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Dateline Burkina Faso: Girls’ Camp (Part I)

What challenges did Peace Corp volunteer Nathalie Boittin face in organizing a camp for girls in Burkina Faso?

January 8, 2007

What challenges did Peace Corp volunteer Nathalie Boittin face in organizing a camp for girls in Burkina Faso?

I am now just over a year into my stay in Burkina Faso and am therefore about halfway through my Peace Corps service. This is simultaneously heartening (I just survived a year, so I can make it through a second year, right?), a little depressing (I haven't managed to do nearly as much as I would have liked to so far) and sometimes even a little motivating (just a year left to get stuff done, so get to work!).

The end of this year in Burkina was marked by a girls' camp in Djibo, the town nearest my village. I am quite proud of this camp because for the first time I can claim I played a significant part in organizing a major event.

Previously, I had participated in events that other Peace Corps volunteers had organized — most notably a bike-a-thon in which volunteers biked from village to village talking to people about HIV/AIDS.

However, I hadn't been the one spending months organizing the bike-a-thon. I had just shown up for the last week, after all the hard work was done, to help with the events. For the camp, however, I was one of three volunteers who were largely responsible for setting things up.

We had specific goals in mind for the camp. We wanted it to benefit about 20 young teenaged girls from four middle schools in or near Djibo. The idea was to plan various activities to prepare the girls for the future. The girls were selected with the stipulation that all of them should be good students and all should have parents who were farmers or herders.

The reason for encouraging schoolgirls to pursue their studies is that of those few girls who are sent to school in this country, many drop out either at the beginning of middle school or in the last year before the high school entrance exam.

The reason for selecting solely village girls was that we had to limit the number of participants somehow, and we decided that daughters of civil servants would be more likely to receive encouragement from their educated parents, while village girls don't get much encouragement at home.

We volunteers were not alone in planning the camp. The camp would not have taken place if not for the community members who participated both in planning and carrying out camp events. Community participation is important. The Peace Corps used to put on camps organized and funded entirely by Peace Corps volunteers and related organizations.

However, this is an unsustainable path, and it is better for all concerned to have the community involved in the camp as much as possible so that locals would be able to plan camps in the future — without Peace Corps involvement.

Accordingly, our main community partner was the DPEF, the Directrice Provinciale de l'Education des Filles — that is to say, the woman responsible for promoting girls' education in Soum (the province of which Djibo is the capital).

Every province in Burkina Faso has a DPEF, and Marguerite, the Soum province’s DPEF, is a wonderful woman. She is absolutely tireless in organizing anything that could possibly benefit women in the province.

When I was organizing the camp, it seemed that every other day I was coming to her office, asking her where the camp would take place, who would prepare food, who would lend us mats for the girls to sleep on, and so on. And for every problem, she found a solution.

Others, too, were pivotal in organizing the camp. One was the director of the Lycée Provincial de Djibo (the regional high school), where the camp took place. When Marguerite and I went to see him, he not only let us have one of the school buildings for the camp, but also gave us pens so the girls could take notes on what they learned.

He also helped us select the girls who participated in the camp, by contacting the respective school directors in the villages so they could decide which girls would best fit our criteria. Finally, we got help from Action Sociale, an organization that has offices all over the country and that intervenes in basically any kind of problem that arises — from AIDS to excision to forced marriage.

The organization lent us material and also came to the camp to lead sessions on health — in particular STDs and AIDS — as well as on how to manage relationships with boys. Since people in Burkina don't talk openly about sex and STDs, this kind of session is important so girls can learn about the dangers of unprotected sex.

Yet, for all the people who were helpful, there were many more who weren't remotely cooperative. For example, at one point we had a little problem with an invitation we wanted to send to town officials inviting them to the closing ceremony on the last day of camp.

As I believe is true in most African countries, protocol is extremely important in Burkina Faso. I couldn't just write a letter directly to the departmental prefect. Somebody above the camp organizer would have to be the one humbly requesting the prefect — or the haut-commissaire or the mayor — to honor us with their presence at the ceremony.

I couldn't understand why the man responsible for this task in the administration’s hierarchy was so reluctant to write a short letter, considering that the only thing we had asked him for apart from this letter was his approval and some notebooks.

It was particularly frustrating given that nobody else could write the letter except for him due to strict adherence to hierarchy. It was disheartening coming to terms with the lack of enthusiasm for the camp in many quarters — and all the more so because sometimes lack of enthusiasm became passive resistance.

When I tried talking to other people in Djibo about the camp, the number one reaction was, "Why a girls' camp? Why not a boys' camp?" Even after I had explained to one man our reasoning — and he had been unable to counter all my arguments — he still asked me "Why only girls?" every time I saw him.

Because many people were so unhelpful, the role of the woman who served as the DPEF and the wonderful workers at Action Sociale became all the more important.

While we volunteers had lots of ideas for educational games we could play with the girls to teach them about various topics, the Burkinabès who would lead sessions were already familiar with how the girls were used to learning things, and so their words were much more likely to resonate with the girls than ours.

Editor’s note: You can read Part II here.