One of the biggest projects I've been working on for the past couple of months has been starting a Girls' Club at the high school in my village. I've been working with a group of about 35 girls in the "Premiere" class (the equivalent of sophomores or juniors), mostly ages 16-18. The curriculum I'm using for the meetings is the Peace Corps Life Skills manual. It was originally designed as an AIDS prevention curriculum, though it has many applications. It includes activities that help build self-esteem, emotion management skills, communication and decision-making skills, goal setting, relationship skills, and other healthy positive lifestyle habits. I meet with the girls one afternoon a week for about two hours and do activities from the Life Skills curriculum, along with games, icebreakers, and team-building exercises. Another nearby PCV, Monique, is also doing a club at her middle school. We're hoping that our clubs will lead up to a joint camp this summer where we'll build on the skills the girls are developing and expose them to future career options.
I've had several meetings with the girls so far, and I'm thrilled at how well everything is going. In the midst of some miscommunication, teacher strikes, and a few rounds of cyclones, I was having a hard time getting things started, and I wasn't sure if there was a lack of interest or just a combination of unfortunate circumstances. Finally I had a couple of solid meetings and realized it was the latter. I have an incredible group of dedicated, enthusiastic, helpful girls that completely brighten up my week. We've been meeting on Wednesdays, which is perfect to get over that mid-week slump. The girls have been eager to volunteer to help with skits and other activities I need assistance with, and they are are incredibly patient with me while I try to explain things as best I can in my still-broken Malagasy. They ask lots of questions and are very engaged in the activities.
One of the Peace Corps mantras I've heard many times is, "You won't teach them; they'll teach you," referring to the relationship between volunteer and villager. As always, that has proven true with the Girls' Club too. As much as I have learned about the Malagasy people and culture, I still can't help but approach many things with my American mindset. I often expect an activity to go a certain way and end up surprised by the results. This is definitely not always a bad thing--in fact, those have become the best learning moments for me. At our last meeting, we did an activity called "Statues of Power" (from which all of the pictures in this post came). In the exercise, participants break off into pairs and form statues depicting one person they perceive to have power and one person who does not. I had some guesses in my mind of how the girls might pose for their statues. Instead it ended up providing unexpected insight for me into the local culture.
I suppose it hadn't occurred to me how culturally loaded notions of power are. Wealth versus poverty was one dichotomy a few pairs depicted, for example by having one person give money to a beggar. One cleverly portrayed this by having the powerful person talk on a cell phone. I'd never really thought about how a cell phone--something nearly every American, age 8 to 88, owns--could be seen as a symbol of power. Another pair had the powerful person giving a speech while the powerless person walked down the road carrying a basket of "bozaka" (a thick grass used for building houses, etc.) on her head. But perhaps the most striking element of the exercise for me was the use of the Betsileo hats a couple of the girls had. The Betsileo are the ethnic group in my region of Madagascar. They are known for their handicrafts which include woven straw products, and are easily recognized by the straw hats they wear. Several pairs used the hats as props in the activity, and in every single instance the powerless person was the one wearing the hat. It became obvious to me throughout the discussion that the girls not only see themselves--young females--as powerless, but they also perceive their entire people to be powerless. While I was grateful for their honesty and candor, it nearly broke my heart listening to what they had to say. One of the biggest challenges for PCV's is these moments when we see a great opportunity for community growth but fear that our contributions will be inadequate. I can only hope that as I work with these girls over the next few months, they will come to see themselves the way that I see them. I pray that they develop self confidence, begin to see their strengths, and that their discussions start to reflect a sense of power and pride.
I've also included a video of a skit two of them helped with several weeks ago. I thought it might be fun for you all to hear Malagasy being spoken, and to see what a great group of girls I'm working with. In the skit, Mboty was in Terminale (senior year) before she had to drop out of school because she got pregnant. Amina is a Seconde student (freshman/sophomore). Mboty has been advising Amina to focus on studies instead of a boyfriend, and has given her condoms in the past in case she wanted to become sexually active. Mboty also talks about the challenges of raising a child and the promises her boyfriend made to her that he has not fulfilled. Ultimately Amina confesses that she too is pregnant, and that she thought her decisions were justified because she is in love with her boyfriend and he too has made promises to her. The story was used to illustrate the bridge from information & knowledge to behavior change. Amina had all of the knowledge about how to avoid pregnancy, yet she still became pregnant. The activities we do every week refer back to the "bridge model" and some of the early lessons about Mboty & Amina.