Starting a Girls Club and Learning to Say No

Soon after I first became a Volunteer and arrived at post, a then third year Volunteer (actually fifth, if you count his time in Nicaragua and Niger) named Jeff told me that one of the most important things I would have to learn as a Peace Corps Volunteer would be to be able to say “no.” People would ask me for things all the time, whether it was to teach an English class, money for school or a project, to bring them gifts back from the city, or just for my phone number. He also advised that new Volunteers could get some valuable practice by simply going out on the street, striking up a conversation with the first Cameroonian they come across, and continuing it until he or she inevitably asked for something. At that point, the Volunteer can say no and just walk away.

I’m not really one to seek out confrontation, though, so I never did take Jeff’s advice to practice saying no in this way. Then, last spring (or, well, spring in America), when I went to meet with the principal of my local Government Bilingual Secondary School, I somehow found myself agreeing to teaching life skills sessions to the regular classes at the school.

Now, there’s certainly something to be said for doing the work that your community actually asks you to do. The thing is that I do not have the skills necessary to control a classroom full of 50 Cameroonian youth on my own, at least not when for at least half of them sitting in a hot room and listening to me talk about personal values and goal setting is not actually what they want. At least it was only four total sessions.

This school year, when I set a meeting to come by the GBSS principal’s office, I made sure I was prepared. I laid out the project I wanted to start, a Girls Club with the objective of encouraging girls to continue their education by teaching them life skills (specifically communication, decision making, and about HIV/AIDS/sexual reproductive health). I told him that all of the boy and girl students together would be too many to teach effectively, and I pointed out that here in Northern Cameroon, our town included, girls are at an especially high risk for dropping out of school, often due to early marriage or pregnancy. I told him that it would be necessary to have a Cameroonian teacher to help with the club, both because she would be familiar with the students and how to manage them, and because she would likely still be around after I left. I also told him that I wanted the club to be optional, because otherwise those students who did not want to be there would just create distractions for those who did. The principal agreed to everything I had laid out, and even suggested a teacher to help.

That’s when he asked me: couldn’t I help them with anything else? Teach even one class to the Anglophone students? I firmly answered no. He kept pushing, and I explained that I already had several hours of classes at the youth center, and now the girls club, and of course I also had to spend time preparing for all of those lessons. I stuck to my no.

The girls getting ready to do the Human Knot exercise (thanks to Kristin Bietsch for the photo)

The girls getting ready to do the Human Knot exercise (thanks to Kristin Bietsch for the photo)

The day of the first club meeting rolled around, and I am pretty sure that the girls were given the option of attending or doing manual labor clearing a field (which is what the boys were doing at the same time), so I had 60 girls show up. Still, officer elections went well (the Cameroonian teacher gleefully pointed out to me that the girls who had been elected President and Vice-President were the second and first girls in the school respectively grade-wise), and then we had a bit of cultural exchange, with me teaching them “Little Sally Walker” and them teaching me some Cameroonian songs and dances.

For the second meeting 45 girls showed up, and we got to the actual sessions, starting with “The Bridge Model of Behavior Change,” a session designed to illustrate the importance of the life skills we would be talking about in the future. We’ve since moved on to sessions about communication (next is passive, assertive, and aggressive behavior – so perhaps we’ll even be discussing how to say no). I have yet to hit upon the group size of about 20-30 girls that I had originally hoped for. Only 5 girls came to the latest session, though I think that had more to do with it being the session right before the holiday break than anything else. Still, I’m pretty optimistic about the club going forward into the new year.

So now I feel that I’m being much more productive than I was even six months ago – and learning to say no certainly helped with that.

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2 thoughts on “Starting a Girls Club and Learning to Say No

  1. I find it remarkable that someone like you can choose to do what you do in place like Africa. It is an amazing testament to the way your parents razed you, and the values you were razed with, as well as your own ability to exercise your own choice.

    I myself cannot imagine making such a choice for myself. My son Daniel made that choice that I would not have. He is currently serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (The Mormons) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I know, I know, there’s a lot these missions have in common. Africa and Argentina are both near the beginning of the alphabet, for instance. I myself came from Argentina as a child, partly the reason I may not be brave enough to return as a missionary. I come from a Jewish (though unobservant) family, which makes me an even more (if that is possible) reluctant missionary.

    Buenos Aires is the Capital City of Argentina and somewhat more advanced than the rest of the country. One time I was there, I was surprised to hear a cousin refer to Argentina as a third-world country. Oh yeah he said, the U.N. has us just above the fourth world like India and Africa. Africa isn’t actually a nation, I pointed out, but you get the idea.

    Of course that is where you are, and you are there by choice. You, are in the belly of the beast. I have heard Buddhist, and Hindu philosophers say “He who lifts up the lowest one among us, lifts up all of us” (paraphrased). This is the work that you are doing. This is the belief that the human race’s ability to rise above it’s circumstances is limited by the lowliest, and often the humblest one among us.

    I know you have doubts, but do not doubt that what you are doing right now, right where you are, is having a profound effect on humanity.

    It is a privilege to be where I am, at this time, on this planet, and in some way shape or form to be breathing the same air that perhaps you were breathing a few months before.

    Humbly,

  2. Please excuse my reply to my own comment, I don’t have this down yet.

    I found this ted-talk interesting, given your work in education in Africa. I think some of your students might find renewed pride in their ancient mathematics in their culture

    I don’t know if your wifi will allow you to view it. If you are able to use it in your teaching please comment on your blog.

    Emil

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