Sunday, August 21, 2011


Last week was the most rewarding experience in my Peace Corps service yet – Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) for southwest Uganda! Camp GLOW is designed to help empower girls in their early teens and give them confidence, leadership skills, and help show them the fullness of their potential. It was started by Peace Corps Volunteers in Romania in 1995 and has been spreading around the world ever since. Uganda had its first nationwide Camp GLOW in December 2010, and this camp was meant to target girls from all over the southwestern region.

It was an intense week – the counselors all arrived on Saturday to prepare for the camp (there were 8 PCVs plus 8 young Ugandans who are studying to be primary school teachers (PTC students), then co-directors/staff that included 6 more PCVs and 3 Ugandans). The campers arrived on Monday evening in the school truck (a big lorry/truck where the students stand in the back), and even though it was cold and pouring down rain, all the counselors ran out to greet them cheering. Girls were assigned to groups named after animals, and each group was led by one PCV and one PTC student (we were the Elephants). However, chaos quickly ensued as the girls tried to find their counselors, we realized almost none of them had brought blankets and some of them didn’t even have sheets or sweaters, and we knew that night would be cold. Eventually, we got things sorted out, and went for dinner and a sort of “opening ceremony”, including a song that the counselors sang about GLOW and girls’ empowerment set to the tune of “Rude Boy” by Rihanna (awkward original lyrics for kids but really awesome new lyrics for
GLOW written by one of the co-directors – “Come on GLOW girl girl show us what you’ve got – show it show it, lady lady, show it show it, shinin’ shinin’!). More chaos happened at 3AM when yours truly went for a “short call” to the latrine – the campers heard the dorm door open and thought it was time to get up (none of them had watches or phones to see the time), so started bathing, getting dressed, etc. We were all sleeping in triple-decker bunk beds so when a few people are up, everyone gets woken up.

The days were so busy after that! Wake up call was at 6AM (unless the girls woke up early at 3 or 4:30 haha), then activities ran until 10PM every day. The camp was filled with sessions about health (HIV, reproductive health and sex, nutrition and sanitation), life skills (goal setting, decision making and assertiveness, self-esteem), leadership (gender roles, public speaking, bringing Camp GLOW home), and arts and crafts (making a team flag, piggy banks/money jars, and a vision board – “Picture Yourself in 10 Years”). In addition, we had tons of games and competitions like the human knot, telephone, a blindfolded obstacle course, relay races, sports, and more. All of them helped the girls develop leadership, communication, and problem solving skills in addition to being lots of fun. (Although for my team, the blindfolded obstacle course was a disaster – only two girls from the group of 8 led the blind-folded girl and didn’t really guide her, meaning she fell off chairs, aimlessly kicked at the soccer ball because nobody guided her
foot or held the ball, and when they got to the potato/rice sack, simply stopped her in front of it and told her to get into it…). The education system here is all lectures and rote memorization, even from the age of 4 or 5, and there’s really no critical thinking or problem solving to be had, so these skills are so important to foster in these girls. By far their favorite game was Capture the Flag at night – so fun! I felt like I was back at YMCA camp or band camp, haha. The best part was that the quietest girl in my group was the one who captured the flag – talk about a confidence booster! But we all joked that the PCVs had a disadvantage – it took moving to Africa to realize white people glow at night even when there’s no moon.

Blindfolded obstacle course

The Floor is Lava! Getting teams of 20+ people across the hall with two basins, two rice sacks, and two pieces of cardboard

We also had reading time, speeches by strong, successful women, trivia, and even a fashion show where the campers dressed up the 3 male PCVs in women’s clothing and the boys strutted their stuff – soooo funny (and I don’t think Ugandans have ever seen cross dressers before). We even had a Disney movie night and watched Mulan, which has a strong message about gender roles but unfortunately most of the girls didn’t understand what was going on. I think the PCVs may have enjoyed the Disney night more than the campers, and we realized we’ve been in Africa wayyy too long when the main male (cartoon!) character takes his shirt off and we all swooned hahaha. Whenever we weren’t doing a formal activity, we were playing little games, singing songs (each animal group made their own theme song), and trying to stay busy and energetic.

My Elephant Group

The most amazing thing was the change we could see in the girls. I really didn’t think we would see a tangible difference in 3 days, but it was like night and day. When they arrived, they were quiet, shy, didn’t make eye contact, and frankly looked scared (part of it just being in a new place, part of it being the way most Ugandan girls are). Over the course of the camp, you could see the girls making friends, taking pride in accomplishing something completely new for them (like any of the team competitions/games), and started to become more vocal. After the closing ceremony on the third day, the girls had so much energy, they were bouncing off the walls, danced without a care in the world, and even at 11pm it was hard to get them to stop talking, giggling, etc. to go to bed. It was so amazing to see this difference in them. My favorite girl, a very intelligent and well-spoken girl who always smiled at everything I said even when the other girls were shut-off and non-responsive, wrote me a letter at the end of camp that almost made me cry, thanking me for everything and saying I was “the best counselor of all the rest” and “I promise that I will always remember you and always take into account what I have learnt from this camp…I wish you a safe stay throughout your life till ends meet. Your loving elephant, Joventah.”

By the end of Camp GLOW – full of energy and confidence

During the camp, I felt like who I used to be before Peace Corps (a sentiment expressed by other PCVs, too). I felt like I was needed and necessary, constantly busy, and full of energy and enthusiasm. All of these were feelings I haven’t had in a very long time. I was exhausted by the end but felt like my sense of purpose had been refilled. Considering how low I’ve felt about service for a couple of months, this was just what the doctor ordered. I also enjoyed feeling like a little kid again for a few days – summer camp rocks. :)


Deb Rufner said...

Oh, how wonderful! - For the girls, but especially for you! I hope the feeling lasts far beyond the end of camp! Love you so much! ~Mom

Andrea Kayne said...

Oh MAN I can't wait to participate in our own...that is SO cool! I really love the shirts and games =)