14 December 2013
Picture a young girl, 14, maybe 15. Bright smile, dressed in her Sunday best, intricate braids in her hair. She’s never been more than 20 kilometers from her home in a rural Zambian village. She’s never been anywhere near the provincial capital of Kasama, which hosts 50 times the population of her tiny village. Never flushed a toilet or experienced electricity.
Maybe among the girls in her vil, she’s confident. Outspoken.
Now though, she’s been dropped off outside a giant grocery store in a paved, vehicle-choked sprawl of concrete. She’s suddenly surrounded by girls she’s never met, and a whole bunch of muzungus playing bizarre games and talking in a language which contains perhaps 20 words that she actually understands. The muzungus are gleeful, welcoming her in broken Bemba and telling her to join the circle and the games. Shortly they will all go to a lodge, all together, in a big mini bus.
The girl hovers shyly, caught somewhere between curiosity and disbelief. Or joy and terror.
Welcome to Kasama Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). It’s a once-a-year, PCV-led event that offers young teen Zambian girls the opportunity to leave everything they know and go to a week-long camp to learn about assertiveness, boys, sex, HIV, and planning for their futures. Oh, and to have ridiculous amounts of fun dancing, playing dodgeball, doing relay races, making crafts, and singing silly songs.
You know, camp stuff.
Only these girls have never even heard of such a thing.
Or certainly my girls from Mfuba never had. Harriet and Patricia arrived, with my counterpart Ba Dorothy, in a state of bewilderment. Some of the other girls, who came from all over Kasama and Mungwi districts in NoPro, spoke English, had teachers for parents, had much nicer clothes, and exuded the confidence of girls who may actually make it through grade 12.
Harriet and Patricia are 15 and 17 respectively, but they’re only in grade 6, and their prospects for advancing past grade 9, which requires passing exams in English and paying a lot of money for grades 10-12, are pretty bleak. Harriet’s parents do OK, but they’re hardly well off. Patricia’s family is downright poor.
I was so excited for them to experience Camp GLOW, I could hardly stand it. They were merely bewildered. On Days 1 and 2, they barely spoke. Patricia, the more shy of the two, visibly shrunk inside herself, making eye contact with no one, not even me.
I wondered what I’d gotten my girls into.
But slowly slowly, they began to come out of their shells. Raising their hands and asking questions. Making friends with the other girls. Looking me in the eye.
One night, dancing started up post-dinner, and Harriet and Patricia noticed the two drums we’d brought from the Peace Corps house. Suddenly they were the center of attention, and man could they drum! I’d had no idea!
The next day, Harriet purposely sat down next to me at lunch and struck up a conversation! (Previous attempts by me had been like pulling teeth.) Then we had a water-carrying-and-bottle-filling relay race. Our “pride,” the Blue Eagles, made up of my vil and RAP PCV Logan’s vil, came in second! (The first place team cheated like crazy.) We’d previously been dead last at everything. (Due in no small part to the adults. Especially me.) Suddenly we were all shouting and hollering and high-fiving all over the place.
I have rarely been happier. Except maybe when, on the very last night, our pride killed it at the talent show. And I’m not even exaggerating. All the other acts were solo singing, or solo dancing. We were the only group, and the only ones to bust out the drums. Patricia mixed it up and joined the dancers for a bit, and everyone in the room was singing along. (Well, the Bemba-speakers anyway; the PCVs had no idea what they were singing; Logan and I just danced where they told us to, since our girls had insisted we dance with them.)
Minutes later, Patricia came up and whispered in my ear that she wanted to sign up, last-minute, for a solo dance! I was so proud of her!
So now, picture that same young girl. Smiling and laughing with new friends, a wealth of new knowledge just below those braids. Notice how she shakes hands with all the teachers and PCVs, looking each one in the eye. Well, except for the one PCV from her vil, who insists on giving her a big hug and whispering to her, “When you get back to Mfuba, don’t forget to walk with confidence.”
Watch as she walks away into the busy streets of Kasama, head held high. “Emkwai,” she says. “I will.”