Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Girls Scholarship and Education
Girls Scholarship and a Chicken
Dept of Velingara
During the last week of June and fist week of July, a neighboring volunteer, Camille, and I biked to Mballo Counda, a village about 10K away from my village in the bush (aka no where near a main road in the middle of no where) to talk to a girl named Djenabo Bioro (prn: Jenna-bo) about possibly winning a Peace Corps scholarship, called the Michelle Sylvester Girls Scholarship Program, to attend school for the next year. We biked from my village through bush paths stopping and asking directions from pullar farmers tilling their land with donkeys dragging plows. It rained the night before so the paths were muddy and dotted with puddles. It was a beautiful bike ride and we got to see a part of Kolda that is rarely seen by foreigners since it is fairly out of the way. The rains have come to Senegal and everything is green and lush and the trees are filled with fruit and birds. It took us about an hour to get to Djenabo's village since the paths are eroded. When we finally arrived, Camille and I were drenched in sweat and blanketed in mud. We went to Djenabo's house to talk to her family and conduct an formal interview with Djenabo to find out what kind of student and person she is.
Djenabo is about 13 or 14 and she will be entering 5iem (I believe the equivalent of 7th grade) in the fall after the harvest. Since the Pullars are farmers, school starts in October after the farming is done and the harvest has been collected. She is one of the top students, including boys and girls, in her class with what we would call around a C – average. She is very shy, soft-spoken and slightly uncomfortable with two white women giving her so much attention which manifests itself through fidgeting with her bracelets.
I spoke in Pulaar with Djenabo's family and explained why we were there. I told them that their daughter was very smart and doing so well in school that she was in contention to win a scholarship to pay for her schooling for the following year. There is almost no communication between the parents and the teachers and Djenabo's parents had no idea how their daughter was fairing in school. They were amazed to hear that their daughter was in the top of her class and were so proud that she was doing so well that these two white women had biked all the way to their home to offer to pay for her schooling (which is the equivalent of $10 for the entire year, this includes school supplies like notebooks and pens and covers the cost of tuition).
We told the family that we were very proud of her and that she is incredibly special for working hard in her studies. We interviewed Djenabo and asked her standard "American" questions: what subject do you like the best, what do you do for fun - which is a very different concept since leisure time doesnt really exist here, what she wants to become when she grows up and what the biggest challenge she faces is.
To be considered for the MS scholarship, the girls must be in middle school and in the top end of their class. They also must write a short essay discussing what subjects they like the best in school, where they see themselves in 5 years and what they want to be when they finish school. Most of the girls in Senegal, especially in more remote villages like mine, are married off by their families at young ages, 14 or 15 years old, the average age of a middle school girl. As a result, the scholarship work that peace corps does serves as an incentive to keep the girl motivated to do well and and work hard in order to stay in school and educates parents to help them understand the value of education and want to keep their daughters in school. Moreover, most girls are never confronted with these types of questions and it is very interesting to see how they approach answering the essay.
For Djenabo, her dad is very sick and cannot work. I think he may be suffering from polio and is very ill (we met him and he couldnt even stand to greet us). As a result, the family struggles to make ends meet and everyone in the family must farm the land and pick up the extra slack so they can eat and earn money to survive at the end of the harvest. Another main challenge Djenabo faces is that she lives about 15k away from the school and must stay at a family friends house during the school year just to make sure she can go to school every day. This was a common answer we received during the week of interviews with other scholarship candidates as there are only two middle schools for the entire department of Velingara and villages are very spread out.
She was a little shy at first but her love for school clearly showed through. We could tell she believed it was important for her to do well in school so that when she gets older she can help support her family by other means than farming. She is also a very young 14 year old and, if I may say so, certainly not ready to be married yet.
After the one-on-one interview with Djenabo, we went back and talked with the family, at this point it was all women from her family and a few from the neighbors house, and I reiterated the importance of keeping Jebo (her nickname) in school, how proud we were of her and how proud they should be of her. The public recognition of her success is an important component to the scholarship work to get her family and community rallying around her and to realize the importance of education.
As I was explaining this to the family and praising Jebo, an older man walked up and said Jebo should be married off because she was getting old and that she wouldnt make it to University anyway – man, did he walk in at the wrong time! I stood up and, in the best Pulaar i could muster, told him that I was 25 and that when I was 15 I had worked hard in school, gone to college and was now here working and was still not married because I had different priorities and will marry when I am ready and want to my self. All the women started cheering and saying "o hali gonga" which means "she speaks the truth" and he was incredibly embarrassed and sheepishly walked away.
It was a pretty fascinating moment for me as i got to share a different side of life that most women are not exposed to in rural Senegal. It was also a great moment to hear how excited women my age are about acknowledging what their rights should be and how they would have liked the same opportunity for themselves. However, while it is good to have the women's support in that situation, traditionalist views, like that of the older man, are prevalent in this area and it will take a very long time to shift those ideas. We finished explaining the rules of the scholarship and said one more time how proud we were of Jebo and her accomplishments. The family was so happy to hear us say this and very appreciative that we had come and their door was open any time we wanted to come back and visit.
As we were getting on our bikes to leave, we filled up our water bottles from a pump well-do not ever do this! I now have giardiah :( and one of the women shouted my name. We turned around and a big crowd of people walking out of Jebo's compound. Jebo ran over to me carrying a young rooster and handed it to me as a thank you gift, feathers ruffled and flapping, squawking in protest. As she held the rooster out for one of us to take it Camille gave me the "that's NOT coming with ME!" look. So i reached out to grab the gift. As she handed the rooster to me her mother said, "no hewi fii audi" which literally translates to "he's full of seeds" and she went on to explain that he is a good, strong cock that will bring me lots of baby chickens!
Now, because he was a live rooster and i only had a bike to transport myself, they tied him by his feet and hung him upside down from my bike handle bars. Needless to say, my new pet rooster was not happy about biking 10K on a bumpy road dangling upside down from my bike handles. The ride back to my village was filled with more flapping and squawking. And about half way through the ride he peed on me. I showered in purell later that night! So, I now have a rooster that crows every morning and tries to mount every hen in my family compound. I still have not named him and will take any and all suggestions.
I came home the other night from Velingara and asked my dad, Amadou, where my rooster was. He shouted something to my little brother Soulaye and Soulaye ran around to the back of the compound. After about a minute, Soulaye returned walking my rooster toward me by a leash. I looked at Soulaye, then at the rooster, who seemed alright walking and pecking his way toward me with a leash tied around his neck, and noticed something was a little off about him. I thought my rooster was white but to my surprise he had magically turned blue since the last time i saw him. I started laughing and my dad said, "oh ya, we painted him blue so we could remember which one was yours." And Soulaye then leashed him to the outside of my hut. i'm not kidding. I have a pet rooster that is painted blue and has his very own leash so we can go for walks.