In the last week of camp the trainers themselves staged an insurrection, a very polite one, well, perhaps an intervention. We’d cancelled the traditional parade into the village because of all the changes in schedule due to the visit of the Ambassador, the Secretary of State for Youth, and the acting Country Director of Peace Corps. With all these exciting muckety-mucks around, I will admit I lost some perspective from the participants’ side.
To make this more comprehensible for my readers who have not been to Camp UNITE, let me explain the context: The main point of Camp UNITE is to form Togolese youth from diverse backgrounds into peer educators in their communities. To do this, we spend the week not only on typical peer education topics like HIV/AIDS prevention, but also address key personal development topics like the changes involved in adolescence and puberty, how to communicate effectively, rather than passively or aggressively, and self-confidence.
In between session, the participants work on team-building and problem-solving through challenge activities. They discuss tough topics like harassment and child trafficking in small groups and prepare traditional dances with the other participants in their cabins.
The normal schedule for Friday of camp includes a parade into town, everyone dressed in Camp t-shirts – this year sporting a fabulous cartoon banana with strategies for success inscribed on each jaunty peel.
We sing, dance, and invite the village back to the centre to watch a few “life skills” topic skits and learn about what we do at camp.
As the trainers who approached us in a small but determined group put it: The parade is a source of pride and fun for the girls, getting them excited about the skits and overcoming their shyness. It’s a unifying event – moving beyond the small groups of cabins or colors and raising our voices together.
And we’d cut it out. Oops.
In our defense, our original logic was based on the possibility that our guests would be leaving by 4pm and we weren’t sure how equipped the Minister and the Ambassador would be for a hike out to the village in the hot sun.
The trainers’ intervention was well-timed, well-intentioned, and absolutely correct. We had an “executive meeting” of the organizers and changed everything up. Every well-laid plan gets tossed in the air as soon as the clock starts anyway.
We sent the girl students out for the parade right after lunch while the guests were still eating. So I got to schmooze while my co-organizers sweated and strained their vocal cords – not a bad deal!
The compromise was fabulous. The students came back from the parade just as we were finishing lunch, so they greeted us with songs and cheers. Then they worked on their final challenge activities before passing to the big ceremony with skits and dances by the participants and lots speeches by the guests.
It was a perfect blend because we split the organizing team – half handling the participants and counselors, the other half handling the guests. So we all knew where and when we were respectively supposed to be and we didn’t have to fret about the other team.
The participants were surprisingly unfazed by the special guests; even the girls who were interviewed by the television station were pretty calm about it all. Having guests didn’t shake their confidence or their enthusiasm, but when the Minister said, “Each and every one of you is important and can do great things.” during her speech, several girls began crying, overwhelmed. It’s not every day that a 16 year old Togolese girl from a small village gets told that she’s important, especially not from a fantastic female role model like the Minister.
It was no wonder that Pagala almost flooded for a second time at the outpouring of tears when the girls left Saturday morning.