December is a month full of holiday spirit back home. It's something terribly lacking in every Peace Corps volunteer's humble existence abroad (though we try to make up for it celebrating together). This holiday season, I have found a spirit (cousin to the glistening, gaudy, tinsel-covered one that has taken over the American Christmas experience) among my Senegalese friends; it is a spirit come from working together for something bigger than ourselves and inspiring one another to try just a little bit harder; it is a spirit that depends hope, faith, love... and isn't that what the holidays are all about in the end?
After last month's inner battle coming to terms with female genital cutting and learning more about this practice worldwide (did you know clitoral excisions were practiced in Europe too through the Middle Ages and Renaissance?), I finally got to address the situation in my region in what I hope will be a constructive manner. My Peace Corps neighbor Samantha and I approched a local radio-journalist, Satou, who hosts a segment on Women and Development at the local radio station. Together, we came up with a program to address FGC, the culture behind it, the health risks, and legal consequences for continuing the practice in Senegal: it's very much illegal, but underground.We enlisted the help of Budi, a local healthworker and former TOSTAN member.
Meeting at Satou's huose one Sunday afternoon, we shut ourselves into her son's hut in a vain attempt to keep out the animal bleats, baby cries, and general background hum of Senegal. During the recording, I am moved by the personal stories they share with me: stories of deception, womenhood, fear, pain, and even death. Although I've tried to keep any bias out of my simple questions, seeking to provide the community with raw facts to make their own judgements, it is clear that my counterparts' presentations cannot be passive: this dangerous tradition is maiming and killing women and girs throughout Africa. It's hard (impossible?) not to take sides when people you know are suffering. The program will air this Monday; hopefully my community and host family will respect the information shared and challenge tradition that is harmful to its own members.
Another face of the Senegalese village woman's reality is lack of education and (hence) profitable econonmic channels. Studies show that women in developing countries who make money spend more of it on their children and family than men that receive the same amount. But how does a village woman come about money? Many of the women in my host village have gardens along the river and have been growing the same produce (mostly okra) for years, selling the fruits of their labor every Wednesday at the big market in Diaobe. The work day after day, but still they have little to show for it; and now, a soil fungus is causing most of the okra to wilt before it bears much fruit. At the open field day my counterpart and I held at our demo garden this October, several women requested training in market gardening and basic money management. Last week, we answered there demand with a three-day training: two days on gardening techniques and the final day about money management.
In a word, the training was successful. Twenty-five women representing different villages along the river showed up. Youssoupha Boye, of Peace Corps Senegal, led the gardening portion, covering everything from the nutritional values of veggies to ammending the soil to organic pest solutions, and everything in between. He joked with the women during hands-on activities, but patiently answered all of their questions. And Hudu Boir, a local finance/entrepreneurship trainer, covered the rest. He led an open discuss of the women's buying and selling practices at the market (assuredly a first for them all) and taught a nifty system for keeping track of their expenditures that even illerate participants could understand.
Of course, 3 days is just skimming the surface. Yet, all the women came to the training everyday, participated, and asked questions; afterwards, they sang and danced and shared what they learned on the local radio! They are empowered with new knowledge and excited to share it with their friends back home. My counterpart and I informed them that we will come and visit them next month and check up on their gardens - all of them immmediately started bragging about all of the new skills they would being showing off... Success!
Last, but certainly not east, I have to give a shout out to the Michele Sylvester Scholarship winners at the CEM (middle school) in Wassadou and their prncipal. Many of my friends and family have donated to Peace Corps Senegal's MS Scholarship Fund, which provides tuition and school supplies for middle school girls selected on a competitive basis, and I am sure you are all curious about how they are doing.
All of the girls that won last year continue to be the top students in their respective grades and are thankful to be in school for another year. So thankful that they want to help the rest of their female peers stay in school too. Together we are planning a two day workshop to discuss the local challenges to girls' education and how they can overcome these obstacles. The event will be similar to last spring's Girls Leadership Conference in Koukane, accept with a lot more facilitation from the scholarship winners and (unfortunately?) no funding from the outside. They are determined to make this weekend a success and bring their parents out to hear their role in supporting their daughters.
One more thing: these girls might have a lot of daily challenges, but they are lucky to have the support of the region's most committed CEM principal, Daouda Kande. Due to early experiences in my service, I have developed a natural distrust of teachers and education admins. But Prinicpal Kande has completely reversed my views, at least at his school. He is a hard worker, and his belief in education has definitely rubbed off on most of the CEM's teachers, who show up to teach everyday, even when the rest of Senegal seems to be on strike. Furthermore, P. Kande is invested in his students, standing up for the girls (and occassional boy) forced into early arranged marriages and out of school. There are plenty of people here that talk for hours about their commitment to development, etc., etc. But I've only meet a few like P. Kande that actually do something about the problems eating away at Senegal.
Yet again women, and a handful of open-minded men, flavored this month of my Peace Corps experience. For all the hardships that Senegalese women face everyday, among them are leaders daring to make a difference. This blog goes out to all the exceptional leaders I have had the opportunity to work with this month. And to everyone back home of course: thank you for your constant support! Happy holidays! Happy new year!