Thursday, September 20, 2012

THROWBACK : 2008 Kedougou Leadership Camp

I recently found some old Facebook posts dating back a few years to when I was in Senegal and had recently completed the first Kedougou Summer Leadership Camp. It was an experiment, an unknown. Some Peace Corps colleagues and myself had discussed how our lives had been molded and shaped, influenced. We had all had some experience teaching and working with summer camps back in the States. What if we could bring some of that summer magic to the youth of Kedougou, tucked away in southeastern Senegal? It took over a year to plan. We weren't sure if it would even happen let alone be successful. Now, four years later, the camp is still running, mostly by our Senegalese counterparts themselves with Peace Corps Volunteers in the shadows, the way it's meant to be. In 2008, during the pilot camp, I kept a journal throughout the week trying to put my thoughts and feelings down on paper. 

Monday, October 6th, 2008

I woke up early to get down in the market with Willie. We decided to wait until Monday to buy the vegetables for the week long camp. Everything else we had bought was already at the Kedougou regional house waiting to be loaded on the mini bus we rented to take the student campers, Senegalese counselors and Peace Corps volunteers to Dindéfelo. The invitations we gave/sent out to students told them to report to the Peace Corps regional house in Kedougou before 1:00pm to eat lunch and depart for Dindéfelo. A few kids arrived earlier than anticipated so I was a bit stressed trying to accommodate them at the house until the others arrived and make sure everything had been bought for the camp. 

My fear that the kids wouldn't even show up was dwindling as 13 out of the invited 20 wandered into the regional house, a bit nervous perhaps about what they had agreed to do. They came from all corners of the Kedougou region: Khossanto, Missirah Sirimana, Saraya, Fogolimbi, Mako, Bandafassi, and Dindéfelo. Some of them had never even been to Kedougou before; most of them never had seen a waterfall or even a mountain like the Guinée range at the southern border of Senegal. These students don't understand camp like American kids who grow up on the idea. Lunch arrived and was eaten in silence broken by the few kids that came from the same college (middle school) who knew each other. The Senegalese counselors, Alassane Diebakhaté (my school counterpart in Bembou), Ibou Keita (Nikolas Sweet's counterpart in Kedougou), Adama Diaby (a journalist for Radio Communautaire 93.9 FM in Kedougou), and Léa Bangar (a primary school teacher in Dimboli), were much more active than I had anticipated, discussing the rules of conduct for the camp with the kids. 

We loaded up the mini bus with the materials, food, baggage, campers, counselors, and PCV's and embarked on the long potholed ridden dirt road to Dindéfelo. Before the road became very bad, the driver was speeding way too fast, swerving around potholes, and rocking the bus back and forth on its axis. My mind was spinning with thoughts of the bus overturning. We would all die this horrible death before camp would even start and that's how I'd be remembered, as the Peace Corps volunteer who got 13 students killed in a car wreck. Thankfully for me and the students, this did not happen. We made our way over rocks, through sand, creeks, larger creeks, mud, puddles the size of small ponds, and reached Dindéfelo safely shortly before sunset. 4 other kids were waiting for us in Dindéfelo making the total campers 17. 

In the original plan for this camp, it was going to be a shared responsibility between four or five PCV's and the Senegalese counselors leading activities they felt they could help with. However, three of the five PCV's in that original count had other things going on during the week of camp (getting new volunteer sites organized), the responsibility of "Camp Director" fell upon Willie Adams and me. I will not lie. I was terrified that the camp would fail, that the students wouldn't understand or enjoy the program we had organized, that "what could go wrong, will go wrong." In the end, even I would learn something about leadership and about myself. Monday ended without a single problem arising. We ate dinner, introduced ourselves, sang and danced a little before discussing the following day's program and heading to bed around 10:00 pm. I tossed in my sleep about the plan for Tuesday and the problems we would inevitably face...

Tuesday October 7th, 2008

I awoke before dawn, unable to sleep until the whistle blows for everyone to get out of bed. After exercising a bit and taking a cold shower in the cool crisp morning of October (the cold season is on its way), I made sure everything for breakfast was ready. Fresh bread, butter, peanut butter (for the PCV's...Senegalese think its weird we eat PB on bread), chocolate spread, coffee and cocoa was the open menu for breakfast each day. We paid the local baker to bring us 40 loaves of bread each morning. The kids ate breakfast, still kind of quiet, slowly getting to know these other 14 and 15 year olds from different parts of the Kedougou region.

The big activity for Tuesday was to show the kids how to start a tree nursery. We demonstrated the proper sand: manure ratio, how to properly fill the sacs and how to neatly arrange them to ensure efficient sunlight and water retention. Every child seemed excited to get their hands dirty. Adama Diaby, the Senegalese journalist/counselor recorded different campers explaining the process after we were finished. We ended up planting 100 Jatropha seeds and 100 Flamboya seeds. Jatropha is a highly publicized species of tree right now because the oil from its seeds can be turning into biofuel. The Senegalese government is financing large Jatropha projects to get farmers aware of their benefits. The oil can also be used to make anti-bacterial soap. Flamboya is a species of tree with large leaves creating wonderful areas of shade around them and beautiful yellow flowers. For both species of trees we had the campers collect seeds from around the campement and in the village. We set up the sacs in the corner of the campement so the staff could water them daily and outplant in a few months. 

I was amazed at how smoothly the morning activity went and at how excited the students seemed to be learning these new ideas and processes. We gave the kids the rest of the morning to relax and shower before lunch. The food during the week was some of the best Senegalese food I’ve ever had in country. The women who were cooking for us did an amazing job. After lunch we set up three stations to run team building exercises with the campers. Trust Fall, Trust Walk, and the Team Plank. I ran the Trust Fall station where we had the kids fall backwards without looking into the arms of another teammate after telling them they trusted that their partner would catch them. The big fall was where each team of 6 kids would catch a person falling backwards off a high log. It was fun watching the fear in the kids’ faces while they fell and also the relief afterwards when they realized they were ok and no one let them fall to the ground. The Trust Walk, led by Willie involved the team of kids lined up, blindfolded, with their hands on the shoulders of the teammate in front of them. The first kid in the line was not blindfolded and had to lead the team around calling out obstacles in the path (e.g. “There is a large rock on the right” or “Everybody duck under the branches ahead”). The rest of the team had to relay the messages to the person behind them, all the while trusting the leaders messages about what to do and when. The Team Plank, led by Leigh (a volunteer in Tamba), had the kids line up on a plank of wood then rearrange themselves in order of tallest to shortest without falling off the plank or in order of oldest to youngest without talking. We followed up the team building activities with a discussion about why we played those specific games, why it was important, what did the kids learn, etc. 

Before dinner, Tracy helped the kids design cardboard picture fames with paint, markers, and cutouts from recycled magazines. By the end of camp each camper would have a group photo of everyone to put in their frames and take home. It was great how creative the kids became with their frames. One kid, Idrissa Diallo from Dindéfelo, had an American flag designed at the top of his frame, a cutout of Obama as the back piece, and a note at the bottom saying “I like Obama” in English. This was all his idea. 

Ibou Keita did a great job of facilitating the evening activity of dance and songs before and after dinner. The campers retreated to their rooms at 10 and I swiftly passed out. This was going to be one exhausting week but two days were down still without a problem. Could it be possible that the camp would not fail? Could it be possible that it would run smoother than ever anticipated, that the kids may enjoy it, even better that the kids may learn something useful and apply it to their lives? 

“Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate but that we are powerful beyond measure.”

Wednesday October 8th, 2008

The second morning of camp started without a problem again, if being exhausted from Tuesday counts as not being a problem. Eaux et Forets (“Water and Forests”), the equivalent of the Forestry Service, had donated 30 Neem saplings to be planted during the camp. We took the campers to the college, poste de santé, and primary school in Dindéfelo to teach them how to properly outplant a tree from a sac. They learned to keep the root ball intact, mix a bit of dry manure into the holes, and how to dig a “moat” around the planted tree to collect water around the roots and not directly on top of them. Even though it is late in the season to outplant, hopefully the director of the college and primary school with establish a watering schedule with the students during the school year and they will survive. 

We led other team building activities in the afternoon. I facilitated one game called “Spider’s Web” where the kids had to navigate through a web of string constructed between two trees without touching the string. Once one person went through a hole, the hole would be “closed” and no one else could pass through that hole. When all the holes close to the ground were “closed” the team had to pass others through the higher holes without them touching the web of string. The other activity led by Willie was passing a marble through cut pieces of PVC pipe from point A to point B. Each student had a piece of pipe about a foot long and needed to catch the marble from the person in front of them, pass it to the next, then run to the end of the line to keep the passing going. The kids really seemed to have fun doing this. We would debrief again after each activity discussing why these “games” were important in succeeding at school and in life. You could really begin to see the confidence rising in the students as they volunteered to speak about the games in front of their peers and to be recorded by Adama who broadcasted their interviews on the radio during the evening. 

After dinner, we had a camp fire in the campement. Each camper stood up individually and sang a song, made a joke, or some other type of talent. Some of the kids sang in their native language of Pulaar or Malinké, while some others sang in English. Mamadou Diallo, from Mako, sang this great song he had learned to practice his English pronouns. It became a hit at camp. 

Everybody likes Saturday night
Everybody likes Saturday night
Everybody, everybody, everybody likes Saturday night

I like Saturday night
You like Saturday night
He likes Saturday night
She likes Saturday night
Everybody, everybody, everybody likes Saturday night

We like Saturday night
You like Saturday night
They like Saturday night
Everybody, everybody, everybody likes Saturday night

Another student sang “Bingo” while a different kid sang “The Farmer Wants a Wife.” It was hilarious. Tracy, the PCV from Tamba who also worked at Camp Tockwogh (small world), taught the campers “Princess Pat” with the hand motions (if you know that one). Huge sensation with the kids. 

The camp was going incredibly. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it. This was the best thing I’ve done in Senegal, the most fun, the most rewarding, the most exhausting, and the most terrifying. I felt alive. 

Thursday October 9th, 2008

Thursday morning, we walked down into the village (the campement is on the outskirts of the ville on the walk towards the waterfall), to collect Neem leaves to make the Neem lotion. The campers used punctured coffee tin tops to grate the bars of soap like cheese. We boiled the Neem leaves for 20 or so minutes, strained the leaves out of the now green water (retaining the Neem properties), then mixed in the seven grated bars of soap and 4 liters of oil and cooked it until all of the mixture had melted down and took on the consistency of lotion. We bottled the lotion in 250ml bottles of soda we had bought for the campers and kept the bottles. After we were done, we had 44 bottles (250ml) and 2 bottles (1.5L) of lotion. 

We skipped the free time after lunch to take the kids on a 2km hike through the canyon the largest waterfall in the country. Mady Keita, a student from Missirah Sirimana (45km Northeast of Bembou), always has his crutches with him. His legs cannot support all his weight. He can walk very carefully short distances without the crutches but if he missteps he falls. Willie and I had interviewed Mady together when we biked out to M. Sirimana back in March. The guy was smart, excited, and very open to the idea of attending a summer camp, though he had no idea what exactly a summer camp was. I pondered whether he would be ok in Dindéfelo. The hike to the waterfall is not too steep but there are a lot of rocks and boulders you need to climb over. Would he be OK? Would he feel left out if he couldn’t go? I learned so much from Mady during the week, it’s hard to explain. When I first met Mady, I saw the crutches, I immediately thought “this kid is handicapped/disabled.” Oh, but Mady doesn’t see it that way. He hiked out to the waterfall with the crutches FASTER than some of the other students. I was impressed. Then he put the crutches down and made his way carefully over slippery rocks along the edge of the canyon to the base of the waterfall. Water falling from 300 ft above soaking him to the bone. He raised his hands above his head...and danced. He danced with his hands high as if he was saying “I made it! Look at me, I made it!” It will be one of the most memorable moments of the camp and my time here in West Africa. 

The kids and counselors loved playing and swimming in the water. Kids were laughing, splashing, throwing balls around. Willie was taking pictures with his waterproof cased digital camera of kids jumping through the waterfall into the pool at the base. A group of campers who got out of the water were so cold they started a small fire to warm themselves on the rocky shore of the pool. We headed back to the campement with the campers chatting about how great the afternoon was. How great it was indeed. 

Friday October 10th, 2008

Friday’s objective was to have Matt and Nick, two Kedougou PCV’s who are extending for 3rd years, lead a small class on marketing and entrepreneurial training. The kids had decorated the bottles of lotion with ribbons and construction paper designed with things like “protegez l’environnement” (protect the environment) or “luttez contre les moustiques” (fight against mosquitoes). They walked into the village with samples of the product and asked groups of men, groups of women, and young adults, how much they would be willing to pay for the lotion. Some said 300cfa, some 500cfa, some as much as 2,000cfa. When the kids came back to the campement with the data, they found that 500cfa (little over $1) was a good average price. Nik and Matt explained how you calculate your expenses for materials, then how to calculate the profit margin of your sales. Although it was one of the more advanced activities of the camp, the kids did a great job participating and showing their enthusiasm. After all, they were the ones who were going to keep the money from the lotion sold on Sunday. 

Friday afternoon we ran some more leadership activities underneath some mango trees right outside the campement. PVC Golf, where a tennis ball is placed upon a cut piece of PVC pipe which is connected by six pairs of string like the spokes of a bike wheel, showed the kids how they needed to work together as a team to get the ball from one location to another without it falling off. This was also a great opportunity to discuss the problems of communication when everybody’s trying to bark orders at the same time. We had different rules where no one could talk, only some could talk and others were blindfolded to press the importance of listening and working together. We also set up a rope swing where the campers had to swing across an imaginary river and land inside some hula hoops we made out of large electrical wire sheathing. No two kids could land in the same hula hoop so they need to catch their teammates and guide them into an empty hoop. 

Friday evening, we told the campers Saturday would be a “free day” to choose one of two programs to follow. One was to hike up the mountain to Dandé, the village atop the plateau, and see the source (top) of the waterfall which we had just visited the day before. The other program was to paint a mural at the school in town. We figured there would be only a small group that would want to hike up the cliff face to the top of the plateau but we were quite surprised at the outcome. Every student said they wanted to hike the mountain, even my man Mady Keita.

Saturday October 11th, 2008

We hit the trail of the mountain a little after 9am in groups of 6 campers, one or two Senegalese counselors, and one or two PCV’s. The sun didn’t give any gifts either. It was hot. We made sure every camper had their own water bottle. I was with the second group, “Les Cobras” as they named themselves, with Willie and Nik keeping an eye on Mady in the third group, the one behind me. Lea, the Senegalese counselor who took the most responsibility of all the Senegalese, took a break to drink some water. This was early on the hike. She told me that there was no way Mady could make this hike, no way whatsoever. I told her to trust me, to trust Mady. I was already a believer after the waterfall. That kid would make it up if he wanted to. When I called back to Willie at one point to make sure everything was ok, he called back that Mady was at the head of the group, using his crutches in some places, in others passing his crutches back and using his arms to pull himself up the trail. He was doing it again. I was nearly in tears. 

We made it to the top, took a break in the shade with the whole group to drink some water and eat some bananas. There’s a cave on the plateau with a small waterfall that drips over its entrance. We hiked down the slope to the mouth of the cave and took some picture with the kids. Then we hiked down to the source of the Dindéfelo waterfall, 300 ft above where we were two days ago. We all kicked it in the cool shade, waded in the safe pools of water that weren’t flowing towards the magnificent drop and waiting for a couple PCV’s that stayed below a while longer until the cooks had made the sandwiches they were going to hike up the mountain so we could eat lunch up top. After lunch and a bit of rest, we packed up, refilled our water bottles in the stream, added a few drops of bleach to kill anything living in the water and made our way gently down the steep slope of the trail back to Dindéfelo. 

Saturday night we had an end of camp bonfire since Sunday we would be selling the lotion in the market but head back to Kedougou in the afternoon. This was to be our last night. I couldn’t believe it went so quickly, so well. Joy overwhelmed me. Each group did a small theater skit at the fire. The only rules were that guys needed to act like women, women like men, and they had to use props from around the camp. We volunteers did one as well about the misunderstandings of newly arrived Americans to Senegal in the theme of American kids coming to a Senegalese summer camp. Then we taught them the “Hokey-Pokey.” It can be so fun to make yourself look ridiculous in front of children. 

We went around the circle thanking everyone for such a wonderful week at camp. I told everyone how every expectation I had for the camp was surpassed, every fear calmed. I thanked the Senegalese counselors for their commitment, their responsibility, and their enthusiasm. It was hard to believe that tomorrow, we would say goodbye. 

Sunday October 12th, 2008

This was it the big finale. After breakfast, we designed advertisements for the lotion at the market. The kids went down in groups to sell it in different places. Some were walking around the market with two bottles in their hands, while others were sitting in one place. Unfortunately, the market doesn’t really pick up until after lunch but we needed to leave after lunch to ensure the kids had time to find a ride back en brousse or to find a place to stay in Kedougou before dark. The campers themselves sold more than half of the lotion in the first two hours in the market Sunday morning. We were getting close to lunch with some left so we gave campement (hotel) owners some money from the camp finances to buy some lotion of the kids which they could then resell to tourists, thereby getting rid of all our product so they kids can each share the profits. 

We ate lunch and packed our bags to be loaded onto the mini bus. It seemed like just the day before that all these kids were strangers, that we volunteers were just “toubobs,” that Dindéfelo and the waterfall were just places they’d heard about but never seen. Now we were getting ready to leave, to say goodbye to friends, teammates, family. I dispersed the profits from the sales and the reimbursements for the kids that needed to travel far to return home. Some of the kids were crying and exchanging village names and cell phone numbers if they had them. We loaded the bus, and took off. The mountain of the Guinée plateau faded into the haze, the car bumping along made its way through sand, over rocks, through mud and puddles the size of small ponds, back to Kedougou...back to their villages. It was hard for all of us. Silence filled the bus as we departed just as silence filled the bus full of strangers a week ago. We arrived at the garage in Kedougou right before a storm was rolling in. We gave out the group photos, gave hugs and handshakes, told the kids we would visit their colleges (middle schools), and said “Mbe lun doe, nin Allah sonta” (See you another day, if it is God’s wish). 

I made my way back to the Peace Corps regional house and opened a cold beer. Did we change any of these kids? Nin Allah sonta....nin Allah sonta...

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