The summer is continuing to rush right along and I haven’t spent a full week in Dogbo for a long while. Slowing down a little and rolling into August feels very needed and is certainly quite welcome. My house is a mess from constantly coming in and out from meetings in different parts of the country. Now that the busiest part of the summer is over I’m so looking forward to getting back to “real life” in Dogbo, keeping my house clean, not living out of my backpack, going to the market every market day, building new relationships and strengthening established ones. As the summer winds down I’ve been thinking about starting bigger projects, getting back to regularly reading and writing, and re-integrating into Dogbo; people definitely thought I left for good, considering how much I’ve been away.
Camp Unité Boys
The project that has kept me preoccupied for months has come and gone and is definitely a source of great satisfaction for me and the other volunteers involved. Peace Corps has several national summer camps around the country covering a variety of different topics. Camps are really popular for PCVs, whether it’s the big national ones or local camps done at the community level. Working with students and young people is a priority for us, as the students today are aware that they will become the leaders of tomorrow. Camps are a great way to share information and practice building skills that kids might not necessarily gain in the French-Beninese school system: creativity, problem solving, teamwork, and self-confidence. After the kids who participate in programs like these return home, they plan a community project to bring what they learned back to their friends and families.
Camp was seven very packed days with 40 students between the ages of 11-16. All of the volunteers worked with their CEGs (college d’enseignement general, or middle school/high school) to identify the best and most motivated students. We were in sessions from 8am until 5:30pm, which included field trips to historical sites in Ouidah as well. All of the volunteers brought a Beninese counterpart from their own communities and our partner organization in Ouidah also provided counterparts. This way volunteers played the role of facilitator, making sure everything ran smoothly and the kids understood everything. The sessions were led almost exclusively by our Beninese counterparts as it’s more impactful for the kids to hear from Beninese adults rather than a bunch of Americans. This helped our counterparts build on their own leadership and organizational skills. While the boys were there to learn, they were also there to have fun. Any break often resulted in most of the kids playing soccer or Lucas teaching how to throw a frisbee, and a last night of watching the African Cup of Nations final.
Camp Unité is a an ambitious project—one week to teach the boys how to live a good life, challenge their perspectives, and reinforce good habits. Most of the sessions fell into the categories of health/wellness, education, or creativity. The health sessions ranged from malaria prevention to good hygiene to sexual health and puberty. It was amazing and reassuring to see our Beninese counterparts be so open with the boys about what healthy sexual relationships are meant to look like. *Insert rant on the lack of sexual education in the American school system* The education-ish sessions included topics like good study habits, positive masculinity (I can’t talk about how incredible this one was), gender equality, fighting sexual harassment, and more. We brought in some guest speakers, like a local musician and an artist. Watching the kids during the music session almost made me cry multiple times, especially when it ended with our guest speaker teaching them a song in Dendi, a Northern Beninese language.
The whole group was split into teams so that kids from all of the different villages could get to know each other and work together. The green team consisted of Amosse, Archinard, Abel, Gérémie, Marc, Kofi, and Romaric, as well as two Beninese counterparts, Benoit and Steve. Throughout the week I got to see équipe verte become closer and work together, demonstrate leadership in their own ways, and find topics they were most passionate about. The kids from Dogbo also made their mark in their own groups and now that they are back in town, they are starting a project on sanitation and trash disposal. They know that this is their project and I’m merely there to help facilitate, so I’m excited to see what they come up with.
In the Voodoo practiced by people in Ouidah, pythons are sacred animals and the Temple of Pythons is one of Ouidah’s most interesting tourist sites. If you tell anyone that you’re going to Ouidah, they will ask your if you held the pythons. And for us, the answer was yes.
We took a walking tour of Le Route des Esclaves, the trail that slaves walked from the market all the way to the slave ships 200 years ago. This was my second time on the tour, this time led by our camp’s main partner Anicet, one of the coolest men in Benin and Ouidah tour guide (on top of running an NGO, writing a book, working with PCVs, and probably seven other things). The kids were really interested in learning the history of the slave trade and asked Anicet lots of questions. But for the Americans in the back, the slave route tour is a very emotionally intense experience that leads to a lot of reflection on the horrors of slavery and it’s lasting impact. Expect a blog post on this before I finish service. The heaviness of the route ends at the beach where a monument marks the Porte du Non Retour, the Door of No Return, where slaves then entered the slave ships for the Americas. Seeing the kids reaction to their first time at the beach, however, quickly lifted all of us. At first a lot of them were scared to touch the water, as the Gold Coast has some of the strongest currents. But once they realized they could put they feet in without a problem, they went crazy.
It’s been more than a week and I’m still tired from it, but Camp Unité was the first time I felt immediate gratification from working here. As a Peace Corps volunteer, any impact you might have can’t be seen or quantified, which is how social change happens. But with camp, we could see the boys growing and becoming wiser over the course of the week. In a country where women are socially expected to defer to men, we saw the boys learn from men they looked up to about how to respect and treat women equally. West Africa is rapidly growing and changing and our week in Ouidah felt like a snapshot of what the next generation of Beninese leaders will look like: young people who respect the environment, empower women, and respect each other. It makes a PCV extremely humble and extremely proud.