In which Emily returns to her camp roots

When you take up residence in a foreign country with the express goal of introducing some amount of change, you have to tread carefully. Critics of the Peace Corps and other forms of foreign aid ask what the difference is between what we’re doing now and what European imperialists did in Africa over the last few centuries. What gives us the right to move in, set up shop, and proclaim that we know better? How do we know that our version of a better way of life is the right one? These are questions I ask myself all the time. I do believe that I have something to share with Lesotho. I also believe that this form of foreign aid can work, when those involved are both tactful and reflective. Being tactful here means being respectful of your host country’s culture. Every message, every project either has to fit within a country’s existing culture, or put gentle pressure on it from the inside. For example, VMMC campaigns in Lesotho often run into the challenge of confusion over the difference between VMMC and the traditional form of circumcision practiced at herd boy initiation schools. Instead of discouraging boys from attending initiation school in order to avoid being circumcised incorrectly, these campaigns explain that traditional circumcision does not offer the same medical benefits that VMMC does. They don’t try to discredit tradition. Instead they stick to the facts and scrap unnecessary value judgments.

I try to practice being tactful and reflective in my work constantly. The way this has manifested is that I restrict projects I take on to things my community asks me to do. Luckily, my community is active and thirsty for knowledge. They’ve asked me to consult business cooperatives, help get a chicken coop constructed, teach computer skills to herd boys, and financial literacy to high school students. None of these projects has come from me- they always come about because I was approached by a member of my community.

On the one hand, this way of conducting my service is very rewarding. Peace Corps puts pressure on Volunteers to organize events in honor of “holidays” that raise public awareness of certain issues, like World AIDS Day. I have not taken on any of these because my community has not asked for them. It feels good to be certain that you are meeting an actual need and not projecting your own, or PEPFAR’s, agenda.

The flip side of this is that I don’t always get to do the projects I want to do. My passion doesn’t lie in computer skills, business management, or agriculture. It lies in music, it lies in sports, and it lies in helping kids become leaders.

BUT. A couple weeks ago, I got to experience the culmination of a four-month long planning endeavor that WAS both a project that was a needed and a project I felt passionate about. Peace Corps worldwide has a program called GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). GLOW can take several different forms, but in Lesotho Volunteers have had success in planning GLOW camps. Camp is a bit of a foreign concept to Basotho, so we often had to describe it as a “workshop.” As a former camper and two-summer camp counselor, I am a HUGE fan of camp. I could wax poetic about camp forever, but I think anyone who has been to a camp or worked at a camp would agree that camp creates a special bond between people. When you’re talking about serious issues like sex and gender and abuse, that bond is essential to creating a safe and open space for discussion. GLOW Camp Mohale’s Hoek was made up of a million meaningful moments, most of which I didn’t even grasp fully because they were in Sesotho, but here are some numbers:

  • 53 high school girls, ages 13-22, from 17 different Mohale’s Hoek high/secondary schools
  • 15 teacher/advisers, all women
  • 4 Basotho counselors
  • 7 PCVs
  • 2 Co-directors (my buddy Aline and myself)
  • 4 days and 3 nights
  • 1 meeting hall
  • 9 sessions (Positive Communication, Healthy Relationships, LGBTI, Sexual and Reproductive Health, Contraceptives, HIV Myths, Unplanned Pregnancy and Support Services, Career Preparation, and Self-Defense)
  • 9 shared meals
  • 2 HIV testers
  • 43 people tested for HIV
  • 1 scheduled dance party
  • 5 impromptu dance parties
  • 1,000,000,000+ energizers and songs
  • 1 group cheer: “Go Glow!”

Aline and I began talking to school principals to recruit for the camp in April, we started arranging the logistics in May, and we intensively trained our counselors starting in June. It was amazing to see all of our planning come together, but for me it was even more special to do a project that focused on empowering women.

This was one of those times that a project put needed pressure on cultural norms. Gender roles in Basotho culture are quite restrictive, especially for women. This has the affects one would expect, such as men having more career options, women acting deferential in social situations, and a proliferation of domestic violence. But it also has dire consequences that might be unexpected to Americans – in Lesotho, HIV disproportionately affects women. Of the approximately 290,000 people living with HIV in Lesotho, almost 60% are women ( Women are more susceptible to HIV for anatomical reasons, but also for social, gender-related reasons. Because of this GLOW Camp, I know that 53 high school girls in my district know how their body works, how to practice safe sex, how to talk to their partners about safe sex, and what to do if they are at risk or suffering from abuse. That’s a great feeling.

We invited teachers from each school for sustainability purposes. Every Peace Corps project is supposed to incorporate an aspect of sustainability. So how can GLOW continue after Aline and I are gone? All of the sessions were either led or assisted by Basotho, so the talent and know-how is there.  But what about logistics? GLOW was funded by a grant from PEPFAR that is only available to Peace Corps Volunteers. Funding for a project like this can be community-sourced, but certainly not as much funding, and only with a huge amount of effort on the part of the organizers. GLOW Camp might not be able to happen in Lesotho without PCV assistance, at least not yet. In the meantime, we shot for sustainability in a different model- GLOW Clubs. On the last day the campers made plans  to form a GLOW Club at their school with the support of their teacher who attended GLOW Camp. The idea is that they can share what they learned at GLOW with other students at their school and keep the girl power going. I’m optimistic about the future of these clubs, and Aline, the counselors, and I hope to visit some of them in the coming months.

Thanks for reading this epic of a post! Check out the pics: