Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My Favorite Part of Peace Corps

       Last month was my region’s GLOW Camp, or Girls Leading Our World (we held our inaugural BE Camp, or Boys Excelling Camp in August). Peace Corps Volunteers run BE Camps for teenage boys, and GLOW Camps for teenage girls across the world, and the camps are my favorite part of Peace Corps. They are exhausting, exciting, and they really make an impact.

            The camps are generally funded by PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). They focus on youth empowerment, leadership, life skills, and preventing HIV/AIDS. We also had an emphasis on preventing malaria, as more people died in my district, Rusizi, than in any other district in Rwanda in 2011. Although camps come in every shape and form in the U.S., camps are not a common occurrence at all in Rwanda.

            This year, each volunteer in my region selected 10 boys or 10 girls from their school to come to our BE Camp or GLOW Camp, for a total of 50 campers, and then we had 10 Rwandan Junior Facilitators who helped us Peace Corps Volunteers lead the lessons. Each day was filled with games, lessons, and activities. We had a Jeopardy game, tie-dying, and a Field Day Competition, including three legged races, a sack race, and tug-of-war (the girls particularly loved our arm-wrestling contest!).

The youth attended sessions on goal setting, saving money, resisting peer pressure, being a leader, role models, HIV/AIDS, gender roles, and a career panel. We used activities, skits, and games to teach and make the lessons fun, instead of just writing on the board and having the students copy it down, a practice that's all too common in Rwandan schools.

            Our campers named their groups whatever they wanted. We ended up having the following groups at BE Camp: Fire, Super Power, the Special Ones, the Holy Eagles, and the Winners. The girls came up with Supergirls, Alike, Bright, Winners, and Eagles. They all came up with their own cheers, which would be shouted at any available moment. I led the Supergirls group, and we would shout "SUPER SUPER SUPER GIRLS! SUPER SUPER SUPER GIRLS!" at the top of our lungs multiple times a day, which left me hoarse by the end of camp.

We hung up signs with role models of peace and social justice that spanned the spectrum of religious leaders, political leaders, authors, and celebrities: Archbishop Tutu, Chinua Achebe, Martin Luther King, Jr, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Oprah Winfrey, Rwanda's Minister of Health, Dr. Agnes Bingwaho, and others.

        We also had HIV/AIDS skits, where several featured topics that probably wouldn’t come up in a similar camp in the United States, like Sugar Daddies and Sugar Mommies (adults who pay school fees or give gifts to youth in return for sex), unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence in Rwanda, and witch doctors who offer “cures” for HIV/AIDS or malaria. At our GLOW Camp, I was shocked to learn about the prevalence of sexual violence, coercion, and double standards in the girls' lives. The girls in our group expressed sadness about the "boys will be boys" attitude that prevails here, and the casual acceptance of men using prostitutes (apparently, even in secondary school). They were even more frustrated by their perceived powerlessness to change the system. I think one of the most important lessons we taught at our camps is that attitudes and cultures do change, and youth can be a part of that change. 

               At the end of the camp, the teens made action plans on how they were going to educate others about leadership, preventing HIV/AIDS, and malaria. Many of them are forming health and leadership clubs at their schools, with both male and female members. Peer education at its best!

            I thought a lot about the differences of our Rwandan BE Camp and the two summer camps I worked at in the U.S. For the most part, I realized teenagers are the same everywhere. They can be hilariously immature, awkward, and self-conscious, but still completely earnest. We made a question box where the campers could ask us anything they wanted to know. (One of the questions we got was, “What if you love a girl and she doesn’t love you back? Or what if a girl likes you and you don’t want her?” Ah, teenage love.) The youth had A LOT of questions, and I was happy that we created a safe space for them for questions they couldn’t ask anyone else and where they wouldn’t be judged.

            The camps also made me realize how many intangible things I took for granted. I grew up never contemplating taking a Sugar Daddy to pay my school tuition because I would be forced to drop out without the money, or becoming a prostitute because my family is starving and I have no other options. Economic circumstances often force people into choices they wouldn't make otherwise, and to have that choice is a moral luxury. At home, I received nothing but encouragement from my parents to be whatever I wanted to be, and to be the best at it. I never even considered that there might be something I couldn't do because I'm a girl.

I took for granted the fact that I grew up with an amazing role model at home, my Mom. She broke down barriers by becoming one of few female doctors in her medical school class, and who worked as an emergency room doctor while taking care of 4 kids, volunteering at our church and schools, and "leaning in" before Sheryl Sandberg was even born. Moreover, I grew up thinking these attitudes and support were normal. My experiences outside of the US have shown me that they are the exception, not the rule. 

            I really wish every kid in Rwanda got to attend a BE or GLOW Camp. Seeing the youth (who were already selected for being leaders at their schools) go from day one of camp to the final day, really empowered to make a difference at their schools and in their communities, gave me goosebumps. Our GLOW Camp ended with the girls cheering, "We are strong! We are girls! We are leading our world!" as the packed into buses to return home. If our campers have anything to do with it, Rwanda's future will be a bright one.

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