Monday, July 28, 2008

Girls Leadership Conference

I’m back down in Kedougou this week for a girls leadership conference that a few volunteers have organized. They invited 26 of the top female students from the area. They asked Awa Traore, one of the women I interviewed for my film, to run the conference. First off, Awa Traore is on e of the most passionate and dynamic speakers I’ve ever met. She works at the Peace Corps Training Center in Thies as the Cross-Culture trainer and as the SeneGAD (Gender and Development) advisor. For the past few years she has helped PCVs facilitate girls meetings and conferences focusing on some relatively taboo subjects like Aids, underage marriages, and rape as well as the softer topics like education, self-confidence, and independence. A few of us met with Awa last night to talk about the plan for the conference and it was classic Awa. She had a long list of issues she wanted to discuss with the girls and she noted our suggestions as well but told us that the sessions would inevitably be shaped by the dynamic of the group and the girls’ level of interest in the topics. She told us about her experience doing this in Tambacounda last year with a group of 30 girls where one of the girls told the group she had been raped. In Senegal, this speaking out about sexual abuses is extremely uncommon and is often considered culturally inappropriate. But these are the types of barriers that need to be brought up and discussed with the youth; with the future of this country. These girls are smart and motivated and capable but the system they are working in is flawed. Girls are supposed to go to school through sixth grade while learning how to cook and clean and then they should get married, drop out of school, and start having children. They should not stand up to men. They should be obedient and submissive. Awa has come to show these girls there’s another way. They can make decisions about their own lives; whether they want to get married at an early age or not, whether they want to quit school or not. And so this morning at 9am, the doors of the Peace Corps CTC (Community Training Center) in Kedougou opened up to the 26 girls invited to the conference. It’s incredible to see the change the girls go through from just one day of talking. In the morning, they were all so scared and timid but within a few hours of discussion and activities with Awa and the PCVs, they were pumped up and excited. You could literally see the empowerment happening. This girls leadership conference was an experience unlike any other I’ve ever had. To see these girls be so engaged and encouraged by such a wonderful role-model, you just wouldn’t believe it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Kedougou, the 4th, and beyond…

Recently, I went down to Kedougou (on the boarder of Guinea) to the infamous annual 4th of July party. Some friends and I actually left a few days early and went for a bike ride out to a village called Segou. We arrived as the sun was setting and talked to the guys at the campament about staying the night. They told us that a few days before, the wind had taken off some of the hut roofs but if we wanted to we could still stay there. We put our bikes and bags away and walked to the stream just down the path. We all waded out into the water to rinse off and cool down. Some of our bike ride had been through the rain but by the time we got to Segou, the storm clouds had passed and the stars were out in full force. We all gathered around the two candles they gave us at the campament and made dinner… Avocados, canned lentils, limes, mustard, and mayonnaise on bread. And for desert we had peanut butter and mango jam sandwiches. So good. That night we all slept great and the next morning we headed out to the waterfalls. We biked about 30 minutes, then parked our bikes and started hiking. About 15 minutes in, there was this beautiful pool where we stopped and swam. We passed two more swimming holes on our way up to the falls. When we got to the falls, there was already another group of Peace Corps volunteers there. They had stayed at a different campament about 20k away. We all scaled the rock wall a few meters up and jumped into the deep pool below. It was incredible. Of course on our way out, as we were all drying off, we saw two water snakes on the rocks nearby.
The party itself was fun. A giant piƱata full of pints of whisky, cigarettes, and candy. Horse shoes, bocce ball, and beer pong for the more athletic types. And fresh palm wine out in clay pots. The music was good (if only all the speakers worked). The food was great – vats of humus and babaganoush. The dance party wasn’t quite the sexual frenzy it had been the year before but it was still fun. I got a chance to stay in a hotel for the weekend and that was incredible. A giant hut with a shower, air-conditioning, a ceiling fan, comfortable clean beds… what more could you want. Oh, and there was a pool. So sweet.
These days I’m in Tambacounda working on my next film, “Tree Nurseries of the Sahel”. I’ve asked fellow PCV Caitlin Givens to come on as the producer. I’ve written a script and had it translated into French. I’ve drawn up the story boards and cut out and organized the collage materials. Caitlin is writing a proposal for a small grant from the US Embassy in Dakar to cover our costs and we are still looking for local music. I am also hoping to reach the artist in Dakar about doing some of the cell animation of trees growing. If all goes as planned, it will be done and on DVD by the time I leave.
Of course, I am also very excited about the arrival of two of my friends, Duncan and Sahil. They are coming at the end of the month and they’re staying for 3 weeks. I’m going to show them around Senegal, take them down to Kedougou, bring them to my village… I can’t wait. I haven’t left on vacation my whole service so I’m treating this trip as my vacation. Just traveling around, doing the tourist thing a little bit. I’m also interested to see their reactions to things I’ve become accustomed to. And as it turns out, I think I’ll be saying good bye to my village the days that Duncan and Sahil will be there. So that will definitely be interesting. Then, once they leave, I’ll be in Dakar for our COS (close of service) conference and then I’ll stay in Dakar to work on the tree nursery video for the month of September. Then, October 1st, I fly out – to Fatlanta – to my friends and family – to breakfast burritos and IBC root beer… Inchallah.