Time to tell you about one of my favorite projects I have been a part of so far. Four highlands community economic development volunteers and myself followed in the footsteps on many previous volunteers and put together a “Girls Leading Our World (GLOW)” camp. We each invited four middle school/early high school girls from each of our five towns (20 girls in total) and a chaperone from each to travel to Tana all expenses paid to participate in a five-day camp at the beginning of September. Here is a description of what we did each day:
Day 1: ARRIVAL
Volunteers travelled with their girls and chaperones from their towns to the YWCA in Tana where we were staying. My girls and chaperone came from Manazary, a town 18 km south of me on a very bad road. The chaperone is a good friend of mine; a school director who is very familiar with the problems girls from the countryside often face. She brought the girls to my town, and then we caught a tax-brousse to Tana and met up with everyone for lunch. The rest of the first day was mostly introductions, icebreakers, and setting up the schedule and expectations.
Day 2: HEALTH
While HIV/AIDS prevalence is very low in this country (lower than America, actually) other STIs and unwanted pregnancy are problems that occur throughout the country. Most of this stems from a lack of education about condoms and family planning. Peer educators from Population Services International led the morning session, and taught a rather technical lesson about STIs and condom use. I was impressed by how many questions the girls asked. Still giggly, but definitely informative. Two female doctors led the afternoon session, which was good on a lot of levels. Some of the peer educators from the morning were guys, which might have made some of the girls participate a little less. The afternoon was all about goals and family planning to meet those goals. Then the doctors had the girls practice putting condoms on AND taking them off using bananas. Useful information, plus the girls got to talk to female doctors, which was definitely inspiring for them.
Day 3: ASPIRATIONS
This day we took the girls to the US Embassy in the morning. I hadn’t actually been there before, as it is very far from our transit house and office in Tana and the security is extremely high to entrance is restricted. The building is a huge fortress that dominates the landscape over rice fields. Everything inside was pretty much as it would be in America: very shiny and put together. The automatic toilets and dryers in the bathroom freaked everybody out haha. The program in the morning was led by some of the Malagasy women who work at the Embassy. They talked about their jobs and responsibilities and, more importantly, how they got where they are. We also invited a women’s’ group from Tana that works with an education volunteer to come talk. They had doctors, dancers, and politicians, so a very wide variety of successful women. We had lunch at the Embassy (also they have a VENDING MACHINE. Mind=blown) and then headed out to the large stadium in the center of town. There we talked to a girl’s soccer team. The players ranged in ages from 16-23. There was a bit of a miscommunication (the girls thought we were playing them) but then they agreed to talk to us a little about sports and health. We were also trying to emphasize that girls do not need to conform to gender stereotypes and can do anything boys can do. The girls (and chaperones) ended up being nearly offensive to these girls, telling them they looked like boys. This sparked the idea in the other volunteers and myself to lead a stereotypes discussion later that night. We focused on the assumptions people make about men and women, and also about “vazaha” (foreigners) and Malagasy. The result was actually really good. Without pointing people out (very bad in a collectivist society) we were able to communicate that they may have made these girls feel bad, and not to behave that way in the future.
Day 4: EDUCATION
The next day we headed to the University of Antananarivo in Ankatso, where we had students and a professor we knew (who studied at Cornell) talk about their university experience and how to get into university here. Some of the girls were a bit young to take this really seriously, but a few really understood that you have to start preparing early if you want to do well enough on your high school exit exam to go to college. In the afternoon we went to Education USA, a center in Tana that focuses on helping Malagasy students apply to and fund a college education in the US. They also do a lot of English tutoring. While this is likely impossible for a lot of the girls, if they aspire to go to school in the states and end up continuing their education in Tana or even finishing high school it will definitely be a success for us. We also had a couple girls that if they work really hard they have a real chance. There are also a ton of resources there on undergraduate and graduate programs, so the other volunteers and I browsed graduate material in the back and discussed our future plans. Still don’t know where life will take me yet!
Day 5: ENVIRONMENT AND FUN
At night on days 3 and 4 we showed the BBC documentary on wildlife in Madagascar IN MALAGASY. I gave the wonderful documentary to my grandparents for Christmas before I left, but I had no idea it had been translated. Such a wonderful thing for these people to have, because most of them do not understand or appreciate the unique flora and fauna that is endemic to Madagascar. So on Friday when we went to the zoo in Tana, the girls were enthusiastically reading the signs for the different animals and talking about what they had learned. I was really excited to see them actually synthesizing information and applying it. Also bonus: while taking pictures of some of the lemurs, a zoo worker motioned for another volunteer, Amy, and me to come over to him, and told me (in French) that the lemurs give kisses!! I am sure this was not something condoned by the zoo, but he knew he could get a tip if he let the two vazaha girls play with lemurs. He led us to an enclosed area where the backside of the lemurs’ cages were and opened the door to three different types of lemurs consecutively. Then he put honey on our hands and cheeks and the lemurs licked it off! It tickled sooo badly, and was ridiculously adorable. Definitely a personal highlight to the zoo trip. After we left the zoo the plan was to take the girls to the top of the hill where the Queen’s Palace (Rova) overlooks the city. Well, when we got there the gatekeepers were refusing to let the other volunteers and me in for the resident price. Vazaha have to pay 10,000 MGA (about what I make in a day), while the Malagasy only pay 500. The rest of the volunteers and I fought them on this for some time, telling them we were volunteers and showing them our residency cards. One of the guys even told me I was American and friends with Barack Obama so I have money. Not true. I asked him if his president gave him money and he just kind of laughed. But here is the best part: when the other volunteers and I decided not to go in and told the girls and the chaperones to go on without us, they refused. They said it was unfair the way they treated us AND MENTIONED THE STEREOTYPE LESSON WE TAUGHT THREE DAYS EARLIER!!! I was so impressed and felt so much love and attachment for these girls, who demonstrated how much they had learned in just a few days. So then we left and took the girls on a shopping trip to buy souvenirs and such. Later that night we helped them plan the presentations they are going to give in their communities in order to spread the information they learned. It was really cool to hear them reflect on all of the stuff and get excited to teach it.
So here is the weirdest thing: the whole week went incredibly well, and the following is a cultural response that both verified the success of the camp, and terrified the American volunteers to our very core. The volunteers and I were watching a movie in our room around 8 pm. Our room is located two floors below the large room where all the girls and chaperones were staying. We started to here a sort of screaming, and at first thought the girls were running up and down the stairs like they had been at 4 am that morning. It starts to get louder, and I run to the hallway to see what’s wrong. There is a girl collapsed on two other girls just wailing as loud as she can. The other volunteers follow me into the hallway, and we start asking the two girls supporting her what the matter was. We got vague answers that didn’t really make sense, and it looked to us like she was incredibly ill and having some sort of fit or seizure. Eric carried the girl downstairs to get some air, while Emma and I went upstairs to find a chaperone. What we found was another girl sitting in the hallway and screaming “jesosy!” (Jesus) over and over again. Emma and I assumed it was an exorcism, which does happen in this country. Then a chaperone came out, looking completely nonchalant, and told us the girls were just sad, the ambiance of the week was so nice and they made so many new friends that they didn’t want to leave the next day. Three floors down Eric was arriving at the same conclusion when a chaperone appeared to help the girl he was with. What we gathered from the chaperones was this was a perfectly normal response, something that actually happens quite a bit. But it scared the living daylights out of us. We also decided that the girl who collapsed on the stairs definitely did it for attention. Since the girls are around 14 or 15, they had huge crushes on our two male volunteers, who are in their early twenties. This girl got exactly what she wanted: Eric carrying her down the stairs, willing to do anything to make her feel better.
So the wailing aside, the week was amazing, and I can’t wait to help the girls conduct trainings in their towns. Also sorry for the novel, but a lot happened!