Over the last four months I’ve rallied five rural Community Day Secondary Schools (CDSSs) and their wildlife clubs to participate in the program. While every school in Malawi technically has a wildlife (environmental) club very few of them are active. Teachers lack the time, schools lack the money, students don’t take lunch and are too hungry for afterschool activities, and nobody is trained on how to manage a wildlife club. While I can’t do a lot to change Malawi’s broken school system, I do something about the last issue. I met with four school along lakeshore that were close enough for me to work with once a month, Sanga, Old Maula, Bughano, and Vision Private School, and one school, Kalowa, where another PCV works as a teacher. We discussed the state of their wildlife clubs, with which the exception of Bughano which has a wonderful young teacher that I had already been working with, were non-functioning. Then I issued applications to select five girls from each school.
Quickly I realized that these students had never filled out an application before, because I received 25 applications from one school that were word-for-word identical. So I settled for asking the teachers which students that were the most motivated in class and spoke the best English. The goal was to train enough girls from each village that when they went back to school they could become the leaders of their wildlife clubs and train other students, boys and girls alike. So on a windy Sunday at a Private School on Kande Beach, twenty-five girls arrived with the hope to become environmental change agents in their communities.
On the first day we focused on gender-based issues. Malawi is one of the most gender inequitable countries in the world, right up there with Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. While boys and girls enter school in equal numbers, less than 25% of high school graduates are women. Girls are 150% more likely to be married by 18 in Malawi than to have graduated secondary school. And while Nkhata Bay has some of the highest HIV and early pregnancy rates in Malawi, there is very little education available for these young women. While condoms are theoretically available at the health center, public stigma and village gossip often stop girls from seeking these resources. Furthermore, girls are expected to help their mothers with household work, cooking, cleaning, fetching water, farming, and caring for children when boys are not. Therefore even the girls who are still enrolled in school suffer in their studies. Even among Peace Corps volunteers, when we discuss MSCE (similar to SAT) Exam results we have different definitions of a “good score” for boys and girls. It’s not gender bias on our parts, it’s a sad reality that girl’s educations suffer as a result of gender inequality.
So on the first day all those girls got a hefty dose of gender education. We talked about the difference between gender and sex (gender being cultural or social norms assigned to men and women and sex referring to anatomy), sewed reusable menstrual pads from local materials (Malawian girls often miss school on their periods due to lack of hygienic products), played HIV Limbo with the bar representing contracting HIV (abstinence sets the highest bar, sleeping with a boy your age is the next safest, and the bar lowers as you chose partners who are older than you as they have had more time to contract the virus), and brought in a nurse/midwife to give a talk on family planning. The girls got to see and handle birth control pills, arm implants, Inter-Uterine Devices (IUDs), hormone injections, and to practice using both male and female condoms on bananas and empty toilet paper rolls. Most of the presentation and questions were in rapid Chitonga, so I didn’t catch everything. But my favorite moment was when one girl asked a question about male condom removal and another student scolded her. The nurse interrupted the second student, saying this is exactly the kind of attitude that encourages women to be ignorant and puts them at risk. Everyone else erupted in applause laughing and giving the classic Malawian aahhh-EEEHHHH!
I was very lucky to have Four strong women assisting me to facilitate the camp. Two were other Peace Corps Volunteers and two were Malawian women I’ve worked with in the past. Wez is a five-year veteran of Peace Corps Camps, an old-school GLOW (Girls are Leaders of our World) Girl who works at the Karonga Dinosaur Museum and has her own girl’s club. Catherine is an extension worker in my area, and was the original developer of the two-burner system of change-changu-moto (fast-fast-fire) fuel efficient cook stoves. So on the second day I handed things over to Catherine to teach the girls to make change-changu-motos on their own.
Shockingly, the group of teenagers were all about playing in the mud. We learned about the environmental benefits of fuel efficient cookstoves, using less than 1/3 of the fuel as traditional three stone fires, and how women (who traditionally responsible for finding fuel and cooking) are disproportionately affected by deforestation. We also learned about the health benefits, cutting down on indoor air pollution, lung infection rates, and improving the health of babies carried on the backs of cooking women. Then things got messy! We found twenty-four old bricks, some clay soil from a termite mound, and made a local family a cookstove. There was not a clean pair of hands by dinnertime.
Over the next few days we had a series of guest speakers, our “role models of the day” that came in to give technical presentations. We had tree nursery establishment with Mr. Mwasee and Mr. Mwenda where all the girls filled pot tubes and planted seedlings. Mr. Mwasee also gave a talk on fruit tree establishment, which can be a good fundraising venture for schools, and Mr. Mwenda talked about being a lead farmer and change agent without having a formal education and then showed the girls how to multiply orange-flesh-sweet potato vines. Miss Katawoa came in one morning to teach about wildlife club action planning and “drama, art and the environment” which resulted in some killer dance moves, a tree-themed rap, and a skit mocking a sexist head teacher. I lead a composting demonstration and freaked out a bunch of girls when I started handling cow manure. Mr. Ngwira gave a power point presentation (which the girls had never seen before) about fisheries management and how mosquito nets hurt fish populations. I was equally proud of how my friends and colleagues encouraged the girls to pursue their educations and working in the environment, and how the girls were alert and engaged through the long and physically demanding sessions.
And as a veteran camp counselor, of course I made SEED as campy as possible. Every speaker was greeted with S-U-P-E-R SUPER SUPER THAT”S WHAT YOU ARE, WE ARE PROUD OF YOU SAY WE ARE PROUD OF YOU SAY HEY HEY, OR B-E-A-UTIFUL INSIDE AND OUT!!!! We squeezed in engerziers between sessions, with an acclectic mix of cultures. Picture Duck-Duck-Goose and freeze tag sandwiched between kaputie (a type of banana) and moto-pa-piri-moto (fire on the mountain). There was more than enough beach time, jumping over the crashing waves made by the mwera winds and playing netball on the sand. At night we mingled in the dormitory, playing cards and letting the girls braid our mzuzngu hair which everyone finds so fascinating. It was seven days of little sleep, warm and fuzzy feelings, sunburns, and so many silly songs.
My favorite part of the whole week was the last day. We broke the students into groups to go practice teaching the skills they’d learned to community members. They built cookstoves with grandmothers, digging up to their elbows in the mud and dodging problems like the old women who wants to know why she can’t fit a tree stump in her new stove. They bravely stuck their hands in bags of cow poop and showed mothers how to make compost and fill pot tubes. They planted nitrogen fixing acacia trees at each home and showed families how to water them. Each house they visited was left with a new stove, six trees, and ten tree tubes waiting to germinate. They explained their work confidently, answered questions easily, and had infectious smiles on their face the entire time. I felt so incredibly proud of them.
The last day of camp came upon us with that familiar finality. The other counselors, with long journeys ahead of them, left at daybreak leaving me to sweep the campus and pack up the dormitory. We trekked back to the road and boarded busses back to our various villages, some traveling north, some south. New friends hugged and shared phone numbers, and minibuses zoomed off with the sounds of make-new-friends-but-keep-the-old training into the distance. PoPo, who had been a champ all week long, snuggling up to all the students and doing tricks for chicken bones, collapsed onto the floor our nyumba and just stared at the ceiling for a bit.
I don’t know if this week will actually change anyone’s life in a meaningful way. Over the next school year I’ll be visiting the girls and their wildlife clubs, providing tree tubes and seeds, orange flesh sweet potato vines, and leading them on some local field trips. I hope that they’ll take the skills they’ve learned and do something meaningful with them. I think all of their houses will have change-changu-motos at the very least, but I hope that they do outreach in their community as well. But I like to think that the friendships and feminine support we all felt this week meant something too. When I look back on all the summers I spent at camp I remember learning things like archery, knot tying, and nature crafts that I would never do again but would give me confidence in so many other things. Camps are about teambuilding, creating a safe space where you can test your limits and try new things. I hope that these girls look back on SEED Camp with all the fondness I do on my own childhood. And I can’t wait to see where they go on from here.