By Meaghan Eicher, TEFL volunteer
“On veut l’égalité!” On the steps of the Lycée de Jeunes Filles in Natitingou, 39 voices sang out in harmony, heads and arms swaying in rhythm to the music. “Rinaldo, look at the camera! Marius, smile! Faouziath… get back in line with the other kids!” The group of middle school kids looked at us expectantly, as we tried to quiet them for the millionth time. Julian, our cameraman, waited somewhat patiently for the kids to settle down so we could start the song over again. “Now kids, sing together! Sing louder! And 1, 2, 3, GO!” Take 5.
Welcome to Camp Atacora, Benin’s first co-ed week-long gender-equality summer camp. One afternoon last fall, a group of PCVs were sitting around the Natitingou workstation, talking about food. One of the volunteers, Matt, worked with a local orphanage based in Nati, and was planning to cook a small Thanksgiving meal and have a party for the kids at the orphanage. We started discussing, and thought it would be fun to plan an activity weekend with the kids, like so many of the youth events that volunteers organize. We could do small sensibilizations and art activities with them, like a mini weekend camp. A few of us had participated in camps last year, and were hoping to organize a camp in Nati for the 2016 summer. At first it was going to be a girls camp, then a boys camp, and then a new idea was thrown into the mix. Instead of doing just a weekend, and instead of just a girls or just a boys camp, why not make it a week long co-ed camp? Invite both boys and girls? It would be challenging, but a lot of fun too. Alas, Camp Atacora was born.
In early March, emails went out to the volunteers in the Nati region. “You will hold an essay competition at your CEGs, and will choose two boys and two girls from 6eme, 5eme, or 4eme classes. And you’ll invite a homologue, who will attend a camp training in June.” Documents were sent out, students were chosen, and travel was organized. When camp week finally rolled around on July 10th, a total of 18 boys and 21 girls from 9 different villages around the Atacora region, 7 community partners, and 8 volunteers showed up at the Lycée de Jeunes Filles. It was GO time. The kids were divided into 5 different colored teams, with a volunteer and homologue in charge of each team. Among the 39 kids, 4 of them were invited to be junior tutors and tutrices, a role-model and motivator if you will, for the younger students. For sleeping arrangements, the girls slept in a dorm on the 2nd floor, while the boys slept on the 1st floor. There was 1 female homologue and 5 male homologues in attendance, and they stayed in the rooms with the kids to supervise.
The idea behind the camp was to bring together motivated kids from around the Atacora region to promote gender equality through sensibilizations, discussion, sports, and team activities. In the mornings, volunteers and homologues held sessions and presented topics on: hygiene, malaria prevention, nutrition, moringa, puberty and sexual health, sexual harassment and healthy relationships, strong women and leadership, self-esteem, gender equality, rights of women and children, goal setting, public speaking, sports, and community service projects. In the afternoons, we did STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) activities to stimulate creative thought processes and to enable team work. These activities included building straw towers, building unsinkable boats out of tinfoil, doing an egg drop in which they had to create a stable contraption out of trash to keep the egg safe during a drop, and finally, they built volcanoes using pieces of cut up metal screen and paper mache. One of the homologues was a history and geography teacher, and he gave a lesson on volcanoes. The objective of these activities was to show the kids that everyone has something to contribute. Everyone has different ideas and different strengths, and when you combine those and work together, you can achieve your goals, whether you are male or female. And to have a little friendly fun and competition while doing it.
One of the days, we planned a field trip into town. Since many of the kids are from small villages, for some of them it was their first time in the big city. There is a local library in town, and we organized a career panel for the kids. We invited 6 professionals to attend: a teacher, two librarians, a Peace Corps staff member, a chef, and an NGO worker. They shared stories about their lives, and talked about career possibilities, work-life balance, being a woman in a professional work place, and the importance of finishing school. Afterwards, the librarians talked to the kids about study skills and education, and the kids had the opportunity to explore the library. After the library, we walked down the road to the museum, and ate lunch outside. A local artisan sets up shop at the museum, and we organized a painting session with him. After a tour of the museum, in which the kids learned more about their cultural history, and saw ancient artifacts found throughout the region, they participated in their first painting class. They used their fingers and small knives to spread paints on cloth canvases, in the shape of Tata Sambas. We spent the evening eating dinner and sipping sodas under the trees at the museum. There was a stage in the middle of the outdoor area, and a DJ at the nearby buvette started playing some tunes. It didn’t take long for the kids to jump up on the stage and show off their dances moves. We shut the party down at 9, when the taxi showed up to shuttle the kids back to the school.
The week ended with a relay race and a talent show dance party. The kids competed in a water sachet toss, human knots, a balance walk with cups, pin the tail on the donkey, Frisbee toss, 3-legged race, free throws, wheel barrow, and hopscotch activities. The final win came if the team could properly sing the camp song. Throughout the week, the kids had been practicing a song to the tune of the Spice Girls’ “What I Really Really Want,” gender equality style. The Global Goals was conducting a social challenge, in conjunction with the Sustainable Development Goals. Genesis wrote gender equality lyrics in French to the tune of the song, and the kids practiced throughout the week. We took a few videos of them singing the song, and Roxana put the clips together and made a music video. Overall, it was a fun and successful week. There are always hiccups with events, and small setbacks that you have to work around. But the kids had a great time, and it was an unforgettable week. Hopefully Camp Atacora will become a tradition, and will continue to motivate and encourage the youth of the Atacora region for years to come.