Sunday, March 30, 2014

Youth Empowerment: not just a camp but also a lifestyle

I am unsure if this week will ever go as planned. It seems like forever that we have been working out the details, running around town finding trainers, securing financing and nominating children to participate, but the time is finally here. Kids hide behind their parents as they walk up to the welcome table with their little bag full of nothing more than a change of cloths and maybe a toothbrush. The first activity, a simple name game to get them familiar with each other, goes about as you would think considering it is the first activity of the first day of camp. Students are shy. Speaking softly. Referencing nametags. Unsure of how to act around the foreigners and what exactly they can get away with. The sounds of laughter slowly start to become more apparent as clicks are being made and our walls start to come down as we feel more comfortable laughing and joking along side them.
There are certain projects that you do because it is a part of curriculum of your specific sector, there are the ones that you do to help a friend out with and then there are those that you do for yourself. At the end of the day when kids are harassing you, the sun seems unbearable or you just miss home it’s the projects that you do for yourself that keep your attitude positive and the future bearable. The Velingara Work Zone held a Youth Empowerment Camp for 24 students (12 girls and 12 boys) during Easter vacation over a period of four days and three nights at a hotel two kilometers outside of town at the Campement Lew Lewal. While planning of the camp took more time and energy than I think any of us had planned it was well worth it considering how well it turned out. Camps in Senegal tend to focus on English or girls so we wanted to be sure to include the boys (gender equality!). This allows the kids to work and play together, which doesn’t seem to happen all too often considering the gender gaps that still have a large role in the Senegalese culture.
The 13 volunteers that participated in the camp each planned at least one session in various areas including: a career panel (my session!), personal financial management, yoga, tae kwon do, gender equality, first aid, reproductive health, theater and leadership. Sessions were put on by the volunteer in some circumstances but for the most part they were led my local counterparts, or host country nationals in PC lingo. At the end of the camp it was obvious to see, and made perfect sense, that the sessions that was led or assisted by a local counterpart were more successful. The kids don’t have to worry about trying to understand us and they got the exact message not the one that we knew how to say.

One thing that I took out of the camp that I didn’t think I would was an attachment to the students. The first day was a little awkward as far as how we all interacted with each other but with the passing of each meal or session the kids quickly became a little bit more comfortable with us and were soon enough dancing, laughing, mouthing off (there were a few sassy kids) or hanging on us as if they have known us forever. There was one moment specifically where one of the male students Suleman had to try and pickup one of the girls during the Gender Equality session. He had kids rolling around on the floor laughing and covering their mouths trying to prevent whatever that may come out; I don’t think the kids could have had a moment like this together if it would have been a session on the first day. There were just not there yet.
Our work zone plans on replicating the camp next year and future years to come; unfortunately, I will be basking in the luxuries of America and will be unable to attend the camp but I have full faith in the volunteers in our little corner of Senegal. Our hard work paid off and we proved not only to ourselves but also to the students in our area that while sometimes our mission and objectives may get lost in our work we can produce projects that will influence for a lifetime.
When asked what some of the kids wanted to be once they grew up we found ourselves in the presence of future lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, teachers and government ministers. While I have no doubt that they are able to accomplish these great dreams I just hope that their surroundings don’t get in the way. Girls get pulled out of schools to get married, boys work in their father’s shops and everyone finds themselves in the fields if the season is right. Let your youth grow and get an education Senegal, because whether you like it or not they are the future and will run this country someday.



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