I got a call this week from an orphan, an aspiring football player, a songwriter, a singer, a bright and chatty teenage girl named Ruth. Ruth was calling to say she passed her Malawi Senior Certificate Examination, the national secondary exit assessment. After working with Ruth for just one week at a camp last school break, I had no doubts about the successes she would achieve in her life. Still, in the moment of that phone call I was overcome by pride. She is on her way.
Ruth was one of my girls at Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) in August, where I worked as a camp counselor. I was excited about my role there but nervous as well; it had been some time since my babysitting-mother’s helper-makeshift day camp leader days, and most of my involvement with the youth in Malawi had been as a teacher, a disciplinarian, a source of support for students, certainly, but not a source of entertainment. Suddenly I was studying up on songs and activities, trying to tap into an energy source exhausted by the previous week’s Camp SKY. In the end, I realized I should have never worried.
Camp GLOW is a program designed to empower and educate girls in Peace Corps served countries. All across Malawi hundreds of girls wrote intensive applications with detailed essays, petitioning for a place in this greatly beneficial summer program. The GLOW coordination team, a group of motivated and energetic women, had the event perfectly planned out to the minute. I was fortunate to work as a counselor with an incredible counseling team of women, both fellow Peace Corps volunteers and local counterparts. I was paired with my own counterpart, Edeline, my neighbor and friend and a local primary school teacher here in Chintheche. Edeline and I were responsible for 9 GLOW girls and a junior counselor, and when our girls voted for the group name BODACIOUS, we knew we were in for an adventurous week.
I’ve spent several months turning over the memories in my mind, wondering how I could ever write a proper depiction of Camp GLOW. A listing of our activities, experiences, events, speakers, and exercises during the camp simply will not do the program justice. A dry rehashing of the agenda could never capture the overwhelming emotions that the week inspired. The best I can do, I think, is to tell some stories…stories that I will cherish forever as memories of easily one of the most impacting and inspiring experiences of my life.
1. A bonfire looms before me as I kneel in the dark watching the girls, their singing faces lit by flame, as they step up, one by one, to burn handwritten notes describing the dreams they have been told they cannot accomplish. Shouts of “I will never pass my MSCE,” “I will never attend university,” “I can’t be a teacher,” “I will never travel out of Malawi,” “I can’t be a nurse,” “I can’t understand math,” and “I will never finish school,” were answered by chants of “YOU CAN! YOU CAN!” I consider this in the shadows. Malawi has terrible statistics for female successes because early marriage, pregnancy, and academic struggles, among other social norms and expectations, hold back the population. Soon my girls are up for their turn to burn. Ruth wails “I can’t be a footballer!” She slams her scrap of paper into the fire with a vengeance and beams in the firelight as the crowd answers, “YOU CAN! YOU CAN!” If any girl in Malawi can become the nation’s first professional female soccer player, it’s Ruth.
2. We are sitting in a circle in the grass, out of breath from a song and dance just completed, and Edeline and I conduct an orientation discussion on confidentiality. Here at Camp GLOW, we say, we are family, we 12 women. We emphasize with the girls the need to be kind listeners and a strong source of support for one another as we experience the camp together. One girl proposes a pact of secrecy and friendship, and we all place our hands together and yell booooOOODACIOUS! In the shadow of this group promise, Rose blurts out, “Please don’t laugh, but what do I do if my uncle is trying to make me sleep with him? My aunt thinks I am lying and I have nowhere to go.”
3. Through the week and with exposure to many amazing speakers, many subjects arise including sex, rape, menstruation, gender equality, and abuse. It’s clear that many of the girls don’t trust the authority of we women. All their lives they have been told, for example, that it is a man’s right to beat his wife, or to have sex with her even if she does not want to. Luckily our forward-thinking coordinators had arranged a man panel, our “MANel,” inviting the expertise of a varied panel of males willing to answer questions about these sensitive subjects. A single American man, a married Malawian man, a Malawian male university student, a young Malawian bachelor, and a married American man assemble and are bombarded with bold questions. The expressions on the girls faces rotate between doubt, shock, and relief as they are told that even from the man’s perspective, spousal abuse was wrong; sex the woman does not want is wrong; a husband who has sex with his wife without her consent is wrong. The girls listen in awe as these men disclaim Malawian myths: a man will not die if he is aroused by a girl who doesn’t help him achieve release; a man’s penis will not fall off if he sleeps with a woman who is menstruating; it is possible for a woman to become pregnant even in the water or standing up. The girls hear, straight from male mouths, that sex with a condom feels just as good as sex without, that men can achieve orgasm in other ways than sex, that both women and men are supposed to be faithful to their marriages, that men who seduce underage girls are wrong to do so.
4. The Minister of Gender and the Minister of Education both came to this high-profile national event. After brief explanations of their jobs they opened the floor for questions. All week, I had watched these girls struggle to adjust to the idea of asking questions, a practice that is generally not encouraged even in schools. I had watched them struggle with the confidence to ask their questions and with the English skills necessary to communicate their questions effectively. So it was a shocker when girls were suddenly respectfully but forcefully and eloquently hitting these national officials with questions like, “To the Minister of Education, many of our teachers are having sex with us in exchange for better scores. Why aren’t you doing something to change this?” and “To the Minister of Gender, what is your stand on homosexuality?” I could probably get in trouble for publishing this, but their hard-hitting questions seemed to hit the Ministers off-guard, and somehow the children were speaking more fluently, gracefully, and confidently than the women about serious, important issues that they were genuinely concerned about following several days of GLOW sessions on assertiveness, public speaking, and women’s and human rights. I was so proud of our strong girls.
5. A fellow counselor and I have probably slept a total of 8 hours over the last few days between the early morning starts and late-night pillow talk with the girls. We are bunking down for the night but are struggling to settle in, overwhelmed by exhaustion and emotion, so we chat for some time about our time here in Malawi. We discuss how the village life is breaking us down, destroying our beauty, our femininity, our attractiveness, aging us, abusing us. She sleepily says, “still, I’m sure when I look back I’ll realize I was young and wild and beautiful.” We realize that we are spending our every moment at this camp preaching self-esteem and confidence, and look at us doubting ourselves! We ARE beautiful, we remember together, you are beautiful and I am beautiful and we are doing something special here and we should be proud of this life we’re living. I realize that confidence isn’t something that can be taught or instilled then left alone. We need reminders of our power and beauty and GLOW! We need people to be proud of us and let us know it, we need positive reinforcement, we need hugs and high fives and we need respect—just like all our little girls do. Overnight I became a better, stronger, even more energetic counselor.
6. GLOW had an intense schedule of women speakers; each day journalists, entrepreneurs, aid workers, even Miss Malawi, and other Malawian lady big-wigs came to discuss their jobs and what young girls need to do to eventually stand in their shoes. I was continually impressed by the speakers and their encouraging remarks and inspiring personal stories and I enjoyed watching the girls grow more and more comfortable with interacting with these powerful and well-respected professionals. Throughout the week girls got good practice with important people, so it wasn’t strange to prep them on how to act with VIPs. We spent a lot of time discussing what could potentially happen when our final and most powerful speaker arrived, covering everything from when to stand up to how to shake hands. And when Madame US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived, many hands were shaken indeed. Hill-Dawg gave an excellent speech that was inspiring to the girls, not to mention me and every other adult present. Then she wanted to wear her new chitenje, a gift from the GLOW girls, so a selected girl who had been carefully prepped approached her to show her how to wear it. Madame Secretary could have certainly asked the girl to demonstrate, but instead she put her arms out and allowed the girl to wrap her up. I will never forget the look on Hillary’s face when that small hand plunged down the front of her suit to tuck in the corner of the wrap. She had the same surprised expression moments later when the girl abruptly forgot protocol and threw her arms around the American Secretary of State, who, surprised and momentarily hesitant but graceful, kindly returned her hug. Lady H shook hands with every single attendee of Camp GLOW (well, except for me and Sarah, who were juuuust out of reach) and every girl was beaming brightly. They met (and were liked by!) one of the most powerful women in the world today.
7. Ruth sought me out at dinner to bring me one of the many notes the girls wrote in response to my daily encouraging memos. It said “U are so loving and caring. I cherish ur [heart]. I like ur name. My spirit will follow you where ever u go. Ur name will never come out of my mind. [heart] Ruth.” I don’t know what was on Ruth’s mind that night; maybe she was just emotional, maybe she was just exhausted, maybe she was carrying a heavier burden then I knew. But what began as a laughing dinner suddenly became tragic as Ruth broke down into tears. She was rambling too low for me to hear well and the power was out so I couldn’t see her face well by the candlelight when she simply collapsed into my arms and sobbed. I caught snatches as she spoke, quietly as to not alert the other girls of her crying, worries mainly, for her future, and pressures from family. As a high emotion girl I know better than most how helpful it can be to simply cry, so I held her, and rocked her and whispered that I was proud of her, that I had faith in her, that I believed in her, that she was strong, that she could do anything she wanted, that she was good, that she was powerful. So many times in Malawi I have cried like that—freely and heavily—and missed having another person there to shush and soothe me. I didn’t know Ruth’s living situation other than that her parents were passed away, but I got the idea she hadn’t been held tightly in a long time because she clung to me long after she stopped crying, long after her breathing slowed again, her head heavy against me, as dinnertime slowly ended and we turned our attention to speakers far off in the candlelight.
8. It’s the last night of camp and Delia is painting my toenails—sort of. There is nail polish and lip gloss everywhere and the girls are laden with glow stick jewelry from our candle lighting ceremony. They are in a giggly mood, arguing over whose brother I should marry and asking what special shampoos I use to make my hair blonde and soft. They are comfortable, lounging in vitenje and leaning onto each other on their bunks and I think back to the first day, when they were all strangers and stiff-necked and silent. They are sharing their highlights of camp—meeting a journalist, meeting Hillary Clinton, performing in the talent show, dancing at the dance party, making new friends, tasting strawberries, taking pictures with Miss Malawi. I look at them one by one and try to memorize them, these beautiful and amazing girls. I never want to lose the magnificent memories I have of Tiphness, Tapokera, Lestina, Ruth, Rose, Delia, Prisca, Chikondi, Mphatso, and Chance.