Like many Americans, I went to summer camp when I was a kid. I have some great memories of my time at Camp Hoover, going on hikes, singing songs, swimming in the lake, learning new crafts, and making friends from all around the area.
As you might suspect, this is not a common experience for Ethiopian children. “Camping” isn’t really a thing here (why would you sleep outside when you could sleep inside?), and “hiking” — climbing up a hill just for the fun of it — is bound to draw attention. Very few people have cars, and travel, even by bus, is pretty expensive for most Ethiopian families. Many people can count the number of times they’ve left their birthplace.
Peace Corps Volunteers in Ethiopia and all over the world have been trying to bring the summer camp experience to children in their host countries through camps centered around certain themes. The folks in my region, Western Oromia, decided to hold Camp GLOW — Girls Leading Our World — at Wellega University in Nekemte at the end of July. Working with Ethiopian counterparts, we spent a week with 35 girls (including 3 junior counselors) playing games, singing songs, doing crafts, and — oh yeah — holding sessions on gender equality, leadership, health, and environmental issues.
I was a little scared on the bus ride there. One camper was puking the whole way. The bus we’d rented was almost silent. The nine girls from my town and the two from another 40km away barely looked at each other. My dread mounted after we arrived: the dorms weren’t ready for the girls; they ate lunch in silence; a downpour, confusion about which cafeteria we were supposed to eat in, and some terrible misur wot made dinner a debacle. The campus was packed with summer students, and since we didn’t know most of the girls, we were terrified one would get lost in a sea of unfamiliar faces.
Finally, though, we were back in the dorms and the campers did a great job of brainstorming rules for themselves. We sent the girls off to bed to write in their journals (more on that later) and the counselors had time to regroup. Together we looked at the programming for the next day, and adjusted the packed schedule on the fly. Sports were a no-go, because we were in the thick of rainy season and the entire campus was just one big mud puddle. We combined some sessions that seemed to have a lot of overlap. Rhetoric was bumped to free up some space.
The next day, we gave the girls bright yellow Camp GLOW t-shirts to wear, thereby making them stand out almost as much as the farenjis. We started off the day with a self-esteem activity and a scavenger hunt to help acquaint the girls with the university. We secured a private space to eat breakfast, and arranged to have lunch and dinner at a restaurant across the street. The girls were divided into four groups — Lions, Eagles, Elephants, and Monkeys — and quickly started competing for spirit points that we gave out for enthusiasm, courage, brains, and thoughtfulness, Hogwarts style. We were in business.
I was really proud of the sessions I helped plan, especially the one I led on HIV, which I’ll write about in a separate post. We handed out journals to the campers at the beginning of the week, and I came up with two prompts for them each night. One, which doubled as a tool for monitoring what they’d learned during that day’s session, they were to answer in English. The other was intended to be a little more reflective, and could be answered in whatever language they chose. I worried that they’d view the journal writing as a chore, but the girls were consistently eager to write in their journals. One evening, we decided it was too late, and that journal time would be canceled. I’d already written out the day’s prompt on a piece of flip chart paper, though, and some girls found it. When they were supposed to be getting ready for bed, we came across them in the dorm lounge copying it down.
It was a long week. Every day, we were up with the girls by 6:30, and our nightly counselor meetings kept us up to at least 11. Despite the stress, all the counselors held it together — no one got snippy or slacked off. The Ethiopian counterparts and junior counselors were amazing, and consistently went above and beyond what we asked them to do.
Most gratifying was the girls’ eagerness to share what they’d learned — everything from gender roles to friendship bracelets — with their friends back home. We gave them time to plan girls’ clubs while still at camp, and the campers from Mettu had their first meeting a few days after they got back. They all showed up in their bright yellow t-shirts. I almost cried.
Pictures to come.