By Shannon Johnson, TEFL volunteer
“Oui, nous pouvons” chanted fifty students from CEG Gamia. Yes, they can, and yes they did. Over the course of a three-day holiday, twenty-five boys and twenty-five girls participated in Camp Gamia, an initiative to spread gender equality, information, and fun to the student population. A boy and a girl from each class from 6th to 8th grade were selected to attend.
Months before the local camp, the five boys and five girls who participated in the national camps for boys and girls expressed interest in sharing what they had learned. They had a vision—a local camp that was not separated by gender. So, with the French teacher who had attended Camp Glow, we began planning. The national campers were designated tutors who would organize sessions, songs, and be leaders of smaller groups of students. Each tutor chose one or two sessions to present to their fellow students. The weeks preceding camp, we reviewed songs, the steps for a solid session, and public speaking tips. They were pumped. The administration was also supportive of the camp as a cultural activity, a way to develop student leadership and discuss important topics. As such, the local camp was fully-funded by the CEG’s budget, a rare occurrence with Peace Corps projects. The local camp proved to be much less expensive than a national camp, without the costs of travel, lodging, lunch and dinner.
Finally, the day of camp arrived. We waited anxiously to see if, after all the preparation, the students would actually show up. We set up the rooms, got water ready, and discussed the first few sessions at 7 am. Finally, at 8 am, students began to flood in. Out of the 60 nominated students, over 50 showed up to attend the camp. We were thrilled, knowing that students had to get special permission from their parents. Normally, schools breaks are an opportunity for these children to contribute to their families’ income by selling food in market or working in the fields. The students were split into teams of different colors that represented “les petites familles” with ranging age and genders, with tutors as the “grand frères” and “grand sœurs.” Throughout camp, teams would compete for points in competitions and behavior, with a special prize for the winning team.
We set the base framework of Camp Gamia by the first two sessions—self-confidence and gender and sex. For self-confidence, we encouraged all the students to speak comfortably and express their ideas, even if they may be wrong. Each student wrote a positive characteristic as well as a negative one on small sheets of paper. We formed a large circle outside and triumphantly ripped up the negative characteristic and threw it on the ground—BAM—representing that we have the capability to change our negative characteristics and that they don’t define us. The gender and sex session was the major basis for gender equality for the weekend. We defined the difference between gender and sex, the first a social construct and the latter biology. We established that sex doesn’t change over time or in different locations. The parts of our body remain the same. Gender, though, varies and changes constantly. Ultimately, this broke down the argument that girls were incapable of doing well in school or working and boys were incapable of doing household work. The students also created typical daily calendars for boys and girls and compared them, realizing that girls have less time to study at home because of their chores. For the rest of camp, we established that boys and girls would split the work evenly. One boy and one girl would be in charge of fetching water, cleaning the room before sessions, serving food, and cleaning plates for the next three days.
The first day of camp continued to address gender. The subsequent sessions on the importance of girl’s education and violence against women further established that educated girls and women were more likely to be autonomous, without having to rely on other people for their basic needs. We discussed the four types of violence, agreed that all are present in Gamia, and that is it easier for educated women to leave situations of violence. The tutors were especially helpful in these sessions by performing skits and leading group discussions.
A variety of sessions filled the second day of camp, starting with a session on waste management. The students competed to find the most trash in bags. I had never seen kids so enthusiastic about collecting trash! The schools grounds were spotless after the 15-minute competition. The students learned what to do with different types of trash, and we set aside pure water sachets to use to plant Moringa trees later in the day. Other sessions for the second day included how to study, Moringa, and nutrition. Students took home two seeds of Moringa in a small, plastic nursery.
For the last day of camp, the main sessions were family planning, STDs, consent, malaria, and black is beautiful for the girls and alliance with girls for the boys. At the end of the last session, all of the students practiced putting on a condom, knew contraceptive methods, and how to avoid malaria and STDs. My counterpart, Delphine, talked to the girls about skin whitening and why they should be proud of their black, beautiful skin. They saw pictures and photos of successful, beautiful black women. The boys in the meantime discussed how to help the girls in their lives against unwanted pregnancies, violence, and abandoning school.
After four sessions a day, every day was filled with fun activities—competitions to see which team can build the strongest house made out of straws and tape, egg drop competition, a “color hunt” for hidden sticks, and finally, an obstacle course. Each day the students chose an elective, art or yoga, both led by tutors. We sang many songs, the most popular of which was boom chica boom.
By the end of camp, the students were motivated to share what they had learned with others in Gamia, their families, their friends, etc. Since each class had one boy and one girl represented at camp, the pair planned what they wanted to share with their classmates. We finished the weekend with one final chant “Oui, nous pouvons!” cementing that the students are capable of addressing these important issues in Gamia, particularly gender equality. It seemed that the students were more open and at ease in this local camp than national camps because they were in a familiar place with many familiar faces. They were not afraid to point out what the village says about gender and family planning—the ideas that girls cannot do well in school and that women who use birth control will cheat on their husbands. By their openness, we were able to discuss the realities of village life frankly. By the end of camp, boys were offering to wash the dishes, sweep, and get water without being asked, a sign that change is indeed stirring in the “gros village” of Gamia.