corps Volunteer. Some volunteers worked as teachers at these schools, while others were associated with the schools in other ways, such as me with my life skills and health education course. The girls were in secondary school and less than 18 years old, with a working level of English. They were selected via application asking them to write an essay about why they would benefit from camp. The applications were conducted by volunteers at their schools and then presented to a selection committee of all members of the region. I conducted the application with the 10 girls from my life skills and health education course at the youth center. Three were selected to attend camp at the selection committee.
Our regional themes of camp were healthy relationships, HIV/AIDS, and career planning, the overarching issues identified by the participatory needs assessments undertaken by volunteer at their respective sites. Camp lasted a total of 5 days. On the first day, campers were told to arrive at the nearest bus park and we shuttled them to the camp site. We estimated it would take two hours. Instead, I ended up waiting at the bus stop in the blazing sun for more than four hours. Of course, the girls were later, the bus took longer, and the logistics of transporting over 50 girls were more complicated than we expected. Once all the girls had arrived at camp and were registered, we began the opening ceremony, during which we introduced the camp and its staff, taught the camp cheer to campers, and gave an overview of the logistics, program, and schedule. After dinner, the campers were divided into six cabin groups named for a female leader, such as Wangari Maathai and Mia Hamm. For the next hour, cabin groups did bonding exercises and came up with cabin cheers that they then performed for the rest of the group before bed.
Camp really started on the second day. Every day, three groups of students consisting of two cabins rotated through three lessons of an hour and a half. On Day #1, the overall theme was healthy relationships and the three lessons were communication, decision making and peer pressure, and love and sex. On Day #2, the theme was HIV/AIDS and the lessons were HIV/AIDS biology, HIV/AIDS facts and myths, and HIV/AIDS prevention. And on Day #3, career planning, the lessons were self-esteem, goal setting and planning, and a career panel, which campers attended as one large group. One of my primary responsibilities before camp was developing the curriculum that was used during these lessons.
The lessons were taught by Peace Corps Volunteer paired with Rwandan facilitators. Most were conducted in a mixture of English and Kinyarwanda, used especially when students did not understand or needed clarification. The Peace Corps Volunteers teaching each lesson had worked with their Rwandan partners during the training of trainers prior to camp in order to ensure their understanding of the material, incorporate their perspective and insight, as well as introduce the interactive nature of the activities contained in the lessons. This training of trainers was one of the most important preparatory components of camp for this reason.
Campers attended their first lesson in the morning, shortly after breakfast and morning announcements, and moved to their second lesson after a short break. After lunch, students returned to their third lesson, finishing early in the afternoon. For the next couple of hours, students attended afternoon activities. Afternoon activities were fun and active. On the second day, half of the campers (3 cabins) were selected to tie-dye their Camp GLOW tee-shirts. Sticking with my roots at Camp GLOW, I organized the tie-dye activity. It was a blast- a good healthy mess! We poured fabric dye into bottles with holes punched in the tops to sprinkle. We taught the girls how to fold and rubber band their tee-shirts, and then we let them go to work with the dye. At first, they were hesitant, but once they got over their initial reservation, they began to get into it, squeezing the bottles empty until their tee-shirts were more than soaked and waterfalls of dye ran from the tables onto the floor. Despite the clean-up, their tee-shirts turned out awesome and we had a ton of fun! The other half of campers chose between sports and making friendship bracelets with beads rolled from recycled paper. The next day, the groups switched.
Every night, after dinner, we planned an evening activity. On the first night, we organized a carnival of different games, such as musical chairs, bean bag toss, and relay race. We even had face painting. In an impulsive decision fitting with the carnival theme, I decided to dress up as a clown. My fellow volunteers observed with disbelief and giggles. Using the limited resources available, I borrowed a bright floral jumper from another volunteer, made a clown nose by cutting off the end of a red balloon and stuffing it with a sponge, and a wig from streamers and tape pinned in my hair. My fellow volunteers painted my face with rosy cheeks and a grin. We decided to name me Flora the Clown, in reference to my jumper, but most of the campers thought I looked like an African princess. I suppose in their eyes, the decoration in my hair and the painted face must have symbolized royalty. The only thing that threw them off was the red, bulbous nose.
The next evening’s activity was the “I Can’t” Funeral Bonfire. It was probably the most moving moment of camp, and perhaps my whole service in Rwanda. Here is Rwanda, fires are a symbol of funerals, but what is camp without a bonfire and S’mores? In an attempt to merge the two, we came up with the “I Can’t” Funeral Bonfire. The idea was that girls would write something they had always been told they couldn’t do on a piece of paper and throw it into the fire representing its funeral. Unfortunately, on the planned evening, a heavy downpour started after dinner that forced us to remain in the large hall. We sat in a large circle, took a moment to write our “I can’t”s, and then began sharing. Girls stood up and moved to the center where a metal barrel rested. They said things like, “I can’t speak in public,” “I can’t get an education,” and “I can’t become an astronaut,” before tearing up their paper sand throwing them into the barrel. Their revelations were so basic, their limitations so expected in our own culture, that I felt a sense of guilt as realization of my privileges washed over me. When I stood up to share my own “I can’t…” the girls cheered in understanding and acceptance of our communal struggle as women in the world. I was able to relate to them, forage a bond, even if in my heart, I knew that my struggle did not equal what they experienced. When we finished, we lit the fire of our communal “I can’t”s, and as the flames destroyed their existence, the unexpected occurred. Suddenly, the girls started dancing around the fire chanting, “I can, I can, I CAN.” The smoke from the fire dimmed the light it radiated and rose in a haze over the group, causing the scene to appear as if in a dream. I felt like I was caught somewhere between two worlds- the real and the fantastic, American camp and Rwandan tradition. I joined in the group of girls, stomping my feet, and my voice merged with the collective. “I can, I can, I CAN,” pulsed into the empty night air. That night, I knew I had been a part of something special, perhaps a moment of change, at least a memory that will stay with me forever.
The evening activity for the last night of camp was a talent show and dance. Unfortunately, I had a headache and the cacophony of cheering and clapping during the performance caused me to abscond to the quiet of our dorm. I meant to return, but as soon as I lay down, the exhaustion of preparing and the week’s events of camp overtook me and I fell asleep, awaking the next morning still fully clothed. Alas, I missed part of the talent show and the dance, but I was fully rested. As far as I saw, the performances were comical skits demonstrating the lessons and skills the girls had learned throughout the week. They seemed entertaining.
The last full day of camp before the girls went home, the day of career planning, was also special. We held a career panel consisting of a nurse, a bank manager, a teacher, and a development worker to talk about their careers- what they do, how they got there, the education and skills they need, etc.- in order to inspire and empower the girls to pursue their own education and careers. I had the pleasure of inviting and hosting a colleague of mine who is the Sponsorship Manager at Plan Rwanda. Her name is Tassy, and if I were to describe her, I would say she is like my adopted mother in Rwanda. She always has a smile and a laugh to share. She is caring, the one to call me on Christmas to wish me merry. She has opened her arms to me, accepting me into her life and family like her own daughter. I was excited to have her speak with the girls, because I knew she would be an inspiration to them, and I was right.
Let me explain a little bit about Plan Rwanda and my experience working for them. I have not had the traditional Peace Corps experience working for a local NGO, because Plan is a large, international NGO. As a result, I don’t face the same typical challenges of volunteers in these positions, but rather ones that are unique to my situation. My colleagues speak fairly fluent English, are habituated to interacting with Westerners, and make high salaries relative to the average Rwandan (and me, which is a bit of an oxymoron and disbelief in their eyes). Tassy arrived at camp, at a run-down school in an isolated town in the middle of the Rwandan countryside, wearing a white suit and red and leopard peep-toe heels, unperturbed by the rain and mud. She took her seat next to the nurse, clearly distinguished from the green coat and mud shoes of her neighbor.
Tassy stood up to talk, and the girls were rapt with attention and awe. She began speaking, about her life, and even I learned some new and impressive things. Here is a summary of what she said- She grew up in Uganda. After she wrote her exams from secondary school, she was looking for a job. Her brother-in-law tricked her in marriage by taking her to visit the home of a potential employer who locked her in the house until she agreed to marry him. She was scared to leave and return home because she thought she would be disowned because she might be pregnant. They were married and her husband treated her well, but because he was a doctor and she had only a secondary school education, she felt inferior and as if she had no control in their relationship. She did not like it, and after she gave birth to her children, she decided to return to school, against the wishes of her husband, in order to continue her education and pursue a career. She knew that money was the key to power and control in her relationship and life, and she vowed to achieve a better-paying job. She succeeded in school and was employed by Plan in an entry level position. She worked her way up until she reached the managerial position she holds today. She shared the motivation behind her participation that day- that she enjoyed sharing her story because she wanted to teach her lesson. She didn’t want young girls to fall into the same trap she did. She wanted to encourage young girls to continue with their education and get jobs. She wanted women to have power in their relationships, control over decisions in their lives. The girls hooted and hollered to show their support throughout her speech. They stood up, clapped, and cheered at the end to show their appreciation. I stood in the back, observing and listening with warm pride filling my heart. I couldn’t help but think, “What a strong woman she was. What an inspiration!”
We were also given an opportunity to meet with the girls we had invited to attend camp, from our own schools or community, to discuss and make an action plan for post-camp activities. I met with the three girls from APECOM College who were selected from the group that participated in the life skills and health education course at the youth center- Joy, Jackie, and Sylvie. Joy is a beautiful, but frustratingly shy girl. She doesn’t talk much, avoids attention, and I felt she could benefit from the confidence instilled at camp. Jacky is a powerful young woman, an exponent for women’s rights at her school. She is the only girl on the debate team and I loved how she organized her application essay on what she would gain from Camp GLOW into talking points and arguments. Sylvie is also very strong, especially in English, and was very empowered by what she learned at camp. She is in Senior 5, a grade below the other two girls, which means she will be at APECOM next school year, unlike the other two who wrote their exams in November and will not return if they pass. Therefore, my attention was on Sylvie, because she will be my facilitator next year when we set up GLOW Clubs at APECOM. First, we spoke about what we had learned at camp, the important topics. Then, we identified the steps that needed to be taken to set up a GLOW Club, who would be responsible for undertaking these actions and when they would do it. Much of the responsibility fell on Sylvie, who seemed eager to take on the project. Jackie even asked if it was possible to set up a GLOW Club in her neighborhood in Kigali, and I responded, “Yes, of course. You can start a club with your friends and peers, who would gain from learning the information you have learned.” As I slid a piece of paper with my phone number written on it over to their side of the table, I promised to help.
Talking about GLOW Clubs and creating action plans were new activities at this year’s camp. More importance was placed on sustainability this year. Instead of having a limited number of girls attend camp for a short period, we wanted to pursue a more comprehensive goal. The girls who attended camp would then be responsible for returning to their schools and setting up clubs to teach the information they learned to others- a system of peer education. They would receive help and resources from us. In this way, the information would be spread further and more people would benefit, plus the project was more sustainable overall.
This posed a small problem for me, because I will be leaving in only 5 months, shortly after students return to school. I will not have time to help establish and manage a GLOW Club at APECOM. I solved this problem by introducing my students to a health volunteer who just arrived in Rwanda and whose site is closest to mine. Hopefully, he will be able to continue in my absence.
Our last day was a half-day, filled with camp evaluations, a question-and-answer session, and the closing ceremony. I brought the question box that I had made for my life skills and health education course to camp and throughout the week, girls wrote questions that were not answered in session or which they did not feel comfortable asking on small pieces of paper and slipped them in the box. I partnered with a few Rwandan facilitators to lead the answer period. We began by emphasizing the importance of the questions, of listening and not laughing. Two questions were especially noteworthy. First, we spent the majority of the session discussing vaginal discharge. The girls asked what it was and what its purpose was. They wanted to know the advantages and disadvantages of it. They asked about the practice of drying vaginas, why and how it is done. In Rwanda, some men prefer women with dry vaginas, but dry sex increases the risk of transmitting STIs, specifically HIV/AIDS. Second, they asked about the practice of stretching women’s labia. Again, in Rwanda, some men prefer women with stretched labia, and will leave their wife if their labia are not stretched. We spoke about the practice, emphasizing that the decision to undergo the procedure should be a discussion between partners before marriage or engaging in sex. Most importantly, the man should respect the woman’s position and decision.
During our closing ceremony, we recognized the students, awarding them with certificates for their participation. Certificates are greatly valued in Rwanda, and you would think the moment you mentioned certificates that you had mistakenly told them you were handing over a million dollars instead. The closing ceremony was filled with cheer s and clapping, the walk to the waiting matatu with sad sentiments of departure and hugs.
As I walked through the door of my house after camp ended, I felt myself deflating from the energy of the week. It seemed strange to be alone, quiet, after a week of activity and excitement. My head felt disoriented and overtaken by exhaustion. I had barely set down my backpack and slumped into a chair when my neighbors arrived at my door, demanding where I’d been. I told them and they seemed pleased. They complimented me on my tee-shirt with the logo from Camp GLOW and I explained, “American igitenge,” for the tie-dye. I ran to my bedroom, tearing off my shirt and replacing it with another, and returned, handing the shirt to Bijoux. She pulled it over her head and it settled on her small body like a dress. She smiled up at me and said “Thanks.” That night, I went to bed early, awaking the next day still a bit disoriented but refreshed. I had been gone for over a week and I had a lot of catch-up chores to do. As I sat weeding my garden, Bijoux appeared, still wearing her tee-shirt, which she pointed out. I exclaimed, “What a beautiful empowered woman you will grow up to be.” If only she knew what that shirt represented. Maybe one day she will be a GLOW camper, and that will make me very happy.