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Friday, April 11, 2014

Fighting for Girls' Education

Want to push a region's development and reduce poverty? Educate the women. Want to increase public health? Educate the women.

It's been proven: studies have linked education of women with reduced child and maternal deaths, improved child health, and increased income for families. The World Bank reports that a girl with an extra year of education can earn 20% more as an adult. Educating girls can break cycles of poverty that have kept their families spinning uselessly, stuck in a rut and seeing no way out. Educated girls are less likely to marry early and more likely to send their own children to school.

Despite these facts, a gender gap in education still exists today, with girls around the world struggling to receive the same access to quality education as boys. Women’s literacy rates are significantly lower than men’s in most developing countries.

In Senegal, the literacy rate for adult women (age 15 and above) is 39%, while men are at 62%, according to UNESCO. Many girls drop out in middle school, often due to early marriage or pregnancy - or simply because in a poor family, limited resources almost always go to the boys' education before the girls'.

The Peace Corps Michele Sylvester Scholarship (MSS) Program is our effort to help close that gender gap in education and encourage young girls to remain in school. The scholarship provides money for the school fees and supplies for 9 girls at each middle school working with a volunteer.

This will be my first year doing the project, and I've already approached my local school - Sikilo Ouest Middle School - and they're very excited to be involved! The girls will be nominated by school faculty members, and finalists will be selected based on their personal essay, their grades, financial need, an interview with the volunteer (me), and teacher recommendations.

This is an issue I really care about, on a deep personal level. Not just because I'm a young woman myself with strong opinions on gender equality, but because I've lived and worked and joked around with so many young girls here in Senegal who could have such bright future if given the chance! But so often, society doesn't give that to them. It hits close to home, too. One of my own host sisters (a family cousin) never finished school, falling victim to early pregnancy twice and deciding that she had no academic future. Even though I disagreed - it's never to late to try again - she left our house a few months back, and no one knows what she's doing now. It was sad and frustrating, and I hated that everyone dismissed her as a lost cause. No one is a lost cause.

But there are bright spots. I've met young women who stuck it out and completed their education, found jobs, and now radiate success and purpose. Recently, I was able to interview a young woman here in Kolda who received the Michele Sylvester Scholarship in 2002. Listening to how much she's been able to accomplish in her life was like a breath of fresh air!

Aissatou Diallo, now 28 and working as a community health agent at the NGO Child Fund, is a staunch supporter of girl's education. She says the scholarship motivated her to keep studying, and now's she able to give back to the community by focusing on child and maternal health.

"My friends who didn't finish school, their lives are very different," Aissatou told me. "They've been married since middle school."

Check out the quick video I made of Aissatou's story:

As you can see, these young ladies are real - they exist - they are right in front of me, every day. This scholarship program may seem small, but it can be just the little bit of help that a struggling family needs to keep their daughter in school.

To bring this program to my local middle school, I need to raise $180. Donations would be greatly appreciated! Just $20 provides a scholarship to one girl and ensures that she can attend school next year and purchase all her school supplies. (That's a lot of money here, believe it or not!)

Anyone interested in contributing can donate here, through the Peace Corps website. Please be sure to note: “For MSS scholarships in PCV Lauren Seibert’s site of Sikilo Ouest Middle School, Kolda.”

Thanks for helping us empower girls and women in Senegal!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Empowering Youth: Change Starts Here

Take a look at this photo taken during our Bagdaji Youth Empowerment Camp last week. What do you see?

Besides some crazy expressions (including mine)... what I see is a sea of smiles. Really, look carefully: not a single kid in this photo looks bored or irritated, like we’d expect from at least some kids in a group of teenagers. Instead, I see laughter, intelligence, mischievous glints in dark eyes, and pride at being selected for the camp.

This was the second youth camp I’ve participated in during my Peace Corps service - the first one was an English Camp in Dakar (not an overnight camp). This one was even more fun.

What does Youth Empowerment Camp look like in Senegal? A little bit of everything! We mixed art and sports and fun with important life lessons, exposing the kids to things they’d never yet had a chance to experience. Tie dye, dodge ball, tag, intro to karate and self defense, theatre skits, discussions on health issues and gender equality, a career panel and life planning sessions, art, a game teaching money management, movie/popcorn night, spontaneous dancing to Beyoncé, and more.

Karate session
Nutrition activity
Musical chairs (with human chairs!)
Tie-dyed shirts
In general, the camp aimed to equip these kids with the knowledge to live healthy lives, express themselves, and pursue their dreams. 12 girls and 12 boys, the best and brightest of middle schools throughout the Kolda region of Senegal, were invited to the four-day camp. Some were from the city, some from small towns, some from villages. Over half of these students had no electricity at home. It was a big mixing of worlds.

Happily, all 24 showed up, enthusiastic but unsure what to expect. There aren’t many camps for youth in Senegal, so many people here don’t actually know what a “camp” is. (And I’ll tell you, it’s pretty amusing trying to explain the concept in Pulaar…)

Once we got to know them, it was clear that these were really some of the most awesome kids we’d ever meet. They were extremely smart. Most spoke at least two languages (Pulaar and French), and some spoke three or four (Wolof, English). Throughout the four days of camp, they participated eagerly in every activity. They soaked up the knowledge that we and our Senegalese partners showered on them, asking questions and taking notes. One kid - a tall 16-year-old always dressed like he just stepped out of a men’s magazine - couldn’t be torn away from his notebook. It was funny, but great at the same time: apparently you can take notes and still be fly.

In fact, a lot of these kids dressed pretty fancy. With the heat in the upper 90s (Fahrenheit), it’s normal here to bathe 2 or even 3 times a day - but some of these little fashionistas actually changed clothes each time, revealing 2 or 3 new outfits in one day! Considering they all arrived with one small little backpack or sack while we volunteers lugged large duffels, we still don’t understand it. Magic bags??

Bringing the Camp to Life

For an event of this size, you need a lot of help. (Just to give you an idea, this project took about 6 months to organize and required a decent sized grant!) Two Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), Alexia Kime and Sophie Danner, were the camp leaders in logistics and planning - but the camp was really the collaborative effort of many. A local NGO, Ofad Nafoore, hosted us during the camp. Senegalese partners (nurses, teachers, local professionals) were also invited to help out with various activities. About 13 PCVs participated in the camp, each of us taking on different sessions.

I helped organize the art session, teaching the kids how to make animal dot paintings loosely based on the concept of Aboriginal dot painting. (Thank my trip to Australia for the idea… yes, Aus is still on the brain.) But the kids loved it, and while some chose to copy our samples, others took plenty of creative liberty. Check out my little artists:

I also helped out with the session on First Aid, along with a few other PCVs and a local health worker who brought her medical kit to show the kids. We taught them what to do for heat exhaustion, burns, cuts and other injuries, and choking. The Heimlich maneuver was probably the biggest hit of that session. One group of kids even surprised us (and cracked us up) by including it in their theatre skit later:

Heimlich during their theatre skit
First Aid session
In addition, two community health workers came to talk to the kids about sexual and reproductive health - everything from puberty to STIs and HIV. We split into two groups, girls and boys, so they’d feel more comfortable to have a discussion. Many of them already knew a lot, but some didn’t. The girls asked a lot of questions, including: can you play sports while it’s your time of month? What can you do about the pain (cramps)? Happily, all of the girls agreed that their monthly cycle shouldn’t prevent girls from going to school. Traditional views used to keep many girls home for an entire week each month, but thankfully that’s not often the case any more.

Reproductive health talk
One of the best sessions during the camp was a discussion led by Peace Corps employee Mama Awa Traore, our beautiful, regal Senegalese guru. This woman is amazing - you can tell just by looking at her in photos. She knows how to command an audience to rapt attention - and how to get us laughing.

Mama Awa Traore

This time Awa talked about sexual equality with the kids, asking questions to see what they already knew about topics like early marriage and school dropouts, gender roles, and other sensitive subjects. She handled every topic bluntly, but gracefully. She assured them that it’s normal to have boyfriends and girlfriends at that age, but they have to be smart about the choices they make.

“They say that girls in Kolda are beautiful, but easy,” she said to the kids. “Why?”

Responses on why early pregnancies were so common in Kolda centered on the reality of poverty. Lack of money means girls might jump at the chance to have a man give them money or clothes, or the girl’s own mother might even prostitute her daughter for money (this is rare but does happen, sadly - one of the girls in the camp had seen it herself). Teachers have been known to get their own students pregnant. It’s a vicious cycle.

Awa wanted the kids to know that there is a way to break that cycle, and that is through respecting yourself, having life goals, and pursuing an education. “Do you know your own mind? Do you know who you are? Do you know what you want?” she asked them. “You have to know and respect yourself. Only education can get you out of poverty. It’s not the 1,000 or 2,000 francs someone gives you, it’s not the clothes someone gives you.”

She also encouraged the kids to expand their horizons on roles for men and women. “A woman can fly a plane, a woman can be an electrician, can build a house,” she told them. Anything is possible.

One of the other most inspiring sessions of the camp was the Career Panel. We had invited several Senegalese professionals in various careers to come and speak a little to the students and answer questions, discussing their own experiences and how to achieve success in life. Speakers included two nurses (female), a community organizer for Child Fund (female), an information technician (male), a social relations manager for a construction company (female), an agronomic engineer from World Vision (male), and two teachers (male/female).

Career Panelists' Advice / Experiences:
  • “Be proud of what you are.” —Sali Baldé, Ofad Nafoore
  • “If you wake up in the morning and you have no destination, will you end up somewhere? He who manages his time well is he who succeeds.” —Luc Manga, World Vision
  • “Accepting that you’re a student means accepting that you have a teacher, even if you don’t like him.” —Mamadou Diao, Information Technician
  • “All my girlfriends were married at a young age, but happily my father refused. He encouraged me to study.” —Aissatou Diallo, community organizer for Child Fund's maternal and child health program
  • “There’s one teacher I will never forget. He would even come visit me at home, and if he’d find me in the middle of cooking dinner, he’d say, ‘No, this girl shouldn’t be cooking, she has to study.’” —Mama Camara, nurse

Interviews conducted by students during Career Panel
Career panel
Following the career panel, we had another session on future planning to encourage the kids to follow their dreams and set concrete goals to get there (e.g. finish high school and pass the Baccalaureate, get a scholarship, go to university or trade school, do internships, etc.). We also had the kids draw what they envisioned as their future (dreams/goals/interests). ...And yes, I drew one too!

My self-portrait (travel, journalism, writing/photography)
Among the kids we had a range of career interests, from doctors to teachers, journalists (woohoo), and three future Presidents of Senegal (two girls and one boy)! Mamadiang Diallo made sure we knew that when he became President, his ministry would contain large numbers of Diallos and other important family groups (last name jokes are a big thing here).

Mariama Diallo wants to become an eye doctor / ophthalmologist. 
By the end of the camp, the kids were all thick as thieves and had all exchanged phone numbers, just like any summer camp in the States! At our closing ceremony with the kids and their parents, we learned that many of their parents hadn’t actually finished school themselves, and they regretted it the rest of their lives. They told us they were extremely proud of their children for doing so well in school and being selected for this camp.

“Everything we are doing here is to support you, but the most important thing is to say, ‘We can do it,’ and push until you do it,” our PC Volunteer Support Assistant Tidiane Diao told the parents and students in the audience. “To be educated is to know how to better handle things, how to better take care of your life, how to better help people to achieve their goals.”

Of course, education comes in all forms - not just what you learn at a desk in school. We’re hoping this camp gave these kids some of the tools they need to succeed both in the classroom and beyond. Also, if one of these kids ever becomes President of Senegal… we got the hook up!

Tidiane Diao giving his speech
Making tie-dye shirts

Camp housing

Gender equality: boys can serve the food too!!


Me with my group of kids from the city of Kolda

Me (camp photographer!) and my PCV friend Tasha (camp dance queen!)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Fairly Crazy

Through a combination of enthusiasm, sweat, and creativity of necessity (and maybe a few tears and hysterical laughs), a team of four people including myself managed to pull together this year’s Kolda Regional Fair. I have never planned and coordinated an event of this size before. It was a massive undertaking, from the planning and budgeting to the weekend of the 3-day event itself. Countless things went wrong (pretty much inevitable with projects here), but somehow it all came together! I can tell this event means a lot to the community, so even though we all went a little crazy making it happen… I’m happy we did it.

Despite the fact that Kolda is one of the most fertile and agriculturally rich regions of Senegal, the poverty and malnutrition rates here are some of the highest in the country. To help combat this and show off the true potential of this region, the Kolda Agricultural Fair has been an annual event since 2011 – an ongoing collaboration between PCVs and local partners. The Fair promotes the development of the Kolda region by providing an opportunity for artisans, entrepreneurs, agricultural producers, NGOs, financial institutions, and small business owners to get together and share best practices, demonstrate new techniques and technologies, promote and sell their products, and have discussions about community development issues.

This year, an estimated 400+ members of the public attended the Fair over the course of the 3 days. 43 participating groups (over 140 individuals total) had stands in the Fair, displaying their products and offering demonstrations. Products and technologies on display included: solar pumps, moringa powder, packets of dried mangos (yum), mango jam, moringa soap, fonio (a kind of grain), beans, rice, shea butter (known as “karite” here), curd (called “kossam” – sour milk frozen into a yogurt-like treat), hibiscus (“bissap”) juice and tea leaves, fruits and vegetables, beautifully embroidered clothing, batik, artwork, herbs, baobab fruit powder, cashews, tomato paste, juices and syrups, cheese, and more.

Packets of local herbs
Batik clothing. I love the elephants!

Astou Mballo, tailor (Endam Couture), and her beautiful clothes!
Local produce
Ma Baldé and her women's group selling honey!

Baobab fruit, bissap (hibiscus), and more ground into powder form. Just add water, and presto: you have tea/juice!

Solar water pump
Locally made jams. Banana, Papaya, Mango... yum. 

I had to run around like a madwoman most of the time making sure everything was going smoothly, but when I had some time to browse the stands, I found some exciting stuff. In particular, I fell under the spell of everything mango – mango jam, dried mango. Kolda produces so many mangos each season, but so many of them go to waste due to poor transportation and export systems. You find yourself craving them months before they’re ripe, especially in this heat. Now I could taste mango before the season even arrived! Score.

Fair co-coordinator Mountaga Baldé with a bag of dried mangos 
Me with Mountaga, trying to get things organized!

Another reason to be happy: we had expanded the Fair this year beyond agriculture and into health (I am a Health PCV after all!) and the arts (throwing a youth talent show). In the health domain, we had free HIV testing and booths / discussions on family planning.

The booth raising awareness on Family Planning

The talent show was held in three parts each night of the Fair, with four middle school groups and one youth association competing. We had a dance competition the first night, theatre the second night, and singing/rap/poetry on the last night (slightly a smorgasbord of categories, I realize). Watching these kids do their thing was both hilarious and inspiring (depending on the performance!). Over 80 youth total competed, with more than 200 people attending the performances. During the theatre night, the kids actually performed skits on family planning and early marriage – with no prodding from me! I was surprised, but proud of them for their initiative.

Theatre competition
Theatre - a sketch on early marriage and how young girls refuse to let this be their future!
Dance competition - boys team doing breakdance
Dance competition - girls doing traditional style. It was great! (this team won)

Double Horizon members (local youth association) who competed in the talent show
PCVs at the judging panel!
Theatre sketch (on Family Planning). Yes, they painted white beards onto their faces. Love it!

Singing/rap competition

While a huge undertaking for one PCV to take on (in the past it has been a team of 4 or 5 PCVs), one of the Fair’s successes, in my opinion, is that we’ve begun to pass over ownership of the Fair to the community. Each year the initiative has relied heavily on PCVs to fund the project and provide much of the leadership. This year, there were no other PCVs available to lead the project except me. (Ahh!) However, since the community members really valued this initiative and wanted it to continue, I agreed to help make it happen.

As my caveat, though, I chopped the bloated Peace Corps grant budget in half from what it was in previous years and insisted that the community members find other sources of funding... and they did!

The burglary that occurred (when my house was broken into and 300,000 CFA - about $600 - worth of this grant was stolen) was a big problem for the project, and as a result we had to shift around a lot of the expenses in the budget. However, with local organizations (PADEC and World Vision) stepping up to become partners in the Fair, we were able to meet all the expenses of the original budget. This means much more of the responsibility went into local hands, and we are now in a transition period into handing over the Fair into local ownership.

In addition, the Senegalese members of the Fair organizational team each took on extreme amounts of work to make this event happen, because they really believed in it. Mountaga Baldé, one of our coordinators, took up a post at the Conseil Regional and was there all day, every day for two weeks leading up to the Fair in order to oversee construction of the stands and register participants. This was all without being paid. Basically, he put in over 80 hours of office time for free!

The other members as well went out of their way to bike all over town, following up with partners and participants, making purchases, printing documents, promoting the fair (radio, fliers, posters, and word of mouth), and getting as many people involved as possible. Just think... if this event were happening in the States, all we'd have to do is post it on Facebook, make some calls and emails, and half the publicity work would be done! What a different world.

Fair organizational partner Tidiane Diallo in front of his NGO's stands (PADEC) 

I'm really excited that the Fair has become a continuing Kolda tradition and source of pride for the community. Strolling around visiting people’s stands and asking about their work, it became clear to me that each individual vendor really believed in their products and in the potential of the Kolda region. From the vendors to the sponsors to the talent show contestants, the Fair highlighted to me just how much the people of Kolda – both young and old – really care about their future.

Traditional music

Advice for PCVs planning a Fair like this:

  • Plan ahead (start 6 months in advance – we did this and it was just enough time), and don’t cram most of the activity into the month before the Fair (we also did this, by necessity, but avoid it if you can).
  • Get local organizations involved (especially as sponsors). We couldn’t have accomplished the Fair this year without local sponsors!
  • Organizations who offer to contribute financially should make their decision and sign a contract much further in advance. We were waiting until only weeks before the event to hear back from people! 
  • Add a contingency of minimum 10% of the total budget for a project of this size and scope, to cover all the last-minute expenses.
  • Be wary of cutting out expenses just because you think they’re silly – often they’ll end up being thrown in at the last minute anyway. (For example, “motivations” to public officials to come and grace the Fair with their presence. I did not budget for what I viewed as a bribe, but other team members ended up paying it anyway, because that’s just how things are done here. If you want officials to show up at your event, you have to pay them.) 
  • Start more than 1 month in advance if you plan to have a talent show, to give the teams time to practice so nobody panics. Have something to give every participant in the talent show, not just the winners (they will be disappointed otherwise). 
  • It’s better to hold an activity like this in the center of town to attract more visitors. People don’t like going out of their way, even if it’s just a 15 minute walk.
  • The Fair Organizational Team should consist of more than 4 people taking on most of the work. 6-7 people sharing responsibilities would be preferable.
  • Maintain a running list of participants in all parts of the Fair (service providers, CBOs and individual vendors, organizations, financial institutions) with their contact information. 
  • Keep paperwork and records of everything!
  • Laugh at anything and everything to keep your spirits up and keep the planning team on friendly terms. Don’t worry about appearing crazy – if you’re taking this on, you already are! (In the best way.)
PCV friends who showed up to check out the Fair... and have some kossam!