Friday, May 25, 2007

Girls and Guys Leading Our World

Let me preface this entry by saying that sometimes, being away from site-- from work and school-- for an extended period of time causes my English to take a beating. I'm not having the good English at this moment (only the good Namlish, as you can see :) ) so this may not be my most eloquent submission, but bare with me.. I believe it to be temporary.

I’m just now coming to the end of my month-long holiday. This past trimester was probably the toughest one we have seen at the school, and for a number of reasons, so I was glad to see it come to an end with no deaths or serious injuries (this was/is an actual concern). Over holiday I spent time on the coast, as well as in Rundu and Keetmanshoop (if you check a map you will see that these three points are quite a distance from one another—lots of great hiking stories, as always :) ). It was nice to get away for awhile and catch up with some friends.

Hiking on the long road to somewhere.

Though I was technically on break, I did spend part of my holiday working. The first week of my break was spent at a primary school in Windhoek where 80 learners, 15 Namibian facilitators and 20 PCVs met to participate in Camp GLOW 2007.

For those of you who don’t know, Camp GLOW is a United States Peace Corp leadership camp that is offered to young people in countries where Peace Corps Volunteers serve. GLOW stands for: Girls and Guys Leading Our World. In Namibia, GLOW is organized by PCVs who also serve as members of the Peace Corps GAIN (Gender Awareness in Namibia) Committee. Sponsored by organizations such as UNICEF and USAID, as well as individual donors, Camp GLOW provides young people with an opportunity to come together for one week and discuss topics such as gender awareness, the promotion of self-confidence, future career choices, the development of leadership skills, and fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Peace Corps volunteers worked in advance to train young, out of work adult Namibians who in turn helped facilitate these sessions during the camp week. From a large pool of applicants, 80 learners from around Namibia were selected and given the opportunity to come together and learn from one another, to ask questions and to open their minds to new ideas. This was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity for each learner who attended. Extra-curricular camps such as GLOW are non-existent in Namibia-- nowhere else is such a forum provided to young people. Children are spoken to, not spoken with; they are rarely given the opportunity to discuss issues affecting their lives. Camp GLOW gave them these opportunities for the first time.

Though the camp lasted only one week, it took many months of preparation to make that one week possible. As the transportation coordinator for my region (Erongo), I was responsible for getting the 13 learners, 2 facilitators and myself from our homes to Windhoek. Sounds easy enough, no? No. Transportation is never easy here, and this was no exception. After putting in multiple requests for transportation with the Ministry of Youth, and being denied multiple times, I spent the better part of the week leading up to camp on the phone screaming at the Minister of Youth and throwing out every possible threat I could think of in a desperate attempt to have him reconsider my request. As my region is quite rural and all of my learners are very poor, without free government transportation, none of these kids would have been able to attend camp. While I know the Minister understood this, he was more than a little irritated with me, and he used his power to hold out on me until the absolute last minute-- at 11am on Friday morning, the day before camp, my approval came through. Though I know I made no friends in the Ministry of Youth and I doubt I will be able to work very successfully with them again, it was well worth it to ensure that all my kids made it to camp safely.

The campers arrived on a Saturday and camp officially started Sunday morning. We began by breaking the kids up into their teams, trying to split up kids coming from the same areas in order to encourage them to meet new people and make new friends. We gave them some time to come up with a team name and a team cheer, which they presented to the group before we began with the day’s activities. Day one was Character Development Day. In their teams, campers discussed what is “great” about them—what characteristics made them a good and unique person. On small pieces of paper, they coloured and labeled an outline of a person’s body but used words and descriptions that they as individuals possessed. In the afternoon, each camper was given a very large piece of butcher paper. They each were to lie down on the piece of paper and have a partner trace their body. Campers then spent the next few hours decorating their body in an attempt to describe themselves artistically. Using materials such as old magazines, markers, stickers, glitter, yarn and buttons, the kids worked hard on their life-sized portraits. The end results were wonderful and the learners’ creativity really came through. This type of activity is something I feel I did numerous times throughout my childhood, but none of these kids had ever worked on a similar project, a fact that was apparent as we watched them work so hard for hours. It's actually quite rare that they ever get to use art to express themselves, so this activity was a nice change for them. The final products were displayed on the walls of the dining hall we were using, and we encouraged campers to use free time throughout the week to write nice notes to one another on the drawings. (Side note: The volunteers also participated in this activity. Maybe I will post a picture of the affirmations that the kids wrote for me because they are, as you may assume, absolutely hilarious.)

Campers working hard on their life-sized portraits

The final products

For the evening session, we surprised the kids with a visit from one of the biggest recording artists in Namibia, Gazza. Gazza would be the equivalent of someone like 50-Cent coming to a summer camp in the states—he’s a pretty big deal, and the kids about had a panic attack when he walked through the door. He is the UN Ambassador for Youth in Namibia and was very willing to come and speak to the campers, which was really awesome. He opened his speech by asking the kids how many of them live in homes without water or electricity. While most were too ashamed to raise their hands (even though this is a reality for the majority of them), he continued on, and spoke about his childhood, and how he grew up in an overcrowded house filled with poverty; how he grew up just like they are growing up now. Even though he was faced with adversity as a young person, he overcame these obstacles and was able to achieve his dream of becoming a famous musician. It was a gamble having him come because none of us were too sure of what he may say, but his speech couldn’t have been more appropriate.

Gazza, under attack.

Day two was Future Day. The details of this day unnerved us PCVs because for the first time, we were going to take the kids outside of the school compound. The neighborhood that the school was in was not the safest neighborhood, so there was no way we were allowing any of the kids to wander outside the school grounds during camp. However, on this particular day not only were we opening up the gates of the school, we were bussing the kids into the city of Windhoek (the school was in the location outside of the city limits). Organizing field trips with young people is difficult at schools in America. Schools take over-the-top safety measures when they take kids on field trips, even if the kids are only traveling within their own town. For quite a number of our 80 campers, this was the first time they had visited the capital city. Not only that, for many of them, this was the first time they had ever left their village. Coming from a village of maybe 100 or 200 people where you know and trust everyone, and then trying to navigate safely around a city of nearly 230,000 people, where even I don’t always feel safe, was going to be a learning experience for all of the kids. The day started with a tour of Parliament, where the campers got to sit in the huge leather chairs of the ministers and hear about country-wide politics and how decisions and laws that affect them are made. In the afternoon, the learners were given the opportunity to tour UNAM (Namibia’s only university), visiting classrooms and meeting with current university students to hear about their experiences. The 80 learners selected for Camp GLOW are some of the brightest learners in Namibia, and while university is definitely an option for many of them, often times mitigating factors get in the way. I think the fact that these kids were actually able to walk down the hallways and in the classrooms of the university—the fact that now they have an actual picture in their minds of some place they’d like to go in the future—will help them tremendously as they try to stay focused on what they want out of life. And we didn’t lose any of the kids during these expeditions! A relief.

Namibian Parliament

During the evening session of Future Day, we invited Selma, one of our APCDs, to come and speak to the kids. She spoke about how she grew up very poor and disadvantaged, just like many of them; how she had to pound mahangu and work in the fields as a child, just like many of them; and how she worked hard and never gave up, and has now become a very successful Namibian woman. The kids were really able to relate to her, and were able to see that when people stay focused and work hard, it is possible to achieve a better life.

Day three was Teambuilding Day and Camp GLOW Olympics. We started the day in a very dramatic fashion, describing to the kids what the Olympics games are and even staging a mock-Olympic opening ceremondy, complete with cheesy music and a running of the torch. The kids then spent the better part of the day competing against one another’s teams in activities such as the 4 x 4 relay, a wall climb and a water balloon relay (hilarious). After having a few days to get to know one another, the teams worked really well together, not only as teammates but as competitors as well. When one team was successful, the others were congratulatory; and when one team would struggle, the other teams came in to offer words of encouragement. One of the big rules of camp was that all discussions at all times must be in English, so as to avoid excluding people who are coming from different tribes. While this is generally a rule in all classrooms and schools that we teach at as well, we really worked to enforce it at camp, and the kids responded wonderfully. It was the first time I saw a number of kids I know communicate in English with members of their own tribe. During these competitions, it was even more apparent, and it was great to see kids of all tribes and with varying mother tongues become involved in cheering one another on and working together as a team.

Team Fantastic 10. They had to pass all members of their team over the rope without speaking to one another. This is the strategy they came up with.

In the evening, we had another surprise for the campers when the Brave Warriors, Namibia’s national soccer team, came to help close the Camp GLOW Olympics and hand out certificates to the campers. The Brave Warriors joined us for dinner, as well, giving the kids an opportunity to meet and speak with professional athletes from their own country.

The Brave Warriors

Each day of camp was planned and organized by between two and four PCVs. Day four was HIV/AIDS Day, and was the day that I was responsible for, along with two other PCVs. As we knew this day would have the heaviest and most emotional content, we wanted to save it until near the end of camp so that the kids felt comfortable not only with us, but with their peers within their teams so they could have open discussions and ask questions they may have never felt comfortable asking before. We opened the day with a detailed overview of HIV and AIDS—the origins, causes, prevention, treatment, etc. After this session, we broke the campers up into boys and girls and had a boys talk/girls talk that was facilitated by us PCVs. This talk was the type of talk that probably occurs in any sex education class in America, but such classes do not exist here so these discussions were uncharted territory for many of the kids. With the girls, we began by giving them a detailed description of the female body, including the reproductive organs. We spent a lot of time talking about things like menstruation and puberty, as well as discussing cultural myths and taboos, and answering some really great and honest questions from the girls. For our last activity, we all made beaded bracelets that correlated with the average 28-day menstruation cycle (5 beads representing the days of menstruation, 6 beads representing the days the egg grows in the ovary, 3 beads representing the days that the egg is released, etc.), so the girls could track their own cycle and feel more in control of their bodies. While the separate discussions were to be kept completely confidential, we encouraged the male PCVs to discuss the male reproductive organs with the male campers, as well as things like peer pressure and dispelling cultural myths.

The girls, showing off their new menstrual beads.

The afternoon sessions were a bit more intense for the campers. We began with a presentation by two staff members from a nearby New Start Centre. New Start Centres are health centres that can be found in larger cities around Namibia, and offer free HIV testing and counseling, as well as a wealth of information regarding sexual health and prevention. One of our facilitators volunteered to have a simulated HIV test performed on him, which was great for the kids to see because it showed them how simple it is and how it’s not as scary as people may say.

Seboka simulating an HIV test for the campers.

After the simulations, we called the kids together for what we knew would be the heaviest speech they would hear that week. One of our facilitators, a 26-year old woman who had been a great team coach and facilitator the whole week, revealed to the campers that she is HIV-positive. She told her story of how she became infected, and explained to the kids how she is now living positively and educating others about how to stay safe. It was an eye-opening moment for the kids. Here was a woman who they had grown to love over the past week, who outwardly seemed very healthy but who was infected with this horrible disease. They were able to see that it really can infect anyone. They were also able to see that not everyone who is positive exhibits outward signs of the disease—most people nowadays look just as healthy as any of us. Some tears were shed, but I think it was an incredibly important speech for these kids to hear. To end the day on a more relaxed note, we took the campers to Sam Nujoma Stadium (a very big deal), and played some soccer games with them until after dark.

Fun times at Sam Nujoma Stadium

The final day of camp was Leadership Day. The point of this day was sort of to wrap up the week, and discuss with the campers how they can take the things they learned during the week and bring them back to their schools and communities. The kids spent the day practicing things like public speaking and different ways to lead a group. In the afternoon, we allowed campers to get back together with others from the same school or region and brainstorm different ideas for clubs they would be interested in forming once they returned to school. The campers discussed how they would go back and advocate for things like textbooks for all subjects, well-maintained classrooms and hostels, clean-up campaigns for towns or villages, and the appointment of learners on school boards and town and village councils. In the evening, we had a Camp GLOW talent show(also hilarious), and the kids stayed up way past their bedtimes singing, dancing, and exchanging contact information with all the new friends they made that week.

Friday morning, we herded the campers up, put them back on their busses and combis and sent them on their way. My 65-seat bus that we had arrived in had transformed itself into a 10-person combi (knowing ministry transport, this was not at all surprising). Trying to squeeze 17 campers and facilitators, and all of their belongings, onto the combi wasn’t the most ideal travel situation, but as always, we made the best of the situation, and everyone returned to their homes safe and sound.

The back two rows of my combi. There are 6 more people off to the right that you can't see, as well as 3 more up front where this picture is being taken from. It was a long journey home.

All in all, it was a really wonderful week. Sometimes I forget how strongly environment affects children. You get to know the kids and the situations, but you sort of overlook (or don’t let yourself think about) the uncontrollable settings some of the kids have no choice but to live in. The only environments I’ve ever seen my kids interact in are their school and home environments, neither of which are very healthy. At school they are influenced by an overwhelming number of disruptions and bad influences, including their fellow learners and their teachers; at home, they are expected to take care of things and act as adults, not as children. Neither of these venues provides much opportunity for a young person to enjoy him or herself and be happy. Spending time with 80 of the brightest, best behaved and most promising young people at this camp for one week opened my eyes. Their positive energy was contagious, and they fed off of one another throughout the week. It had been a very long time since I’d seen most of my kids that happy. It’s hard to even put into words how great it feels to see a learner who you have watched struggle for months actually smile, be happy and truly enjoy himself for an entire week. Everything else could have fallen apart, camp could have been a total flop logistically, but if the kids are happy and enjoying themselves-- we really can't hope for much more.

Looking at these pictures since camp has helped me feel some sort of inner calm about life here. We talk a lot about creating sustainable projects that will live on after we have gone, and often times it’s hard not to feel like a failure when it seems nothing that I am doing would ever be able to sustain itself if I wasn’t here. I'm not at all trying to say that I have superior abilities or am irreplaceable, it's just that education has a long ways to go here, and often times I can see that the way I do things, the way I have been trained to work, is more than a few years ahead of how things operate here. Sustainability is an inner battle that all volunteers fight throughout our service, and it's hard to know if anything we ever do will really be beneficial in the long run. But lately, I’ve sort of changed my thinking on all of that. I absolutely think sustainability is important, and it will always remain my primary focus (regardless of grade results and pass rates, I still believe education is the most sustainable thing any of us can pass on to another human being); however, creating something truly sustainable in a country as undeveloped and young as Namibia is quite difficult. So, as of late I’ve decided that it’s more important, and more realistic, for me to focus on doing what I can to help people, especially young people, enjoy their lives and be happy while I am here with them. That could mean giving them the opportunity to attend something like Camp GLOW, but it also means doing very simple things like showing movies to the kids at school or spending weekends meeting with my crazy girls club to work on art projects or take walks together. Making a child feel important and that they do have value—while it’s not truly a sustainable project, the happiness that that child will experience, even if it is only for a short period of time, I know is something they will remember for the rest of their lives.

The truth is that often times, there is so much that needs to be done in these developing countries, it’s truly impossible to know where to start, or to evaluate whether or not we are making any kind of difference. As a volunteer, some things will work, and some things won’t. We try and sometimes we succeed, but often things fall apart and we are left feeling unsure of ourselves and our work. However, the influence that we have on kids is evident and is really the only concrete bi-product of my Peace Corps service that I can say, without a doubt, will stay behind after I have gone.

Camp GLOW was absolutely one of the highlights of my service thus far, and I’d like to thank all of you who offered financial support to make this camp happen. Your contributions sponsored the 80 campers, and helped us provided them with accommodation, travel and food for the week of camp, as well as things like art supplies, camp t-shirts, field-trip expenses, invited speakers and more. Without your contributions, Camp GLOW would not have been possible. Thank you all for your continued support of my work in Namibia; your kindness is appreciated.

Camp GLOW 2007


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Cait:

Fantastic report on Camp GLOW--what an opportunity for the young people who were able to participate. So many family members and friends of PCV helped with contributions to make the camp possible for these kids. What a wonderful learning experience. Thank you, thank you. Tell us soon about the winter you are experiencing. Keep the

10:25 PM  

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