Iringa Girls Conference 2011

7 07 2011

June 6-10 me and my fellow volunteers held the first (hope to be annual) girls conference in our region.  This was the culmination of months of planning and hard work.  However, up until as soon as a month before the conference we didn’t know if we were going to be receiving the money we requested in our grant in time.  The amount requested was a relatively small sum of money (in US Dollars) to fund an entire conference for a week for over 50 people.  However, with our again meager monthly salaries in Tanzanian shillings it was a huge amount.  As a group we discussed how we would front the money in case our grant wasn’t going to be processed in time.  The difficulties of accessing our US bank accounts directly from Tanzania coupled with the uncertainty of the date on which we would be reimbursed made the planning quite a bit more stressful.  Luckily we were able to convince the Peace Corps grant proposal office that if we didn’t receive the money in a timely fashion we risked breaking promises to our students, our counterparts, as well as several other various community sponsors we had lined up to support us.  I think this was enough to convince them to expedite the processing of our grant and we did eventually receive the money with little time so spare, less than a week before the conference.  In addition to the grant money we requested from Peace Corps directly we were able to secure a donation of t-shirts from Chai Bora, one of the largest tea grower/producers in the country.  They let us design a t-shirt with our conference logo and all and gave us more than enough to provide every participant and volunteer with a shirt, even if the majority of shirts were XL or XXL.  It was actually quite funny to see some of these poor little kids swimming in their t-shirts but they were appreciative non-the less.  I do have to say that while me and the two other education volunteers were involved in the planning of the conference, the volunteers who did the most work in planning and lining up speakers were the other volunteers in either the Health sector or the Environment sector.  The reason for this is as Education volunteers, our work is much more structured than the volunteers in other sectors.  This girls conference was more of a secondary project for me were as for the Health and Environment volunteers, this was considered a primary project.  Health and Environment volunteers basically go into a village, spend several months just “accessing” the needs of the community, then determine what ways they can best meet the needs/wants of the community.  I had a small taste of this unstructured schedule when I first moved to my village last December and I can honestly say I don’t know how the Health/Environment volunteers do it, so more power to them. 


So Monday, the first day was basically used for all volunteers to travel to the conference site.  I actually lived the furthest distance from the town in which we were holding the conference so my journey included transferring buses at least one time.  I’ve become pretty damn comfortable traveling on my own, but I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous about shepherding 5 girls plus my counterpart to the conference.  What added to my nervousness was the fact that school had been closed for over a week and some of the students would be meeting up with us during various parts of our trip.  This can be difficult enough in the US with the reliability of transportation, communication, and promptness of most people in our culture but here in Tanzania the exact opposite is generally true.  Transportation is anything but reliable, communication is sometimes difficult, and the casual nature most people take with meeting times had me a little on edge.  However, I woke up bright and early, finished packing up, then headed over to my counterparts house to meet up with her and one of the girls.  My bag was fairly large due to the fact that I had to pack huge blankets to sleep with because the city we choose to have the conference in is probably one of the coldest in Tanzania.  Now I know you may be thinking “does it really get THAT cold in Tanzania?” and the answer is yes.  In the town of Mafinga were our conference was being held, it can get down into the mid to low 40’s in at night which can be quite chilly considering the vast majority of houses/accommodation here do not have heating.  So I woke up before 6am and walked over to my counterparts house and met up her and our one other girl and began our walk to the road to catch a bus into town.  On our way down to the road, we stopped by the second girls’ house we were supposed to be picking up that morning.  When we arrived at the house, the remnants of a large celebration were still evident and a handful of people were sitting outside the compound where this girl lived.  The night before, one of the girls’ relatives was married so the aftermath of a wedding reception was still visible.  My counterpart, clearly having the better knowledge of Swahili asked were Dominique was.  I didn’t need to understand the whole conversation to understand that the people (relatives I believe?) didn’t know where she was.  In typical Tanzanian fashion they invited us in for tea and a bite to eat but we politely refused saying that we really needed to catch the first bus into town if we wanted to arrive at the conference in a timely manner.  Eventually, after about 20 minutes and talking to multiple relatives, it was determined that Dominique wasn’t here.  I couldn’t believe my luck.  The very thing I was worried about, not being able to get all 5 of our girls to the conference on time, appeared to be coming true less than 30 minutes into our trip.  We decided that we would try calling some of the girls other relatives to see if we could figure out where she was and in the meantime continue on to the road to catch the bus.  As we reached the road, we finally got in contact with the grandmother of Dominique who said that she was actually staying in Mafinga.  Luckily, Mafinga was the town where the conference was held so we would just meet her at the Mafinga bus station before heading over to the facility where the conference was being held.  I breathed a small sigh of relief; 2 of 5 girls were accounted for.  As we reached the road, and literally as the bus pulled up, our third girl Hilda came running up to the road to meet us just in the nick of time.  I thought to myself, “sweet, 3 of 5 girls accounted for”.  We boarded the bucket of bolts known as the bus that takes you from my village into town.  It was planned to meet another girl at Kihesa, the bus stop just north of Iringa town.  As soon as we pulled into Kihesa, we saw our fourth girl waiting to board the bus.  Phew.  4 of 5 girls accounted for.  The last girl we were also going to meet in Mafinga where the conference was held.  So once our bus reached Iringa town, I gave the girls and my counterpart, Madam Eliza, some money to eat while I quickly boarded another bus to meet a Japanese volunteer who worked at the teachers college just outside of Iringa.  It happens quite often that Peace Corps volunteers work with or at least hang out with volunteers from other countries.  In my town of Iringa, there are a good number of volunteers from Japan (JIKA) and Italy.  I know many other volunteers work alongside volunteers from the UK (VSO).  There are acronyms for these organizations but essentially they do work very much like the Peace Corps from America does.  I believe President Obama actually just signed a piece of legislation that created a formal partnership between the Peace Corps and the VSO so that more efficient use could be made of the resources both organizations possess.   It is really pretty cool to meet volunteers from other countries who do similar work to you, however sometimes the language difficulties can be interesting.  I’ve been at a dinner where there was no less than 5 languages being spoken at once; English, Portuguese, Swahili, Italian, and Cantonese just to name a few.  There is also a Peace Corps volunteer I know of who lives in the Iringa region with me and he is dating a Japanese volunteer.  The funny thing is, he doesn’t know Japanese and the girl doesn’t know English so the language they use when talking to each other is Swahili.  It’s all quite interesting.  But anyway, the Japanese volunteer in Iringa teaches computers and so was able to loan us a project for use during our conference at no charge.  After grabbing the projector I headed back into town to meet up with the girls and Madam Eliza to board a bus for Mafinga.  We were able to all pile into a bus and get on our way.  We arrived at the Mafinga bus stand and met up with the last two girls from my school.  I did a silent little fist pump after this small victory.  I had successfully gotten all my girls and my counterpart into town without any major issues.  We flagged down a taxi and headed off for the conference facility that was only 10 minutes or so away.


When my group and I arrived at the facility, a few of the other volunteers and their groups of girls had already arrived.  The other volunteer who was basically the point person for the conference was there and helping the girls make name tags, pick out shirts, and distribute toiletries for the week.  As my girls got their things put away I wandered over to where I and the one other male volunteer would be staying.  As it turns out, the place where the guys were sleeping was little more than a storage closet with a single bunk bed in it.  It had windows on two sides that didn’t shut and a roof made of tin that had small holes.  Since I was the smallest guy and the structural integrity of the bunk bed looked suspect, I was nominated to sleep up top.  The house I stay at in my village was far and away superior to what we’d be staying in for this week but as I’ve learned to do here I just shrugged, threw my stuff down on the top bunk and walked out to help welcome the other volunteers and their girls.  By lunchtime, everyone except one group had arrived.  We heard from Sarah, the one girl who hadn’t arrived, that the bus out of her village had broken down and so they were basically hitch-hiking their way into town.  I know this may sound a little sketchy but I promise that hitch-hiking or “lifties” as they are called here are much more common and accepted practice than they are in the states.  We were running a little behind schedule but everyone headed down to the building where we’d be having lunch.  Another volunteer had hired a mama to come and cook for all 55 or so people for the week.  As we ate lunch, I was pleasantly surprised that as far as Tanzanian cooking goes, the meals we received were pretty dang good.  They still consisted mostly of ugali for lunch and rice for dinner but they included things that I normally don’t get like cabbage, tomato salad, and meat.  After lunch we started out with several ice breakers designed to get the girls to know each other better.  We did things like the human knot, dances, and name games.  If you’ve ever been to summer camp or anything like that you get the idea.  In Tanzania it is customary for a person of prominence to formally “open” the ceremony.  We got lucky and were able to get a high ranking local government official who also happened to be a woman.  There was a little bit of us volunteers running around preparing for her arrival because we were still running behind schedule due to the uncontrollable transportation issues, but we eventually got everything in place for her arrival.  The speech she gave to open the ceremony was completely in Swahili.  I did my best to follow an hour long speech totally in Swahili and from what I understood, she sounded like she did a heck of a job.  She talked about how she, as a woman, was able to rise to the position she was in.  She advocated education as the key; she had graduated from undergrad with a degree in education (rare for a woman here) and a master’s in Public Administration (even rarer for a woman here).  She was a great example of what was possible since most of the girls attending this conference were from the village, were gender roles are still very much set in stone.  The woman is supposed to cook, clean, and look after the kids.  This lady broke all those stereotypes and I think it was really eye opening for them.  You also need to remember that these kids in the village don’t have TV or anything like that, so their exposure to outside ideas, other than what they see in their village, is more limited than you can even imagine.  After the speaker had completed her talk, we finished the day by having all the girls take a pre-test.  This pre-test included question related to various health issues, with an obvious emphasis on HIV/AIDS.  The idea is that the girls may not know everything before the conference, but they will take the same test at the end of the conference to see how much they have learned.  All in all, the first day was a little hectic, but considering it was the first time any of us had been a part of a conference like this, I think we did okay.


Tuesday started off with some additional icebreakers, and then we got into the actual meat of the conference.  The first real informative session was led by my counterpart and I, but mostly my counterpart.  She basically introduced the concept of life skills, the issues youth face such as relationship issues, HIV/AIDS, family issues, gender stereotypes, and early pregnancy, and how learning about and discussing strategies can help you overcome these problems.  I don’t mean to brag, but Madam Eliza (my counterpart) did an amazing job.  She was lucky to get some good practice doing a similar session during our FEMA club (aka life skills club) at school that we started so she absolutely knocked it out of the park at girl’s conference.  The next session dealt with the role the girls would play once the conference was over.  We really wanted to emphasis that the girls were being trained to be ambassadors or student leaders and that a large part of what we were trying to do is to have these girls take what they learn at the conference and share it with their classmates back at school.  It’s obviously impossible to reach all kids individually but if we can train a small number of students to be the teachers, you really have the possibility of creating a ripple affect so that the knowledge is transferred to as many people as possible.  We made it clear that they didn’t need to limit their teaching to fellow classmates and that it was also possible to educate villagers outside the school community on topics learned during this week.  After the session on peer education, the two other guys and I were mostly finished for the day.  The remainder of the sessions consisted of topics like anatomy and women’s health and hygiene.  These topics are obviously more openly discussed if you don’t have guys standing in the room so me, Peter, and Dan were sent away to do manly things like buy and carry large crates of soda and prepare for movie night.  The previous night there was no electricity at the facility but Tuesday we were lucky enough to have it so we hooked up the projector and watched “How to Train your Dragon”.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it, especially in 3D…


The bulk of Wednesday consisted of a rotation between three sessions.  The girls were split up into three groups and rotated to each session for an hour at a time.  The sessions consisted of a session on relationships and what a healthy relationship looks like, condoms/family planning, and a session on sex, ways to delay sex, what is safe sex, and what are the consequences of sex.  The only session I attended was the session on relationships, again because having an adult male in the room during the other sessions might make the girls less willing to participate or might make them uncomfortable.  All of these sessions were conducted by other Peace Corps volunteers alongside our Tanzanian counterparts.  I consider myself lucky because I really didn’t need to do anything to prepare.  I think I’ve mentioned this before but the more hands off I can be the better; that means that my counterparts and or other Tanzanians are doing the actual work, which is what makes these initiatives sustainable down here anyway.  In the afternoon we had a speaker come from our t-shirt sponsor, Chai Bora, to talk about the science behind HIV/AIDS then we had a question and answer session.  All through the previous few days we encouraged the girls to write down their questions, no matter how crazy they might seem, so that they could ask them anonymously.  I definitely think that this was one of the most useful sessions for the girls because there are so many rumors about HIV/AIDS and ways to prevent pregnancies that it was good to get these myths out in the open and discuss them and why they are false.  We ended our formal sessions early on Wednesday so that the girls could play some sports.  We reserved the fields near the facility we were at and had an absolute blast playing ultimate Frisbee, netball, and jumping rope.  Surprisingly the most populate activities were Frisbee and jumping rope.  I’m not sure why, but you don’t see Frisbees down here.  They are super cheap and the kids love playing with them.  I think that if anyone is thinking about sending a care package that I may see if they can send a box of Frisbees that my school could keep for students to toss around in the evenings.  Then jumping rope was probably the second most popular activity.  The string we brought initially to try and put up a volley ball net wasn’t quite long enough so a few of the students ran into the woods and reappeared with long vine/ropes.  Apparently there is a tree, translated directly, called the ‘rope tree’ in which kids pull off the bark and are able to make awesome jump ropes.  The other volunteers and I had a blast jumping, one, two, and three people at a time.  By the end of the day we actually got pretty damn good at it and only left the playground because of darkness.  During the evening after dinner, the other girl volunteers planned a ‘Spa Night’ for the girls.  We bought eye liner, henna, nail polish, and lotion; all things that these girls probably never get to use on a regular basis.  I should also note that when I say ‘we’ bought them I actually meant the other girl volunteers bought them.  The ladies who cooked dinner were even getting into the action.  I think that it was a huge hit thanks to our fellow female volunteers and the guys just helped by taking pictures.


The schedule for Thursday was absolutely packed but I think we planned a lot of good sessions.  One session that was a huge hit was the session on self-esteem.  This is something that these girls struggle mightily with as girls for the most part are expected to move into the traditional female roles of cooking, cleaning, and bearing children.  In class, the girls are definitely less likely as a whole to answer questions and many of them won’t look you in the eye even if you do call on them.  We had each girl write her name on a piece of 8 ½ x 11 piece of paper then tape it to their back.  Then everyone got a pen and we gave the girls about 30 minutes to go around the room and write someone nice about each other on their backs.  The only worry us volunteers had was that some girls wouldn’t get as many comments but at the end of the activity every single paper was overflowing with positive comments suck as ‘you look beautiful today!’ or ‘you are amazing at jump rope’.  We could tell it was a success just by looking at the girls faces as they read their pieces of paper.  Every single girl had a huge smile on their face while reading her comments.  We then had a higher education panel made up of girls in advanced level secondary school, college, and technical school.  This gave our girls an open forum to ask questions and a platform for successful girls to give some insight on what it took to get to the position they were at.  We also had a career panel made up of a headmistress, a police woman, and a government representative to again address the girls and tell them how they came to acquire the positions that they held.  To cap off the day we had a session on money management/business skills followed by several sessions addressing decision making and goal setting.  We finished off the day by having the girls put their goals in writing and basically construct a plan on how they will achieve those goals.  This seemed straightforward but the majority of the girls really struggled with thinking of short term and long term goals.  Thinking about life goals is just something that is a foreign concept to most kids here and I think they found it really challenging when we gave them the task.  We had to walk around and basically hold their hands for them through the thought process of determining short term goals, long term goals, and how short term goals could eventually contribute to the attainment of their long term goals and how the decisions you make today can help or hinder the achievement of their goals.  In the evening, we had a talent show scheduled.  Before the conference we had all told the girls from each of our respective schools to come up with a skit, a song, a dance, or something else that showcases their talents.  It turned out to be a huge success as the girls from all the schools put a lot of time into their performances.  However, I’m going to be a little biased and say that my girls had the most creative and original performance.  They decided to do a mini fashion show.  They got decked out in various kinds of traditional Tanzanian dress and walked out like they were on the catwalk.  One of the girls was the MC and commentated on the outfits as they strutted their stuff down the imaginary runway.  I was able to get some good pictures from the night and I’ll be sure to post these pictures over on Facebook for people to check out.  So us volunteers figured that if all the girls put on a show, that us volunteers had to at least do a little something.  Now I don’t exactly possess the skills needed to dance or choreograph a routine but luckily some of the other volunteers were a little more willing.  They put something together and taught it to us at the last minute.  It wasn’t anything too crazy but the girls and counterparts loved it.  At the conclusion of our little routine, we broke out into a dance party.  We were able to rent some big speakers and rock out for a few hours.  I don’t normally dance, but i did eventually get out there and bust out some moves.  The problem is that my go to moves; the lawnmower and the shopping cart wouldn’t really be understood by the kids here so I had to imitate some moves I saw in the Tanzanian music videos, which I’m sure was quite entertaining for everyone who had the privilege to witness them….


Friday was the final day of the conference and basically consisted of the girls taking their post-test to see how much they learned, getting group photos, and getting an early start on the journey home.  Overall I think the girls really enjoyed themselves, learned a lot, and seemed super enthusiastic about taking what they learned and sharing it with other students back in the village.  Other than some confusion on the first day and a small issue related to the amount of money our counterparts expected to receive (traditionally for events like this Tanzanians expect to be paid, and paid rather well.  This is a holdover from the colonial days when the way people were enticed to show up to various events was to throw money at them), we ended up coming in way under budget (I was nominated to handle the money for the week so I’m going to go ahead and say it was my excellent budgeting skills that allowed us to save so much cash).  But in all seriousness, it was really promising to see the girls wishing each other well, talking about meeting up down the road, and encouraging each other.  Even though the conference is technically completed, the real test of how large of an impact we had was how effectively we can guide these girls and help them become peer mentors.  My girls were all talking about how they would lead sessions during FEMA club meetings at our school.  Not only is it a great thing that they were pumped to spread the knowledge but it will also give them a chance to practice and develop their leadership skills.  Since the conference was pretty successful we volunteers have already begun discussing putting together a boy’s conference sometime later in the year.  I feel really lucky to have other awesome volunteers in the same region as me who were amazing to work with while planning this, so if we do end up putting together a boy’s conference I think it will be slightly less stressful now that we have a region full of seasoned conference planning veterans….




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