One week ago today we wrapped up our Girls’ Camp here in the Matam region. The camp is five days long and involves girls of middle school age. Girls from villages all over the Matam region were interviewed and chosen to attend the camp by volunteers for their academics, enthusiasm, leadership, and desire to be at camp. Sessions and trainings during the camp covered topics from business to women’s health, with side sessions on agriculture and record keeping for the camp chaperones and girls’ mothers.
Girls’ camp was by far the most rewarding and fulfilling project I’ve taken part in during my service so far. The first day of the camp were introductions, ice breakers, and dancing. The difference in the energy level and outgoingness of the girls from this first day to their departure four days later was inspiring. They preformed a dance for their parents they had been learning all week, exchanged phone numbers with new friends, and made speeches in front of a crowd of fifty people about what girls’ camp had meant to them.
One of my favorite sessions during camp was our successful women career panel day. Among the women present to talk about their experiences were two midwives, a domestic abuse advocate, women’s group treasurer, and radio host. The women discussed the importance of their initial education before pursuing professional careers, what it’s like to balance family obligations and a job outside of the home, and the steps they took to realize their professional dreams. The girls had so many questions for them, a lot related to marriage and the appropriate time to do so if you still want to go to college, and then had two hours to sit down with the women in small groups and continue the discussion.
Another session that benefited the girls immensely was one on women’s health. It was run by second year health volunteer Claire Cravero and two Senegalese midwives. In an area as poor and conservative as the Matam region there is almost zero discussion of women’s health issues and never an opening for young women to ask questions about sex or their own sexuality. Claire and the midwives covered everything from the biology of a woman’s reproductive system, how it differs from men, exactly how and why women get pregnant, and how to practice safe sex. At the end of the session they had an anonymous question box where the girls could ask anything they wanted. The range and amount of questions asked and answered was remarkable. The girls were so curious to learn more they even asked for the session to be extended into their free time after lunch, when they sat down with just the midwives and had an open discussion. Seeing them get to ask such personal and normally taboo questions in such a comfortable environment made me both happy and sad for them. Without a forum like girls’ camp, these questions most likely would have gone unspoken and unanswered.
Girls’ camp will happen this time again next year and we’ve already started planning and fundraising for it. With a lot of luck, and the convincing of a very conservative village, girls from Yacine Lakke will be able to attend the camp next year, make new friends, and have their questions answered too.
*All of the following pictures were taken by my friend Bear Dolbeare (agroforestry volunteer who braved the girls’ camp as one of only two men present and gave excellent recommendations on nail colors during the mani/pedi activity)*