Friday, September 26, 2014

Schooled by High Schoolers

Tiny projects impacting a small community of people may seem like a pebble dropped in a river, compared to massive aid efforts conducted by international organizations. But sometimes the ripple effects of those little projects can stretch farther than you ever expect! 10 Senegalese high school students showed me that.

Just last weekend, we finally wrapped up Kolda’s first ever “Leaders of the Future” Youth Internship Program, which provided 10 local high schoolers (5 girls and 5 boys) with summer internships at different organizations and non-profits in town. 

Me (bottom right) with the interns and Peace Corps Volunteers

The project was a lot of work to organize! Thankfully, I was able to recruit 6 other Peace Corps Volunteers to help manage the interns. And it was all completely worth it now that we’ve seen how much it impacted these youth, who had never been exposed to the “professional world” before.

I say “youth” and not “kids” because the students we selected ranged in age from 17 to 21! Sadly, many youth in Senegal don't graduate from high school until a much older age than the ideal, for a variety of reasons. Girls may drop in and out of school depending on whether they get married young or have a child. Youth living in poverty may take time off to support their family or help out at home. 

On top of that, the French school system here in Senegal is tough. Americans have it easy in comparison! The system here requires students to pass two major cumulative exams at the end of middle school (the BFM) and high school (the Baccalaureate / “Bac”), in order to receive their diplomas. Thought the SAT was hard? It’s got nothing on the Bac. And no university here will accept a student without it, nor will most decent jobs hire someone without it. 

The result is often a frustrating cycle for students who are held back year after year as they try to pass the exams. My own host sister, Aissatou, is 23 and still hasn’t received her high school diploma yet, though she studies hard every year trying to pass the Bac. Some say the system is rigged, since “there isn’t enough space at the universities anyway.” I don’t know the truth, but I do know it’s rough out there for Senegalese youth.

I could go on for pages about the problems with the school system here, but I digress. Instead I’ll swing the focus back around to the awesome group of people I had the privilege to work with. 

Getting the Community on Board

Our community partner at Alpha Molo Baldé High School, Vice Principal Idrissa Diédhiou, really made this project possible. From the first day when I plunked myself down in his office to propose the idea, he was on board. He already works harder than any school official I’ve ever met: in addition to his work as VP, he’s also a Student-Teacher Advisor, a part time English teacher, and PhD student in Literature. A man of many hats.

The high school

Vice Principal Diédhiou giving a motivational talk to the interns

Diédhiou really believes in providing opportunities beyond the classroom for his students, so he appreciated the internship concept right away – even though it’s kind of a foreign idea for Senegalese high schools. As soon as I explained the idea to Diédhiou he spread the word to students, and ultimately helped me filter through the 50+ applications we received. We then interviewed the 20 finalists and chose the 10 winners. 

Based on their goals and interests, we matched each student with the organization that best fit. The participating organizations included 6 development/aid organizations, a pharmacy, a hotel, an environmental protection agency, and a local radio station. It took a lot of biking all over town to explain the project and convince these organizations to accept an intern in the first place, but by the end of the program they all seemed glad they did. One supervisor even showed up unexpectedly at the Closing Ceremony, just because he was so proud of his intern.

Intern (Mamadou) making his final presentation with his supervisor present.

Mini Professionals

As for the interns themselves, they really exceeded everyone’s expectations. We already knew they were some of the school’s smartest and most motivated students. But it wasn’t until the end of the program, when they made their final presentations, that I realized just how much knowledge they’d acquired. They had become mini experts in their chosen fields, in just 5 weeks! Compared to where they started from – many of them had little or no computer skills, no knowledge of the work NGOs do in Kolda, and no professional work experience – it was pretty impressive. 

One intern, Diénaba Dabo, even teared up a little as she explained what the program meant to her. She had interned for an NGO called 7a. “I learned so much thanks to this program,” she told us. “7a really became my family. I had no idea about the work they were doing here in Kolda, but now I understand their programs, and I asked them if they could come start a project in my community.”

As a result of her internship, Diénaba actually conducted house-to-house visits herself to gauge the need and interest of her neighbors, based on what she had learned at 7a about community development. She was ultimately able to establish a women’s economic group in her community and link them up with support from 7a. 

How amazing is that? It’s not often in Peace Corps that you get to witness a project with an immediate tangible impact, changing someone’s life and rippling out to impact her community.

The other interns also gave pretty powerful presentations. They were able to articulately describe their organizations and the type of work they do, as well as answer pretty intense questions from their peers. By the end of the day, we’d had discussions about everything from Family Planning (i.e. birth control) to child malnutrition, the health risks of female circumcision, women in the service industry, the separation of religion and work, what makes a good journalist, enforcement of environmental regulations, the benefits of loans v. grants to communities, and agricultural techniques. 

I felt like a proud mama listening to them debate! Except I really can’t claim any credit. They sure schooled us.

Check out our 10 interns and their stories:

Diénaba Dabo
Grade 12
Intern organization: 7a, an NGO conducting local projects in community development, health, and food security.

Diénaba, age 20, is our most curious and enthusiastic intern – never afraid to ask questions or give her opinion. She lives with her parents, 5 brothers, and 4 sisters in Kolda and speaks Pulaar, Wolof, French, Mandinka, and a little Spanish and English. After high school, she plans to continue her studies at university and become a magistrate or an engineer, though she is also discovering an interest in community development projects. “I always had the ambition to help the people in my community, to contribute to their success,” she says. 7a loved her and invited her to extend her internship for two additional weeks.

Demba Balde
Grade 11
Intern organization: Eaux et Forêts, an environment protection agency.

Demba Balde, 21, is our smooth-talker, quite capable of making the ladies laugh. He speaks French, Wolof, Pulaar, and little English. After high school he hopes to attend university in Canada and study geography. He is interested in development, agriculture, and the environment – a perfect match for Eaux et Forêts. The organization “took me in like I was one of their own,” he says – even if they did chase him down to shave his head military-style!

Malick Diallo Biaye
Grade 11
Intern organization: Radio Nafoore, a local news and entertainment station.

Malick, age 19, is the spunky one of the group. He was born in Tankanto Escale Village and now lives in the city of Kolda with his parents, 2 sisters, and 4 brothers. He speaks 5 languages (French, English, Wolof, Mandinka, Pulaar). Before his internship with Radio Nafoore, Malick wasn’t sure whether he wanted to go into teaching, journalism or commerce some day. After working at the radio station, he says he’s decided that he wants to pursue journalism. 

Aissatou Diallo
Grade 10
Intern organization: Tostan, an NGO working in child and maternal health, community development, and child protection.

Aissatou may be only 17, but you’d never know it: she’s calm, mature, sweet and reliable. She speaks French, Wolof and Pulaar. Since she told us she was interested in health and the sciences, we paired her with Tostan, an NGO active in many health projects. The projects that interested her the most were those combatting female circumcision and early marriage, and it’s clear she has a passion for women’s health. Tostan has become her “second family,” she says. This program was the first time she learned how to use a computer.  

Mamadou Baldé 
Grade 11
Intern organization: ADC/Ninnaba, an NGO working in community development, agriculture, and environmental projects.

The oldest of the interns, Mamadou is 21 and the head of his household in his father’s absence, taking care of his mother, 3 sisters, and 3 brothers. He speaks French, Wolof, Pulaar, and a little English, and he is very interested in agriculture and the environment. “I really want a professional training in agronomy,” he told us when he applied for the internship. “I am responsible for my family, and I want to succeed in life and help my mother.” Mamadou says he has now learned environmental strategies that he can apply at home. His supervisor appreciated his work and has invited him to come back for future seminars and trainings. 

Amadou Bassirou Bâ 
Grade 11
Internship organization: FODDE, an NGO working in community development, health, food security, and the environment.

Amadou is 19 and lives with his mother, 2 sisters, and 3 brothers in Kolda. He is interested in health and development and he speaks French, Wolof, and Pulaar. We placed him with FODDE to give him some experience in community health projects. “I want to learn to express myself publicly and work well with others,” Amadou told us at the beginning, and it’s true: he’s the shyest of the group. But by the end he had come out of his shell a little.  

Fatou Ba 
Grade 10
Internship organization: Agence Regionale de Développement (ARD), a big agency targeting many different aspects of regional development.

Fatou is 17 and best buds with Aissatou. She is one of the best computer users and speaks Pulaar, Wolof, and French. Since she was a child she has wanted to be an engineer for NASA, she tells us. During her internship, she was given a thick manual on the agency to learn – and she aced it. She has been invited to extend her internship for a few additional weeks.

Abdourahmane Diamanka 
Grade 10
Internship organization: Koldoise Pharmacy.

Abdourahamane speaks 4 languages (French, Wolof, Pulaar, and a bit of Spanish), is very interested in health, and is a member of the science club. He wants to go to university in Dakar to study medicine and would like to work in medical research. “I want to be able to help people with their needs, especially in the health sector,” he says. “Health [is] a problem in Senegal, particularly in the rural communities that lack hospitals and personnel. That’s the reason why I’m interested in health. I want to become a doctor and achieve my dream, which is to construct a hospital.” He did so well working at the pharmacy that his supervisor showed up at the Closing Ceremony to show his support.

Hawa Diamanka 
Grade 10
Internship organization: Hotel Hobbé. 

Hawa is a courageous girl, not afraid to defend herself and stand up for women. It’s not easy in Senegal to work in the service industry, but she tackled it with a big smile. Hawa speaks four languages (French, Pulaar, Wolof, and English), is interested in health and accounting, and enjoys her sciences classes. “During summer vacation I’m [normally] here in Kolda doing nothing, and I want[ed] something constructive to do, to gain knowledge,” she says. She performed so well as jack-of-all-trades (server / receptionist / cook) at Hotel Hobbé that the manager even left her in charge of the entire hotel occasionally!

Fanta Baldé 
Internship organization: Child Fund, a nonprofit organization working in health and community development.

Fanta is 20 years old and married already – but that hasn’t stopped her from continuing her studies! Fanta was born and raised most of her life in Dakar, though she lives in Kolda now with her husband. She speaks Wolof, French, and a little Pulaar. Her areas of interest include health, accounting, and the sciences. “I wanted to do this internship because I’m thinking of the future, of tomorrow’s success,” she says. Every week that I met with her during the internship, she spouted off enthusiastically about something new she had learned about: Family Planning, child vaccinations, the dangers of post-partum hemorrhage, baby weighing and malnutrition screening. 

Tips for any volunteers looking to replicate this project in Senegal:

  • PCV project leader should have a professional level of French, in order to create documents and interact with the organizations.
  • Constant follow-ups with participating organizations are vital. If you don’t remind them, they will forget. Drop off the letter of invitation (which they will lose), and then follow up a million times: to assess interest, to get them to fill out the paperwork, to inform them once their intern is assigned, and then again before the internship starts. Some of them will try to cancel with you at the last minute. Il faut insister, quoi!!!
  • Add a line item in the budget for phone credit! I killed my credit during this project making so many phone calls to interns and organizations. 
  • It seems like 6-8 week internships would be more ideal than 5 weeks. The students really do value the experience more than the money they’re receiving (we gave them a small stipend at the end), and they all said they would like to continue. Many of them have extended their internships and are now just working for free. 
  • Orientation day and computer lessons before the internship starts are essential! Many students in Senegal somehow still make it through high school without learning how to use a computer (not sure how, since most city schools have computer labs now). The computer lessons were something I decided to add to the program, and I’m really glad I did.
  • It’s a great idea to invite a motivational speaker to talk to the students at the Orientation Day before the program starts. We chose the lovely Mama Awa Traore to talk to the kids about making smart choices, and they loved her.
  • Teach them how to make their own CV/resume – they loved this, and it gives them a tangible proof that their new computer skills are useful.
  • Divide up the interns among several PCVs – each volunteer should have charge of 1-3 interns. Volunteers should with their interns each weekend to check in. Have them fill out work logs.
  • Inform the students ahead of time that they will be giving a final presentation after the internship ends; help them figure out what they will say. Give some tips on public speaking (Senegalese youth tend to speak pretty softly when put on the spot…)
  • Encourage interns to stay in touch with their supervisors and to ask about future job openings, letters of recommendation, “attestations,” etc.
  • We did not have room in the budget to invite the interns’ parents and supervisors to the Closing Ceremony, but it turns out everyone would have preferred that they be included.
  • Make it fun! Play music at the ceremonies, make jokes with the interns, show you can relate to them as a young professional yourself. (They’re really not that far off from our own age!)

Me and Aissatou

Mamadou making his final presentation

Aissatou at her Tostan office

Orientation Day 

Computer lessons!

Awa Traore giving an inspirational talk to the interns during Orientation Day

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Miracle Tree: Article published in The Culture-ist!

Attention all nature-lovers, humanitarians, gardeners, or organic food aficionados: ever heard of Moringa, the "Miracle Tree"? Curious how one little plant can make a huge difference for nutrition and community development in tropical countries around the world?

Check out my latest article / photo essay published with The Culture-ist, an online travel magazine, to learn more (and to see photos from one of my biggest projects here in Senegal)!