My adventures serving in the Peace Corps

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Camp GLOW!

Here's the blog you've all been waiting for! I'll start by saying that camp was an enormous success. All the girls, volunteers, and tutrices left happy and empowered. So, here's a run-down of the week:
Sunday morning, I left my house at 9:15 to go and meet the girls and our taxi. Half of the girls were already there, and said they had been waiting since 8! I've taught them well: to be early is to be on time :) My homologue decided to go and look for the other three girls, who were apparently ready to go and just sitting calmly at their houses- I'll never understand some parts of this culture! Murphy's law, the taxi driver was about thirty minutes late and extremely casual about it. (He was one of those Beninese men who you can tell constantly congratulate themselves for being a man: he had his shirt rolled up above his pot belly for the whole ride down, spit out the window a lot, etc. Attractive, really.) All morning it was POURING, so the drive down was a bit scary. All of the massive potholes (like none you've ever seen before in America) were filled with water and therefore impossible to see, so I'm surprised we didn't lose a tire on the way down. Beninese people apparently don't find it necessary to do anything differently when driving in the rain; they don't use headlights, slow down, etc. Anyway, we stopped in Cotonou on the way down and I bought the girls some pounded yams for lunch (a northern food, so something most of them hadn't tried before). You could tell they loved sitting in the little restaurant like grown ups!
Upon arrival in Porto Novo, the chaos began. The driving rain made it difficult to move around a lot, and lots of people arrived late because of it. We had almost 60 mosquito nets to hang (and a few were stolen in the process), so that took some time. Girls arrived in big groups, and I had to remember every step involved in checking them in, giving them room assignments, telling them not to touch their newly-opened mosquito nets (they need time to air out because of the chemicals on them, if not they will sting your eyes and face), etc.
Let me back up quickly to the last three days before the camp: I was already back in village, obviously with no computer/Internet access. First, I got a call from the Peace Corps office, asking me many details about the Opening Ceremony for the camp. For as much as I think I understand Beninese culture now, I am still lost when it comes to the formalities of official events. Things have to be just so, and apparently whatever dignitaries you invite, it is YOUR responsibility to write their speeches for them. I also finally got the go-ahead from the NGO that donated soccer balls to the girls, though there was more paperwork to do for that. So, I was feeling pretty helpless and stressed in Lobogo. I also got calls from several volunteers saying that their girls couldn't make it, so I had to scramble around trying to find some replacements.
Now, back to the first night of camp, I was surprised to find we had 49 girls (as opposed to the original 50) since I had thought we had many cancellations the day before. Once all the girls were checked in and settled into their rooms, we had dinner and a welcome meeting. It was fun to show them how to use a toilet and shower, and to see how excited they all were about the week ahead. It was nice and cool all week because of the rain, and we didn't even have to use the ceiling fans in our rooms to sleep at night! I'm sure the girls were chilly, though :)
Monday morning was also high stress since we had the opening ceremony of the camp, and we had invited several dignitaries. The Peace Corps invitees showed up first, followed by the Ambassador. It was fun seeing the girls' faces when his motorcade drove into the center, American flags flying. We ended up having to wait nearly an hour for the Beninese dignitaries to show up (surprise surprise), but it was a good opportunity for me to chat with the Ambassador and tell him all about the camp. All in all, the people who arrived were: the Peace Corps Benin country director, the woman in charge of the education/gender sector of Peace Corps Benin, the Ambassador, and the second to the mayor of Porto Novo. The ceremony was nice and concise; I made a speech, as did the mayor's representative, the Ambassador, and the Country Director. We then took a really nice photo with everyone in it: girls, volunteers, invitees, and all. That day we then had sessions on the rights of women and children, how to deal with/avoid sexual harrassment (especially from teachers), and study skills/tips. After dinner, we did relay races, which the girls had never seen before and LOVED. It was really fun to watch the girls open up throughout the first day and lose all their shyness. Because these girls are the best from their respective schools and villages, they enjoyed and participated in the sessions, and had impeccable behavior.
The second day started with a craft session run by PCVs. They could choose between collage making and book binding, and both were a huge hit. We were originally nervous that the book binding might be too complicated/lengthy, but the girls were really perceptive and followed the instructions well, and made adorable fabric-covered journals. I helped with the collage session, and it was really interesting to see the pictures they chose to cut out of the magazines. It tended to be a lot of photos of people, along with fauna and commercial products. These sessions were great since the girls normally have to artistic outlet. We then had a session on puberty, reproduction, and hygiene, which the girls LOVED and asked tons of questions. That afternoon, half the group went to a local museum, and the other half went to Songhai, that organic farm/green technology center in Porto Novo. It is honestly one of the most innovative, self-sustaining places I've ever seen, and it's here in Benin. Crazy, huh? At Songhai, they took a tour of the farm and then learned how to use computers: Word and basic Internet searches. I could tell that the girls felt really empowered to be able to use a computer, especially since many of their peers have never even seen one. That night we watched Bend it like Beckham, which was particularly relevant, both because it was girls playing soccer and because of the World Cup going on right now. I have never seen a group of people be so invested in a film: they cheered everytime someone scored a goal! They absolutely loved it, especially since we projected it up onto a big screen just like a movie theater. This was a good ending to a not-so-good day for me personally: I had a man at Songhai refuse to take me as the camp director because I was a woman (then had the audacity to call me his wife), and a woman on the street completely ignored myself and some other volunteers because, we were told, she hates white people. We also were having some problems with the caterer (that unfortunately continued throughout the rest of the week): arriving late, giving us fish when we were supposed to have meat, claiming that there was no fruit to be found in the whole city even though that's what we paid for. (That being said, the girls still ate awesome food and a ton compared to what they are given at home. They actually got to eat meat!)
Wednesday morning, we visited the National Assembly, basically the Beninese equivalent to our House of Respresentatives. It was quite interesting, and the girls got to sit in the seats of the deputies and ask questions through their microphones. They asked tons of good questions, such as "If there are 83 deputies in the National Assembly, why are only 9 of them women?!" These girls are so lucky; most Beninese never get to visit a government building like this. That afternoon, the girls once again went to Songhai and the museum, visiting whichever one they had not seen the day before. That night, the girls had time in their teams to develop skits about any topic we'd discussed during the week.
Quick explanation of the team system: the girls were divided into 5 teams of ten girls each. Three or four volunteers were assigned to each team, along with one Beninese tutrice. At the end of each day, the teams met to discuss the themes touched upon that day. Teams also had a competition the whole week. Teams could win or lose points, depending on factors such as participation in sessions, behavior, helping out, etc. At the end of the week, all the points were tallied and each member of the winning team received some cool prizes: a dictionary, compass set, and nice notebook.
Thursday started out with a session all about soccer: how to play, rules of the game, strategies, how to inflate a ball. We then held a mini tournament. It was amazing to see how awesome some of these girls were at soccer! One of my girls in particular was fantastic. We then had two young Beninese people come in to do a sensibilisation on HIV/AIDS and malaria, which the girls really enjoyed. We even did a condom demonstration, which the girls were really mature about. (Side note: nearly all the sessions were run by Beninese people, not volunteers.) We also had a woman living with HIV come in to talk to the girls, to show them that she was a normal person and tell them her story. That afternoon, we had a really good session on nutrition. It's an important session for these girls since the Beninese diet is so full of carbs and void of nutrition. (These people aren't starving like a lot of people think, they just don't have enough vitamins.) That night was fantastic, we had a DJ come to do a dance party for these girls, and let me tell you, these girls can DANCE. They insisted we dance with them, but they just end up making us look silly :) They really let loose and got to shine since it's normally the boys who take over the dance floor. It was a lot of fun.
Now comes the craziest part of my week. One of the girls I brought, Elise, has a disease, one that her parents called a "bone" disease. I was told it flared up during the rainy season when it's cooler, so my homologue was hesitant to let her come in case her disease flared up. But, she really wanted to come and assured us that she would bring her medicine for it, and that ibpruofen helps it a lot. During the dance party, she came up to me crying and saying that it was flaring up and she hurt, so another volunteer gave her ibpruofen and took her to her room to lie down. When the night was finished and everyone else headed to bed, I went to check on her. She was in HORRIBLE pain, writhing and crying in her bed. It seemed as if the ibpruofen had done nothing. We were constantly massaging her back and making her drink water. We finally decided to move her into my room so that her roomates could get some sleep, and we sat up with her for hours. It was so hard to see this smart, adorable little girl in so much pain. At 3am, she told us she needed to go to the hospital, so I called the Peace Corps emergency line to ask what hospital we should go to. A nice man who worked at the center drive us (two other volunteers, myself, and the girl) there in his car. He also helped us once there. (We were first taken to a back-alley clinic that looked way too sketchy, so we told him we needed to go to the big regional hospital in Porto Novo). It was such a surreal place: people sleeping all over the hospital grounds, sewer water flooding certain areas, rats. There was no one to direct us where to go, so we finally found the pediatric emergency room. It was a really hard place to see. There were two or three kids to a bed, and really bad looking patients all around. The baby on the bed next to us convulsed with each beat of his heart, there was a little girl who couldn't blink, kids in comas, etc. There was a pool of blood on the floor next to Elise's bed. The nurse came to give her an IV, and did it in a really rough and irresponsible manner, constantly bumping and pulling on the needle. There is absolutely NO bedside manner here; it's as if the nurses are there to do their job and the patients shouldn't interfere. Since it was 4am, there was no doctor there (naturally...), so they were not authorized to give her any pain meds, only a rehydrating IV drip, so she was still in terrible pain. We called in for replacement volunteers at around 8:30am so that we could get some sleep. I haven't pulled an all-nighter like that since freshman year of college! Meanwhile we had not been able to get a hold of anyone in her family (though when we did, they weren't panicked; these pain attacks are fairly common). The doctor fianlly came with the lab results and it turns out that she has Sickle Cell Anemia, occassionally causing her these massive pain attacks. In the U.S., patients are given morphine to ease the pain. Shortly after we left her with the other volunteers, the pain started to subside and she was able to get some sleep, so she came home aroung 11am that day. Not only was the whole hospital experience depressing, jarring, and sad, but it was also backwards and dysfunctional. For instance, the hospital does not simply bring you the medicine you need. They write you a prescription, and YOU are respinsible for taking it to the cashier, paying, and then going out to the pharmacy to get it. I guess it is assumed that a family member will be there to help, but what if they're not? Nor does the hospital feed the patient, it's once again the responsibility of the patient or a family member to get food. I guess it's a product of the collectivist society here. All in all, it was one of the craziest nights I've ever had and one I'll not soon forget.
Friday morning, the campers did a session on gender roles that they got really passionate about- why can't a woman do that?! Of course she can! Men can cook, too! Etc. It was really neat to see them get fired up like that. Then a panel of four professional Beninese women came to talk to the girls about how they got into these high-profile jobs in this male-dominated society. That afternoon the girls learned about money management and how to create a budget, and then got to make beautiful bead necklaces with an artisan from Ouidah. The last night, the girls preformed their skits, and it was once again heartbreaking to see how accurately they portrayed the typical Beninese man. They were great actressses and clearly loved performing!
The last morning of the camp, we just held a quick session synthesizing everything we'd learned during the week and encouraging girls to share what they'd learned with their peers, and then gave awards. The winning team got the prizes I mentioned above, and every girl got a tshirt, certificate, Camp GLOW bracelet, group photo, and soccer ball. They also got to take home their mosquito net and the books, collages, and necklaces they had made. Needless to say, they left the camp very happy :) One of the girls even presented me with flowers during the ceremony, which was really sweet. It was then time for the girls to pack up and head out. Of course, my taxi driver promised he would be there no later than 11am, and didn't show up until 3. Every time I called him, he would lie and tell me he was around the corner, and he eventually stopped answering my calls. It's infuriating that they can get away with things like that here; my homologue told me that there was no way I could pay him less since the price was already negotiated. I was especially angry because Elise wasn't feeing well, and since he arrived so late we had no time to stop in Ouidah to show the girls the ocean like we had originally planned (none of these girls had ever seen the water before!) Once again, the driver didn't apologize, and was pretty rude the rest of the way home. We had another unfortunate event at the end of camp: we realized one of the tutrices had stolen a lot of things from us, such as extra camp tshirts, bowls, toilet paper, and soap. When we privately confronted her about it (we had proof that she had done it), she threw a big fit and started insulting the camp, campers, and volunteers before running off. It was really unfortunate.
All being said and done, I would call the camp a fantastic success. All of the girls were extremely bright and I know they will do something with the lessons they learned. Elise is feeling better now, and all in all only missed a half day of camp activities. (Once back in Lobogo, her parents and brother traveled all the way from their farm many kilometers away to my house to thank me profusely for taking care of her.) Being camp director was of course stressful, but extremely satisfying. My one complaint would be that because I was so busy taking care of logistics, I didn't have as much time to play with the girls this year.
Back in Lobogo, I couldn't even catch up on sleep the next day as it was Fifa's first communion and I had to go to the four hour long Mass for that :( We then had an all day long party for her in our concession which I had to attend, and even if I had wanted to nap I couldn't have because the music was blasting so loud. First communion fetes are a really big deal here: they set up a tent, rented chairs, hired a DJ, killed a goat and pig and chicken. They even had a photographer going around and snapping tons of pictures!
The next two days I spent at school, giving students their final grades and filling out school grade books and report cards. I can't believe I'm officially done with all my school duties! Saying goodbye to my students was as sad as I thought it might be, maybe because it just doesn't quite seem real yet. I told them to stop by and say goodbye to me at some point during the next few weeks. I'll see all my colleagues one more time at the end of the year staff meeting on Friday. On Tuesday night, I gave away one of the two kittens to my vet, the other one will go to another volunteer next week. (It's a good thing, too- they were starting to destroy my house! I'll miss them, though.)
On Wednesday I came down to Cotonou to write the final report for my camp and got that all wrapped up, and on Thursday I had my final medical exam/check out. Looks like I'm healthy! Friday a few of us headed to Dogbo for one last reginal cooking session; we made sandwiches and coleslaw for dinner and red, white, and blue pancakes (with dried blueberries and strawberries) for breakfast. We also watched the Ghana v. Uraguay game at a bar that night, and the energy was incredible. People were literally dancing in the streets when Ghana scored a goal! It was too bad that Ghana lost.
I'm now back down in Cotonou staying with my friends who work at the embassy here. They are about to go home for vacation, and since I'm leaving soon, I don't think I'll see them again. They are SO sweet, and they treated me to dinner last night. It's so nice staying in a house that feels just like America! We spent the morning watching CNN and Discovery channel, and made coffee and cinnamon roles for breakfast :) Tonight there is a big potluck at one of the embassy workers' houses, so it'll be a nice way to celebrate the 4th! I'll head back to village tomorrow. I think I'll only leave one more time before I leave for good, to give all the Camp GLOW paperwork to the person who is taking the camp over next year (a man!) By the way, if you're wondering why I haven't gotten mail or packages in a long time, it turns out it's because of the volcano! All the stopped up air traffic caused major back-ups in the mail system.
I arrive in America exactly 5.5 weeks from today, can you believe it?? I can't. I'm really, REALLY excited to come home, but am getting pretty sad about leaving some of my friends and especially my cats here. I'll have my last 3 weeks or so in village just to spend time with those people and pack up my house.
This is probably one of my last blogs! Sorry it was so long. I will post pictures from the camp when I get a chance.


loehrke said...

You are so silly: apologizing for a long blog!!!
I loved every word and every description. You even had some medical drama for me!!! Sad to hear about the girl with sickle cell disease. There is an African word for the disease that literally translates to "state of suffering". It's an awful disease to have in America.....I can't even imagine it in a developing country.

Camp GLOW sounds AMAZING and like it was a HUGE success!! Congratulations on everything. I know from Carly's experience as director of Camp Success that it is a week of headaches and surprises and tension and anxiety......but I am sure it is also one of the most fulfilling things you have done in Benin. And I am certain that it had a HUGE impact on those young girls' lives. I've learned from Carly that one of the nicest things you can tell a Peace Corps Volunteer is the following: "You're a good volunteer". And Angelina, you sure are good volunteer. Be proud and be happy and be satisfied. Job well done.
Safe travels, Mark Loehrke (Carly's dad)

Judith A. Johnson said...

I love hearing about the girls' camps, it is such a great experience for them and for you and really makes a difference in their lives, I am certain. Sounds like yours was a huge success, even with all the drama! Enjoy your last days in Africa and Bon Voyage!

Sarah said...

Angelina, I am so proud of you for camp glow. It sounds like it was a wonderful time for the girls.

Miss you lots,

Catherine said...

Good Lord, Angelina. That was practically a novel. lol. Loved it though. Camp sounds AMAZING. I can't believe that story about the girl Elise. What a night that must have been...stressful, i can imagine. I know...aren't the hospitals there crazy? After all my accidents i had to go there for x-rays, etc. and it was astounding. And that was in Cotonou. THe first time i stepped back ina doctors office here i was overwhelmed by how clean everything was and sterile and cool. It was just so surreal.

THat sucks about the tutrice. Who was she with? How did you find out it was her?

Good luck with baby and belle...i know its going to be so hard to say bye to them. It was gr8 talking to you for a few today and i'll call again on thurs or fri. Miss you and can't wait to talk to you for longer once you're home...which is SO ridiculously soon! Love you and miss you. stay safe. xoxo