Last week, ten volunteers organized and hosted a 5-day GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) camp in Mansa for 14 students and 7 adult mentors from communities throughout Luapula Province. The camp was a smashing success and great fun was had by all as we raved with glow sticks, made s’mores, and taught a delighted pack of pre-teen girls how to do the Wobble in between actual educational sessions on topics such as assertiveness, reproductive health, income-generating activities, HIV/AIDS sensitization, and gender equality.
On the second-to-last day of camp, a British expat working with a local NGO came to assist with a sanitary pad workshop and mentioned that a girls’ group in a district further north in the province was doing a similar project, to great success. These girls were teaching and promoting the use of sanitary pads to classmates in their free time, away from school, because school policy forbade them from coming to class when they were on their periods. The really neat part though, she told us, was that evidently the leaders of the group, two young girls barely of menstruating age themselves and one older woman on the local PTA, had all learned how to make these sanitary pads at a camp which a Peace Corps volunteer had brought them to the year prior.
The first thing that came to mind was wow, that unsuspecting volunteer hit a sustainable development success story gold mine! I wonder who it is? Then it dawned on me: hey, the mentor I brought to last year’s Camp GLOW was a member of the PTA. I asked the woman what the name of the community was, and she told me that the group was in Nshinda. I swallowed. I live in Nshinda. That unsuspecting volunteer was me.
I should have been happy. Proud, even. But instead, all I could feel was embarrassment — I’d had absolutely no idea that this was going on at all. All of my attempts to start a GLOW group at the school with the teachers following the previous year’s GLOW camp had sputtered and died like a lawnmower running over an old shoe. I felt guilty for receiving accolades for something I didn’t do, ignorant for being completely oblivious that this was going on in my community without my knowing, and a little miffed that nobody who did know had told me about it.
Only later, after some conversations with more clear-headed volunteers, was I eventually made to understand that my not knowing about the girls’ group was not an indictment of my failure at community integration. Not only do the girls not speak English and I not know the words for period, menstruation, blood, or sanitary pad in Icibemba, but it wouldn’t matter even if we were best pals who chatted it up in homeroom every Wednesday morning, because talking about menstrual cycles and female genitalia in public is taboo in Zambian culture (and probably no less so if you’ve got a conspicuous foreign male in your midst). One friend reminded me gently that in America, most 7th and 8th grade girls would rather die than discuss their periods with their cute young male teacher. The only way that this group could have been a safe place for pre-teen and teenaged female students to learn and ask questions about periods and sanitary pads was if I were not involved at all.
Slightly mollified but still feeling like a bad volunteer, I resumed working on the slideshow that I was compiling for presentation the following day at the end of camp. But looking through the images captured during the week and then watching the campers’ sparkling eyes the next morning as they watched raptly and giggled every time they or their friends made an appearance on screen, I began to realize that it didn’t matter that I was in the dark about this. The fact that these girls and this mentor had the initiative and drive and leadership to create this project entirely on their own speaks volumes to the core of true development that it is building, a foundation that will remain long after the lines in a Peace Corps volunteer’s resume have eroded away. I realized that this camp is for these girls and women, not for me. It doesn’t matter what I try to do with it, it only matters what they choose to do with it. With this newfound knowledge and experience, these girls are carrying back with them seeds of inspiration that have the potential to grow and change some small but important part of their community, in their small but important part of our world.
And if they can do that, then I’ll be fine never seeing a sanitary pad or hearing about menstrual cycles. Because, I mean, really? That’s gross.