Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Kamp Kerou – Where Kids Can!

For the past year I’ve been organizing a girls’ youth camp

for thirty girls here in Kerou. The goal of the camp is to encourage young
girls to have and then achieve their goals, as well as teaching them about
sexual health and reproduction.

Thankfully I was lucky enough to partner with one of my good

friends Kimberly Sanders from California, who helped out with a lot of the
logistical planning and report writing. I prefer working on teams and she was a
great partner. I also had three other volunteers help out and be camp

Kamp Kerou consisted of 30 girls from CEF Kerou chosen by

their grades, class particpation, and overall personality. Nothing is worse
than having a camp where no one is participating in the activities, songs, and
games. I also employed the assistance of five female professors from my school.
These women were fantastic. They were just as engaged as the girls. They
encouraged the girls to raise their hands, gave anecdotes about things they’d
experienced as girls when they were the campers’ ages. Their experiences had a
profound effect on the girls. The counselors were able to show them that they
too had been in the exact same situation and had found a way to succeed. (Being
a school teacher in Benin is a very good job, especially for a woman.) I
wouldn’t have traded their presence for a million cfa.

The week was filled with laughing and learning and playing

and participating. I truly believe that we helped to open the eyes of at least
a few girls who had never before thought they could become something other than
mothers. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) This could very well have
been the first time that someone, especially someone with stature such as
teachers, has ever told these young girls that they could dream about a future.
In Benin one isn’t really encouraged to dream to live above one’s family. If
you’re from a family of farmers, you’re to be a farmer, etc. They feel that if
you want to be something else it’s because you’re ashamed of where you come
from, or you think you’re better than your upbringing. (An idea that is not too
different from those that some have in the U.S.) We had a career panel with a
midwife, teachers, the school accountant, Peace Corps volunteers, and a local
business woman. The girls asked great questions from “How did you put off being
a mother to become a professor?,” to “What did your family say about you
leaving your family to go off and learn?,” to
“How did you pay for your education?” You could really see the
excitement and genuine inquiry in their eyes. Another one of those moments
where you know you’re making a difference.

At the end of camp the girls put on skits to show what

they’d learnt throughout the week. There were presentations on “Sex for Grades”
(which is an unfotunate reality of the Beninese education system), “Proper
Menstrual Hygiene,” and “How to Keep Boys at Bay.” All of the girls had a great
time with this activity. It was their chance to get up and give the
presentations instead of watching them. Most made us laugh, some made us tear
up as girls shared their experiences of losing their virginities as a frightfully
young age, and most made us proud. You’re never really sure if your audience as
received your intended message, let alone understood it. After seeing their
skits, it was clear that both had been achieved.

At the very end we had a little dance with the girls and the

counselors. We all got together and showed off our moves. The girls showed us
how to dance properly Beninese style, doing the yam pile dance, and other
various village dance moves, and we showed them how to fist pump!

It is routinely said that camps are the highlight of a

volunteers service. The curriculm is usually your own. You’re not being
critiqued by Beninese inspectors. You’re teaching material you know in your
heart to be critically important to the development of your students, and is
not covered in the classroom, and more often than not, never broached in the
home. These camps are an opportunity for us to have direct contact with the
girls on a level that potentially could have the most profound effects. Kamp
Kerou was surely one of the brightest and most rewarding experiences of my
Peace Corps service.

I want to give the biggest THANKS I can give to all of those

who donated to Kamp Kerou. Without your generous support this camp never could
have happened. Rest assured knowing that you not only helped us teach girls how
to achieve their dreams, but also plan for their futures, and you all paid for
another year of schooling that was surely not assured. You’re all heroes to
these girls. Thank you so much.

Class Dismissed

My second year of teaching in Benin ended with little
fanfare, no parties, less than average drama, but with quite a bit of

Year two was definitely easier, as I was more familiar with
the Beninese education system, the curriculm, and I didn’t have to teach 4th
grade. I prefer my students be able to understand simple phrases like “I am Mr.
T,” and “Sit down and stop talking!” 6th grade students (4eme in the
Beninese system) are older, more engaging, and more experienced. This means, in
my opinion, you can be more daring and creative with the material, as well as
introduce teenage/puberty-related topics. Don’t forget that at this age some of
them are having children, working 20-30 hours a week, and, though not many,
some are contemplating leaving school and becoming full-time adults. We
broached topics such as alcohol, smoking, HIV/AIDS, sex, sexual health, healthy
living practices, and abstinence. It was obvious that some of the kids, because
they still are kids, were reticent to participate in class, but there were many
who were quite learned on the dangers of drinking too much and having too many
sexual partners. (I’m not sure I want to know why/how.)

I had one class that was filled with bright students. And,
those who weren’t bright enjoyed participating. This class was literally the
highlight of my teaching week. We played games, laughed, learned, and generally
had a great time in class. My two favorite students were also in this class: a
girl named Faida, who was by far my best/favorite student (and is pictured next
to me on my Facebook profile picture), and a boy named Joseph, whom I taught
how to play chess. They were engaging in class. They participated daily, if not
too eagerly. They asked questions that demonstrated their understanding of the
material and desire to use/adapt/modify it to previous lessons. They encouraged
others around them to participate and rarely
disrupted the classroom. You could not have asked for better students. I
promise you, I will surely miss them both.

After my last day of class I felt both joy and sadness. I
was excited to have completed the two years of teaching obligatory to my
service, I accomplished something; I struggled, I prospered, I tried, I failed,
and, for lack of a better word, I taught. I stood in front of 70 studnets per
class with two two-hour long classes a day and found a way to overcome so many
obstacles to imbue an understanding, if though merely cursory, of the English
language. Most days didn’t go according to plan, but I found a way to make it
work. Somedays I left skippy and jocund, others I left distraught and downtrodden.
But, looking back on my two years as a teacher, I wouldn’t have changed a
thing. I challenged myself to not let hardships overcome me and to always look
for a solution. Sometimes I had to reteach things three or four times, but
progression was made and I know my students are better for it.

Before teaching in Benin, it was my job to “teach” people
about advanced automotive teachnologies; to breakdown complex ideas and
concepts into digestable content suited for all. I think my experience in Benin
has heled me hone my abilities to break down different concepts and ideas
making them accessible to a different audience. I know that my teaching
experience has made me a better “teacher.”
Will I ever be a classroom teacher again? Not sure. I’d love
to be a professor later on in life. I can think of nothing better at keeping
someone young at heart that surrounding themselves with the freshness of youth
and eagerness to learn one experience in a classroom environment.

Thanks to all of you who’ve supported me throughout these
two years by sending markers and supplies. I promise you it was appreciated by
more than just me.