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.
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!