One of the most chaotic, stressful and most rewarding weeks I’ve had so far was last month’s Girls Conference. Each of us 12 volunteers in the Mbeya region brought six girls from our villages together to teach about healthy living, HIV/AIDS and life skills such as communications and decision making.
Selecting my six girls was much harder than I expected. I thought I’d be able to identify the six best in my oldest class of standard 6. But then I realized I could easily choose 10 different girls. I worried because attending this conference could be a life changing event- motivating the girls to go on to secondary school and hopefully university. And what if the girls not chosen became depressed and unmotivated?! Ok, I overreacted but I really felt the pressure of these girls' futures being in my hands!
I finally decided on my six and had their parents sign permission slips for the condom education and demonstrations. Condoms are still fairly new in the rural areas of TZ and not all adults understand their necessity, even with HIV/AIDS such a prevalent problem. Plus, like in American, some adults here worry providing education on condoms is promoting premarital sex. Not all parents consented in their children sitting in this session.
The morning came for us to travel to the technical college outside Mbeya town where the conference would be held. We’d catch a large truck, or lorry, passing through our village then change to a dala in Mbalizi, a larger village at the bottom of the mountain. At the last minute I learned one of the girls would not be able to attend and another would be meeting us in Mbalizi. (She lives in our village with her sister. Her parents live in Mbalizi, and she was staying with them through the school break. This is very common in large families here who may not be able to afford all their kids.)
We got on our way only an hour later than I planned- I was feeling good! Then we arrived in Mbalizi, and I got nervous. Mbalizi is crazier than most larger towns. It’s the agricultural hub for the area, so there is usually all kinds of trucks, carts and people hurrying around. I have my hands full just keeping myself from being ran over or attacked by the street vendors. Now I was also looking out for four pre-teen girls who had never been out of their village. I definitely have more respect for teachers who lead field trips back home!
The girl meeting us was not there, but I figured she’s be at the next dala stand and would hop on then. We get there and she is not. Before I can decide on the best way to proceed, the dala is pulling on to the road and my other four girls are yelling they see the fifth! I politely ask the driver to pull over, but he won’t! I then start yelling in Swahili- a few English curses may have slipped in- that we need off, but he won’t stop!
We went on to the village just outside Mbeya where we would need to change to a taxi. Luckily, I’d been able to reach a couple other volunteers already at the college and able to help my girls if I sent them on without me. I was then able to jump into another dala heading back to Mbalizi to find the MIA girl. I got there, searched but could not find her.
Feeling so guilty for losing this girl, I have no other option but to head on to the college without her. Then on the way I get a call that she somehow managed to get herself there! I’m still not completely sure how she got there, but I was too relieved to ask questions. Again, much respect to all my teacher friends out there!
The rest of the week went much smoother for the most part. I was amazed to see the transition of the girls from the first day to the end. Particularly my girls- being some of the youngest there- were really shy at first. Before long they were participating with everyone else.
The schedule was Tues: HIV/AIDS; Wed: Life Skills; Thurs: Women’s Health; and Fri: Career Day. Mon and Sat were travel days. On Tues morning we gave a pre-test. My girls having not ever had any health education scored no higher than 15 out of 50 (fairly average). But then at the end of the week they did much better scoring no lower than 20/50. I was really proud of the improvement!
Friday afternoon was a talent show. Since my girls were so shy, I offered to teach them a song. I translated the little bit of English in the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight and they loved it! I was a little concerned about them memorizing it, but when they saw it written and how much of it is repetition, they confidently said “hamna shida” which means “no problem”. They were so funny!
They wanted to practice all week and even made up a dance to go with it. So you can imagine my disappointment when their turn came and they sang a different song!! After I (strongly) encouraged them to go again, they sang our song and did an awesome job!
The whole week was one that reminds me why I am here. It was hard at first being someone use to leading events in the US. But here the conference was entirely done in Swahili, so we had to rely heavily on the few volunteers who are really great Swahili speakers. I had to adapt by remembering we all have our strengths and that’s how we best work as I team. So I still got to jump in and lead some fun energizers and games!