Girl Power!

The highlight of my trip to Zimbabwe this past summer was the camp I ran for teenage girls.  The campers included girls from the community as well as girls from Tsungirirai.  I also chose ten teenage camp leaders from varied backgrounds – some were orphans and some lived with one or even two parents, some were HIV positive, some were afraid they might be, and others had no reason to worry about it…yet.

The camp leaders attended 3 days of training.

The leaders attended three days of intensive training to learn how to facilitate teambuilding activities and lead discussions about communication. They were quiet at first, shyly following instructions and agreeing to everything they were told. Even at meals, when there was no structure, they barely spoke.

Once our fifty campers arrived, however, the leaders came to life. I was amazed by the transformation. Suddenly, they took ownership of everything from paying the combie drivers who drove us to the camp to rearranging the cabin assignments so that girls could share bedding if they didn’t arrive with a blanket.

Much of the HIV education took place in the communal hut.

Tsungirirai’s nurse, Catherine, also attended the camp. Her role was to run a session on HIV education. Direct and honest, I think the highlight of my whole trip was when she handed out condoms to all the girls. And if they weren’t surprised enough by that, she then pulled out a fake penis and demonstrated how to put it on. The shocked looks and giggles quickly turned to concentration as the girls learned a skill that could save their lives. There were so many questions that we had to cancel the next activity so that we could answer them all.

From the outside, a day at our camp might have looked like any other camp – groups of girls gathered at picnic tables telling stories about boys, sitting in shady areas playing cards, or singing silly songs as they jumped rope. Just as I have had to do at camps for American teenagers, I had to walk from cabin to cabin in the chilly morning air to wake everyone who had stayed up far too late talking, and harass groups to show up to events on time.

Groups participated in teambuilding activities. Here, one group is trying to untangle from a “human knot.”

But what was different was a wearing away of something. Even now, it’s so difficult to put a finger on it. But as our time together grew, I watched girls change. They moved from compliant, submissive actors, who are trained to live and be a certain way, to girls with opinions, with complaints, and with worries that are deep and unanswerable. One girl, who was particularly happy about making washable pads, talked about how she misses a week of school every month because she has her period. Another girl told about the day she began menstruating and how terrified she was. She had no mother, no aunt, no grandmother left who could tell her what was happening to her body, and she was sure she was dying. Many of them spoke of their fears of marriage, wondering how they could remain HIV negative once they were married. And quite a few were afraid to ever have children.

In one activity we did, called “Crossing the Line,” the girls listened to statements. If they agreed or could answer “yes” to the statement, they stepped over a rope on the ground and faced the girls on the other side. Silent and serious for most of the statements, it was telling when every one of the 52 girls crossed the line for “I have been to a funeral.” Almost the same number crossed for “I have watched someone die” and “I have lost a best friend.” And not one of them crossed for “I believe my generation will have a positive and successful future.”

As much as I would have liked to cross that line myself, the girls’ lack of movement gave me pause. I couldn’t disagree with them. Clearly, there’s no quick fix, but after watching their courage and the transformation that took place during a few days of camp, I am motivated to continue focusing on the distinct challenges that girls in Zimbabwe face.

-written by Liz Berges (C4C board member)

To see more photos and some video footage of the girls, click below:

Comments are closed.