Tag Archives: camp

we have a dream, like martin luther king

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My old worn pink asics are on, I’m wearing my Hendrix capri sport pants, and my hair is thrown in a messy bun. I’m ready for sport. It’s just like most other days in my life—when it comes to my daily life, there’s a good chunk of time spent running, doing yoga (or some other random workout video on my computer), playing football, or going on long walks around the village. This is what I do. This is my element.

Only this time, one thing is different. Oh, and it’s pretty major. I’m playing goal ball and so I’m wearing black goggles that block out my vision. That’s right—I’m playing this particular sport without the ability to see. It’s what makes goal ball unique.

You see, I’m playing goal ball with a handful of boys who are partially blind or cannot see at all. And what’s amazing is that there is this game at all—it’s called goal ball—and you spend 20 minutes in a crouched position, waiting for the ball to be served (like the size of a kickball), and to come your way (you can’t see it, but it has a special bell inside so that you can listen for it). When you hear it, you prepare to block it from entering the large goal behind you. You have two other teammates by your side, ready to block right along with you. To serve, the best players place their hand on our goal to spot check, and just as quickly, the spin and dish the ball on the cement ground. They keep it low, and it somehow reminds me of a cross between bowling tactics and old school kickball on the playground. You can’t see—remember?—and so you have to clap your hands and feel the ground in order to position yourself correctly and communicate with your teammates.

To go from seeing everything to nothing is intense. And I did this for approximately 19 minutes—I can’t even begin to imagine what the boys that I played with must feel like everyday. In some ways, I imagine it’s incredibly isolating and frustrating. But these boys, well, they are without a doubt, a special group.

They made up 5 of the 65 boys we had at our recent Eastern Province BE CAMP (Boys Excelling). These boys came from all over the East to represent their schools as leaders and instigators of new ideas and change in their communities. The camp is sponsored by Peace Corps, so all of these students either have a Peace Corps Volunteer in their community as a teacher or as a health worker. I brought four boys to camp: Robert and Yousef from Senior 3, and Tom and Dieudonne from Senior 4.

We had the girls equivalent of this camp this last summer (GLOW: Girls Leading Our  World). And quite literally, that experience changed my life. I was able to see the real, concrete, and powerful effect of being a proverbial seed-planter. I’ve come to realize that is really what being a Peace Corps Volunteer is all about: we are here to encourage, to share, to love, and to support, but many of the ideas and resources we bring act as seeds to a much larger garden. I won’t see most of the changes that I’ve worked towards this past year and will continue this next year in 2013, but that’s okay—it comes with the territory. Camps seem to be an exception to this rule, as after just a few days of being together, singing songs, playing games, studying life skills, and dancing, Rwandan youth find so many ways to come out of their shells. You can often see them radiate with self-confidence and happiness after the camp is over, and though you never know how exactly these students will apply the knowledge and skills that we tried to teach them, you can instantly see what it feels like for them to be told that yes they can and that as leaders in their community, they have the power to make things better in their own lives but also in the lives of others.

When GLOW finished this last August, I couldn’t wait for the next camp. It was like I was addicted to this feeling—is this what it feels like to make the world a better place, I asked myself. I wrote the date for our BE camp early on and I had been looking forward to it ever since.

Yet, to be perfectly honest, I was also much more nervous for the boys version of camp. When it comes to working with youth and I have conversations that connect me emotionally with students, I have noticed that I connect much more strongly with young women. And so, anticipating the week long training with over 50 boys initiated a lot of questions on my behalf: will I be able to ask the right questions? Will they trust me to open up? Will they be as open to new ideas as the girls were?

All of these questions were put to rest as we stood in a circle in the great hall at HVP Gatagara (a school for the visually impaired about 90 minutes from my house), with burning candles held in our hands, singing Silent Night, after a stirring speech from one of our Peace Corps Volunteers, Christina. Silent Night always gives rise to emotions in my heart, and so a few small tears fell down my face much in the same way that the white candle wax was leaking through the brown paper onto my hands. I was crying out of happiness though; these boys, much like the girls from GLOW, inspired me in more ways than I could have ever imagined. In just 4 short days, I felt like I watched these boys learn new things about building relationships, commit themselves to achieving their dreams and visions, and working together to make new friends and learn more about themselves.

Abouba told me about his life as an orphan. His school lets him study and sleep there in exchange for his extra work on the holidays.

Erneste explained his passion for goal ball as we held hands and I guided him around campus. He is one of the best players around—yes, even in Rwanda and East Africa—as he was able to travel to Algeria and compete internationally just a few years ago. He may be blind, but he doesn’t view this as a handicap—just another challenge in life. We all have challenges, he told me, and it shouldn’t stop us from doing what we love to do.

Froudard was the incredible winner of Limbo at our carnival (I still can’t believe how low that boy got) and then he outdid himself in the talent show when he performed Rwandan traditional dance with boys from his school. He did the splits for nearly a minute and most of the volunteers watched with shock and gasps on our faces. That boy got skills!

Alphonse brought his guitar out every night and sang some classics (Country Roads and Hero for example) before singing some of his own songs. His ability to play guitar and sing is unparalleled by many other musical gifts that I have seen, and it’s all the more amazing when you realize that Alphonse is also visually impaired and cannot see. But that’s never the focus when you are in his presence; he is constantly keeping the people around him laughing and completely in awe by his musical talent.

The boys of Martin Luther King Jr. (my hero group—we had a total of 8 hero groups so the boys could be in smaller groups to discuss and have a family like atmosphere) won the cheer-off on day one and I couldn’t have been prouder. After I explained Martin Luther King Jr. to the first boy who came to camp, he proceeded to explain the works and life of King to the rest of the boys who arrived throughout the afternoon. They owned and paraded around the campus with the pride of being in Dr. King’s group. I would yell, Where is the King? and the boys would respond equally loud and obnoxious with we are here! When we were all together we would sing our cheer which went something like this:

 Where are you going?

What what?

I said, where are you going?

WE (clap clap)

ARE (clap clap)

GOING (clap clap)

TO (clap clap)

WASHINGTON! (clap clap)

(here the boys and I bring our arms together in the middle of the circle, raised in the air, to symbolize the Washington Monument)

(we stay silent for about 3 seconds and then…)

LET’S MARCH!!

We want freedom!

We want equality!

We want love!

So we tell them…

We have a dream!

Like Martin Luther King!

A dream, a dream, a DREAM A DREAM A DREAM!

It should come as no surprise that by the end of camp, I could barely talk and when I did, I sounded like an old man who has been smoking cigarettes for far too long.

Besides lessons on various topics like HIV/AIDS, gender equality, and communication, the boys had journaling activities (oh yeah. totally my doing), a career fair (we had visitors that included a journalist, a police officer, a soldier, a teacher, and an IT specialist) so they could share their experiences and journey within their respective vocations, a talent show, spontaneous dancing, and afternoon activities like sport, the American classic of the egg drop challenge, and cooking (some PCVs taught the boys how to cook bread over a charcoal stove).

I should emphasize the dancing: holy cow, I danced so much that week. I think GLOW was where I fell in love with teaching baseball in Rwanda and it was BE where I fell in love with dance. I’ve always enjoyed dancing (who doesn’t??) but I felt so free the entire time we were at camp. When the boys arrived at camp, we drummed the traditional Rwandan sound on the lunch tables and danced. Between meals, we danced. And when we finally landed a sound system for the talent show, we danced. I love moving around freely, but there is certainly something intensely special about the Rwandan cow dance. You move your arms to represent the intore, the traditional African warrior, alongside the proverbial cow, which is of the upmost importance in Rwandan culture. You move everything in your body along with the beat of the music, and it’s just about the most beautiful dance I have ever seen. And I sure do try. Sometimes, I actually feel like I can do it pretty decently—and the boys told me so! In the spirit of building confidence, they told me I can do the cow dance and so all week long, even in the absence of a melody to follow, I was moving my feet and legs, just like many Rwandans. Proof # 384 that I’m becoming more and more Rwandan with each passing day. (on a side note: I should also indicate that I have video proof of me doing the wobble along with about 20 other students and another PCV who taught us. Believe me, this is one for the home video collection!)

BE camp, just like GLOW, will without question, be a highlight of my Peace Corps experience. It just works. In our communities, working in the classroom everyday and building relationships with our community members, it can be sometimes quite difficult to witness, understand, or even believe that you are making any kind of difference. But at camp, you just know, and it’s one of the most powerful emotions I have ever experienced. To be standing there, in a crowded room, knowing that lives have been changed—what more could you ask for? And what’s even better, is that you know that this change isn’t possible just because of you, it’s also because of them, and it’s also because of God. Who knows when I’ll meet with some of those boys and girls again—if ever—but we were together for a powerful time, albeit short, and that counts for something. We have memories to take with us, feelings to carry on, and the world to change for the better. When I participate in these kinds of camps, I always walk away reaffirmed and believing that the best of our world lies in the youth. They have the capability to do it—it’s just telling them, reaffirming them, and giving them the knowledge and capacity to do so. Just like with GLOW, I walk away from this camp absolutely convinced that this is what I want to do with my life. I want to be the person that says yes you can and if I could be doing this alongside lessons about life skills and going outside to play sport, then I would be even more happy. These boys (and the girls back at GLOW) write notes of affirmation, telling us how much they love us, and how important the camp was to them. I write them notes back too, not only telling them how great they are, but giving them thanks, because whether they know it or not, they have also given me the confidence to believe in my life, to believe in my work, and continue to know that we all have something special to offer the world.

Yes, like my boys said, we have a dream, like Martin Luther King.

And, I am so blessed to be apart of it, no matter if it’s big or small.

Even on the hard days, I often find myself thinking that I must have one of the best jobs in the world. And maybe the best part is that it’s not really a job for me—and it never really has. It’s just my life and my dream coming together and giving some sort of outcome for the vision I have had for myself for so long. And really, it’s just the beginning. Not just for my Peace Corps experience, but for what I hope for the rest of my life. Yes, all of this I gain from a few small days of playing sport, holding hands, and cheering with a group of boys. They are that inspirational, believe me. They are going to change Rwanda for the better. They are going to be the ones to change the world. 

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inspire.

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I never imagined that a true moment of glory and freedom would happen in the middle of a girls’ camp in rural Rwanda:

the Glee version of Don’t Stop Believing was playing in the background, the enthusiastic and screaming girls (there were 106 of them to be exact) were huddled around the front of the room which became our makeshift stage for the Talent Show, and maybe best of all, most of us were decked out in African fabric (called igitenge—my outfit was complete with a hair wrap done by another one of the Rwandan camp facilitators) as well as these beyond hilarious white masks that the girls made during our drama sessions at camp. To give you an idea, when I first saw these masks (some of the girls were performing mime for the drama session during afternoon activities) after coming back from playing baseball on the first day of camp, I literally fell over laughing and crying out of happiness. As we improv’d our dance moves (which included cartwheels and interpretative dancing) I glanced out in the crowd of our GLOW girls and saw smiles and cheers and happiness. One girl ripped up paper and came to the front to throw it on us—a Rwandan way to show appreciation—and I remember thinking that this kind of spontaneity, joy, and laughing was exactly what we came to camp to help the girls with. Plus, it’s also fun to just be a little weird every now and then (or in my case, all the time).

Dancing so freely in front of all these people was particularly memorable not because it was a case of acting like a freak (I do this on the daily) but instead, as I was dancing with my friends, and as we watched other dances, songs, and other performances at the Talent Show, I got the sense that all of us—the campers but also the facilitators—were changed and transformed by this camp experience.

Saying yes you can is powerful stuff. Believing in somebody can change the way someone thinks about themselves. I believed all of this before; I’ve stood behind these ideas and concepts since I came to Rwanda, but also long before. However, there was something deeply special about watching girls come out of their shells, to take ownership of their own abilities, and to love who they are, to believe in what they can be for the very first time in their lives. We come from a culture where positive reinforcement is everywhere. It doesn’t mean Americans don’t have self-esteem problems; in fact, we may have even more issues when it comes to that kind of thing than other cultures, but the idea of possibility, potential, and self-love is certainly available. I mean, seriously. Go to a local bookstore sometime and check out the self-help section. But now, I’m working with students and people in a culture where this kind of support and motivation is not always accessible. That’s what attracted me to GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Camp in the first place—in bringing about positive change in a place you have to start with love. You have to help the future generations to see their potential, to strive for that potential, and to know that they can achieve their goals. Is it easy? Oh my goodness, no. But supporting that path is, I believe, the most important work needed to be done.

All I have to do, I know now, is to be that person that says yes; and when I was up there dancing, and throughout the whole week, I came to the realization that no matter where life takes me, that is what I want my life to be about. If you asked me what I want to do with my life, well, this is it. We all have strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and all sorts of gifts and talents. I am relatively attune to what I can and cannot offer this world, but wow, I did not expect how much joy I would find this past week. In fact, this week, I didn’t realize how much I was in my element until I was out of it. On the last day of GLOW camp, as we watched the March of Heroes (all of the campers were in a specific hero group, for example, Oprah (that was my group!**), Wangari Mathai, JK Rowling, Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, Miss Jojo (a Rwandan singer) where the girls came in chanting their own songs for each hero, I felt like a proud mother and a surge of positivity and hope surged throughout my body. I saw girls who had started the week quiet, unsure, and hesitant. The girls that marched into the large brick-walled cafeteria room were not the same. They were different. We gave out their GLOW certificates and before saying goodbye, we had a candle-lighting ceremony that represented the effect that the spirit of GLOW can have—you start with one, but soon you can spread it and you have a community of positivity and love that never existed before.

I had the beautiful opportunity to not only watch the girls of Oprah (Eugenie, Francine, Valentine, Clementine, Nadine, Mimi, Angelique, Olive, Rachel, Belise, and our junior facilitator, Domitire (one of the best handball players in the Eastern Province mind you) grow in a matter of days, but maybe even more dear to my heart, I was able to watch as my very own girls from my school (Divine, Yvonne, Joselyne, Joyce, and Maisara) thrive outside of their own community with new people, friends, and ideas.

The fire burned freely underneath the moonlight sky. Each girl held tightly to their small piece of white paper. On this paper, each girl wrote just a small sentence or two. These were powerful sentences though; these sentences were the I can’ts of their lives. Each GLOW girl wrote something that they or somebody had told them that they could not do. As we slowly gathered around the fire, any girl that felt so inclined could stand in front of the entire group and share what they had been told they could not do. I sat near another Rwandan facilitator who was able to translate, and for the hour or so that we sat in the flames and smoke of the fire, I had chills from the words and passion that I heard coming from the girls’ stories. Divine came to the middle of our circle and with a sense of strength and courage that I had never seen from her, she told her story. Divine told us with a commanding sense of conviction (the MC even commented about how she was the most fearless of all girls) that her family had told her to stop studying. She was told she could not go to university. She was told that because of her bad marks that school was pointless. She was told that she could not do something with her life. I watched as she ripped the paper in half and threw it into the fire. Girls cheered. We all cheered. And tears came down my face before I could even stop them. Divine inspires me.

~

The dust from the dirt and ground seeped into my clothes, skin, and face. This can’t be good for my acne, I thought. But, I didn’t care. We were playing baseball. I was one of the leaders for the sports afternoon activity, and so after a brief stretching and some breathing exercises, we decided to mix up the sporting options a bit and teach the girls baseball. Matt had brought his bat and balls and so we began the task of teaching the girls a bit about the so-called America’s game. The girls are smart! We explained in broken Kinyarwanda, English, and dramatic gestures how to play the game. And get this. They actually understood! Besides several (okay, many) bloopers of girls actually throwing the ball at girls as they were running, we had girls catch some fly balls, throw the ball to the correct base, and even some girls who hit some home-runs. Not bad for an afternoon at the park. One time, standing in the outfield, I watched one girl hit a strong ball towards 2nd base. We all gasped in awe of the hit, but we gasped much louder when one girl was able to catch the ball bare-handed. I exclaimed with joy when I saw that it was one of my dearest students, Maisara, who had found enough athleticism to make a difficult and incredible catch even in a sun-infused sky. Maisara smiled and as she watched all of us cheer for her, a huge grin reached across her face! She held the ball up in the air. “Yes! I did it”, she said. Yes, girl. You sure did.

~

Because I was in charge of the schedule and programming of our camp in the Eastern Province, I was not assigned to teach a lesson at camp. While I was sad not to be able to teach and be working in the classroom, I was also excited to have the chance to observe and absorb the information that my fellow colleagues had prepared for the girls. The lessons the girls had throughout the week included lessons on self-esteem, communication, decision-making, career planning, gender balance, gender roles, HIV/AIDS prevention (including a condom demonstration), and HIV/AIDS biology. I sat through most of the lessons with my Oprah hero group so I could be familiar with the lessons and knowledge when we did our group check-ins each day. In one lesson, the girls were discussing the concept of being a role-model. The teacher asked the class who was a role-model at their school. For a few moments, no girl made a move. Slowly, one girl raised her finger and stood up. To me delight it was Joselyne, a senior three student who is one of the most hard-working students I have. She was wearing her green and blue igitenge in a beautiful wrap on her head and remarked that she was a leader at her school. The teacher pressed on, asking how she knew she was a role-model. Joselyne gave this a few moments of thought and replied that the other students had told her she was a role model for them. The teacher accepted this response, but for whatever reason, I felt compelled to speak. I raised my hand, stood up, and looked Joselyne right in the eye. I said that yes, the students agree that Joselyne is a role-model at school, but that many of the teachers, administration and community members felt the same way. I told her that I felt the same way. I said that she was absolutely correct, and that she should be proud of herself. The class cheered. Joselyne cheered. Without question, I just know that girl is going to do great things for our school and for her country. 

~  

We had a carnival (including things like pin-the-tail-on-the-cow, water balloons, face-painting, and limbo), made jewelry, took photos (so. many. photoshoots.), sang cheers, danced like crazy people, ate at themed tables for lunch (with topics like favorite sports, school subject, etc.), made a ridiculous amount of posters, had guest speakers from different sectors about their career paths (including a broadcaster from BBC), and kept late hours to make sure everything at camp went on without a hitch. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this tired. Yet, I also don’t think I’ve ever felt this satisfied, inspired, and touched. Putting everything that happened these last few days has proved incredibly challenging. With these kinds of emotions it’s hard to process, put it on paper, and expect people to really understand what it’s like to feel this way.

There are a lot of kinds of love in this world. I didn’t know just how vast and wide my heart was until coming to Rwanda. And for these girls, being able to explain what it means to live your best life or to teach them cheers with phrases like yes we can was a transformative experience for them, but also for me. My girls have started calling me ‘Auntie’ and as I watch them develop, mature, grow, and start to believe in themselves, well, there is absolutely no other place I would rather be. To say that GLOW was a highlight of my Peace Corps experience isn’t quite enough; this was genuinely one of the best things I’ve been involved with. Ever.

**Just in case you were interested, here’s what one of our Oprah cheers was:

Put your Oprah glasses on! Pur your Oprah glasses on! Put your Oprah glasses on!

This is our circle. We are together as O.

Ooooooooooooooooo

1, 2, 3!

If you live your best life, clap your hands!

If you live your best life, clap your hands!

If you live your best life and you really want to know it, if you live your best life, clap your hands!

Oprah….Oprah…OPRAH!!!! 

my hero poster for OPRAH

pin the tail on the COW. win for cultural context.

put on your OPRAH glasses 🙂

WE WON THE SPIRIT STICK. holler.

the “I can’t” funeral

Maisara about to hit her home-run in baseball

me and my Ruramira girls ❤

talent show. enough said.

OPRAH GROUP with our GLOW shirts!