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Dateline Burkina Faso: Girls’ Camp (Part II)

What social and cultural factors made planning a girls’ camp in Burkina Faso both challenging and rewarding?

January 9, 2007

What social and cultural factors made planning a girls' camp in Burkina Faso both challenging and rewarding?

Despite our best efforts, though, we failed in one respect — in recruiting only village girls. All the girls who came from outside Djibo were indeed daughters of farmers.

However, of those who came from Djibo, only a few were village girls. In fact, only a few were from Djibo — and some were actually from Bobo-Dioulasso, or Ouahigouya or some other large city.

At first, this was a source of frustration, but in retrospect I think having the mix wasn't such a bad thing. After all, it was interesting for the girls to interact with students from different backgrounds — and it gave them new perspectives.

Moreover, while at first most of the girls only spent time with their friends from school, a few of them took our exhortations to get to know each other better very seriously and went out of their way to get to know girls from other villages.

The camp got off to a slow start because some of the girls didn't show up. In part, there was some confusion about the starting time, and in part some of the girls who were supposed to come had to stay at home to work in the fields with their parents.

However, eventually all the girls arrived. And after the initial panic, when I worried about what we would do if no one came to the camp, we were able to get things under way. Right away, I felt that the months of running around preparing the camp had been worth it because of how enthusiastic the girls were.

We began with little artistic activities, like self-portraits made from magazines that we had brought, and then we moved on to more serious talks. Topics included women's versus men's roles in Burkina, where the girls hoped to see themselves in the future, and so on.

We tried as much as possible to alternate serious activities with fun ones, so we went from discussing women's roles to playing soccer or frisbee, or followed up on discussions about, say, resisting peer pressure, with skits the girls invented about situations in which they had to practice what they had learned.

As it turned out, putting on skits was a hugely popular part of the camp. Most of the girls, and especially the town girls, were huge fans of Latin American soap operas, in particular a show called Monica Bravo, which I am told is Mexican.

As a result of these television habits, most of the girls had a rather skewed idea of how to act. When they played men's roles, they used exaggeratedly loud, low voices and lots of grunts. As women, they were prone to wild sobbing and occasional dramatic fainting fits when they rolled all over the floor, usually as a result of a father's tyranny.

But they enjoyed acting, and we enjoyed watching them plan and put on their skits. The excessive emoting really gave the shows a certain something. I don't know how else a skit on, say, excision, could somehow provoke fits of hilarity.

The other great hit, at least according to the girls' written evaluations at the end of the camp, was playing soccer. The first time we played, it was in the beginning of a sandstorm.

I was the referee — and it was fantastic fun to watch the girls run around excitedly. Some of them played very well, while others excelled at shrieking and kicking other girls' shins. My favorite player was Clémence, the youngest girl, who spent the entire game jumping up and down and turning cartwheels. Only once, I think, did she get near enough the ball to give it a kick.

And when the wind started blowing dust into our eyes and I suggested we go indoors, the girls looked at the rapidly approaching rain — and said they didn't mind the sand, if they could just keep playing. How do you say no to that? We played until big drops of rain started to fall, after which we all sprinted for the classroom.

But the point of the camp wasn't all just fun and games. We had discussions on women's roles, on their dreams for the future, on possible careers, on decision-making. Many of the girls cited "traveling outside of Burkina" as one of their dreams, and especially traveling in an airplane — usually to Canada. Health was an important theme, especially HIV/AIDS, and this is where the staff members of Action Sociale came in.

They led all the sessions on health. They arrived on the third day of camp — and stayed throughout the day. They explained how one contracts different STDs, how to protect oneself — and, of course the all-important question of how to resist men who pressure girls into having early sexual relations.

We volunteers didn't have a lot of work that day. We were there to help the social workers if they needed us, and we provided the food. Apart from that, we just admired how well the girls responded to the discussions. Again, I was in awe of Marguerite's contribution.

She talked to the girls about abstinence, and the girls took in her words, calling her "Tantie" ("auntie") and completing her sentences for her. She was a wonderful role model for them.

This is not to say that everything was perfect. I was a little disappointed by the last day, when we met with women role models in Djibo. All day, girls went out in small groups to meet career women in Djibo, asking them questions about how they had achieved their position — and how they balanced home life and work.

Perhaps because the girls weren't used to the field trips that are common in other parts of the world, they were uninterested and mainly stuck to the list of questions we gave them. Their reports on the women they talked to were also uninspired. They cannot be blamed for not responding to a new method of education, but I was disappointed because I felt that some of the women were such powerful motivators.

One of them in particular was very enthusiastic and had great stories about how she had gotten her job. She had so many words of advice and encouragement to offer the girls that it was a shame they weren't more interested in what she was saying.

The end of the camp was also a bit of a letdown but, on our part, I think that was a result of general fatigue following a week of running around worrying about logistics and making sure everything went smoothly. The girls were tired too, and there was drama when some of the girls wanted to watch their soap opera, but permission was denied because we had other activities planned.

As a result, two girls tried to sneak off to see their show, and I had to reprimand them for it. I probably lost some popularity points from having to be the disciplinarian at that moment, but it was better not to ignore this behavior and I certainly didn't feel bad denying the girls their soaps.

Fortunately, that event happened on the last night of camp, and the next day was the closing ceremony where the girls performed the skits they had prepared and got certificates for their participation.

There are some things I would change for future camps. For instance, I would probably modify the sessions we held somewhat to better apply to the girls' situations, and I would try to encourage even more community involvement.

But it was satisfying to see what we could accomplish with limited supplies and a small budget, and to see how the girls became more and more involved in what we were doing as the week progressed. In the end, the girls learned a lot, and as far as I could tell had a good time doing it. That’s all one could ask for.

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