Healthy Girls, Healthy Villages
- Africa, Niger
Enjoy vivid scenes of Nigerienne girls and women as they work and live in their village, learn about health and nutrition, and play American games during Peace Corps Volunteer Vivian Nguyen's Girls Leading Our World Camp.
Hi! I'm Vivian Nguyen. I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the west African country of Niger from 2003 to 2005. I worked as a community health volunteer and taught maternal and child survival practices to the people of my rural village and region.
In this photo, I am in my hut during my second month at post. My mosquito net, the medical kit behind my cat, and my water filter on the table are typical items found in every Niger Peace Corps Volunteer's home. They are issued by the Peace Corps to help volunteers maintain their health.
Niger is a landlocked country bordered by Algeria and Libya to the north, Chad to the east, Nigeria and Benin to the south, and Burkina Faso and Mali to the west. Its land area is approximately three times the size of California, and its only body of water is the Niger River, which flows through the capital city of Niamey. Niger is a Sahelian country bordering the Sahara Desert. This means that the country is mostly desert and one-fifth savanna in the sliver of its southern area, where most of Niger 's people live. Due to its location and circumstance, Niger is one of the hottest and poorest countries in the world.
Niger has a diverse array of ethnic groups that live in harmony. I was posted in a medium-sized Hausa village between the city of Zinder and the border of Nigeria. Hausa is the name of an ethnic group as well as a commonly spoken language across much of west Africa.
In my village and many others in Niger, young girls and women work hard to sustain their families. It is very common for young girls and women to pull water from the village well for cooking, drinking, bathing, and washing clothes. Water is pulled twice a day, early in the morning, and again in the evening when the sun begins to set, when the temperature is not too hot. Some women pull and deliver water for other households to generate income.
Keep in mind that in any culture, there are important exceptions to the usual customs. For example, the father in my village host family never asks his wives to pull water. He either hires someone to pull water for the family, asks his eldest son to do it, or does it himself. This is true of some other families in the village, too. It's a helpful reminder that even in a culture that is very different from my own, chivalry towards women is a vibrant aspect.
Women and young girls are also responsible for preparing the evening meals. This is very difficult and time consuming work. My friends are pounding millet into fine powder for cooking. Millet is a grain that looks like tiny, yellow balls. It is very rich in protein. In the United States, you can find millet flour in health food stores. You can also find millet grains in bird food mix at your local pet store. Once the millet is pounded into a powder, it is sieved to remove the husks.
Leyla is my very good friend, who adopted me into her family when I moved to the village. She is cooking dinner for her family. In rural villages, it is typical for women to use cauldrons to cook on three huge stones over an open fire. Behind Leyla to the right are pestles and mortars for pounding millet, sorghum, corn, and even rice into flour for cooking. Millet flour is boiled in water and looks very much like firm mashed potatoes when it is done. Women also prepare delicious sauce to go with the millet paste. The meal is called tuwo, which literally means "food."
There are many types of sauces that range from hibiscus leaves and peanut sauce (my favorite), to okra sauce, baobab sauce, and a variety of delicious meat sauces that are typically eaten in the towns and cities. Sometimes the sauce is served over sorghum or corn tuwo, and on special occasions in the village, sauce is served over rice tuwo or pasta. Many people in towns and cities prefer rice and pasta with their sauce.
Notice that Leyla has her daughter in her arms while she is working. Many women strap their babies to their backs when they work. I've spent many evenings sitting, chatting, and laughing with Leyla while she worked. I asked her many questions to learn about Niger and our village.
Over the wall of my compound, I can see some of the village kids playing. They've tied a rope to the baobab tree to swing on. Children also work in my village. They collect firewood, look after their younger brothers and sisters while their parents farm or prepare food, and herd the sheep and goats. It is always fun for me to see them play when they have time. I especially love listening to them sing.
This is a photo of my cat LuLu and a child from my village Raha, who is one here. Like many children under the age of five, Raha is malnourished and is small for her age. Malnutrition, malaria, tuberculosis, polio, and trachoma are the most common preventable and curable health problems in Niger.
In general, rural parents view a formal education as unnecessary for the role of village wife and mother. It costs money to send children to school, money that could be used for supporting the family. Most village people are subsistence farmers. This means they live on the food they grow, and they have very little money. In Niger, most rural people live on less than two U.S. dollars per day. For these reasons, many rural girls are not sent to school. Instead, the majority stay at home to help their mothers in family work, learn their roles as future wives and mothers, and enter marriage at a young age, usually between the ages of 14 and 16.
In the rural region where I was posted with other volunteers, there are no formal institutions to teach basic life skills to rural girls who do not have access to a public education. As a result, rural girls are destined to repeat the same poor health practices as their mothers and thus reaffirm the vicious cycle of poor health created by living in poverty.
Tradition dictates that girls follow in the footsteps of their mothers by not only marrying young but also bearing many children and suffering the heartache of losing one or more of them to preventable illnesses and severe malnutrition. Some rural people are uneducated about preventative, basic health practices that can improve the health of their families. Others are reluctant to change their behavior because they prefer the familiarity of traditional ways taught to them by their parents and elders. Unfortunately, sometimes traditional medicine and other practices do more harm than help.
In this photo, my friend and fellow volunteer Casie is greeting a group of 30 girls from ten different rural villages where Peace Corps Volunteers are posted in the Matameye area. Casie and I organized a life skills youth development training called Camp GLOW. "GLOW" stands for Girls Leading Our World. The rest of our Peace Corps Volunteer team in the Zinder region helped to implement the camp as counselors and session helpers.
Camp GLOW 2005 was a fun filled, five day camp organized for the benefit of village girls who are the future and foundation of their communities. More than educating young girls on family health issues and income generation schemes, the hope of Camp GLOW is to empower participants with the courage to incorporate all the life skills they are taught. Then, campers share that knowledge with their own communities to improve health and daily living practices.
We kicked off Camp GLOW with ice breaker games such as "Simon Says." Since Niger is a predominantly Muslim country and all of the camp participants were Muslim, we played "Allah Says." It was the campers' first time playing an American game like this, and they loved it! There was a lot of giggling as our male Peace Corps Volunteers led this game.
Peace Corps Volunteer camp leaders led many of the sessions addressing preventative health issues. Using skits, songs, and games makes the camp more memorable and enjoyable for participants. This is the malaria skit session.
In this skit, Joe and Alex play mosquitoes, while Matt and Lucy are the bad examples of people who sleep without a net. They were bitten all night, did not sleep well, and woke up feeling ill.
Jen slept safe and sound in her mosquito net and was not bitten. She woke up refreshed and ready to start her day. The campers really enjoyed this skit. Since rural villages do not have electricity, Camp GLOW 's educational skit was like watching a public service announcement on TV.
We invited Mariama, a health professional from the regional hospital, to speak about pregnancy, childbirth, and proactive actions for raising healthy children. Many rural women follow tradition and give birth at home, often alone in their huts. Sometimes a midwife is present. Mariama is providing them another option, one that is much safer and helps to ensure the health of the baby and mother. We encourage our campers to go to the hospital or health clinic to give birth to their future children. We provide health cards in the campers' goodie bags to encourage them to go to the health clinic or hospital for prenatal checkups as well.
The campers listen intently and even volunteer to answer quiz questions after the presentation. They are thrilled to see an accomplished Nigerienne who works at the hospital taking time to talk to them.
We alternate health and life skills sessions with income-generation activities and games. Campers are learning how to make beaded jewelry to generate money for their households. Peace Corps Volunteers Bindi, Zara, and Lucy are leading their teams during this lesson. The girls are so creative! We all have fun showing off beaded necklace and bracelet designs.
Have you ever participated in a three-legged race? This is the first time our campers have ever done this, and they love it! The game teaches campers the importance of relying on another person to complete a goal. It helps the girls build self-esteem to get the job done. It is also great fun, of course, especially when candy is distributed to the winners.
During Camp GLOW, we introduce many American games to the girls. The games test their adaptability to trying and appreciating new ideas. The games also encourage the girls to become outgoing and build their self-esteem and confidence so that they can feel comfortable relaying the life skills lessons they learn at camp to their families, friends, and neighbors at home.
Zara is leading this skit on health and hygiene with the help of three campers. Women and young girls in Niger work very hard on a variety of tasks. They may tend crops, gather firewood, feed the animals, prepare and cook meals, look after children, fetch water, engage in income-generation activities, and attend social ceremonies or women's group meetings. At times, all this work is just too much! It can make a person put off basic things such as doing laundry by hand, making sure the food pots are covered so flies don't get in, or making sure that the children wash their hands and faces before they eat. This skit reminds the campers how simple hygiene practices can go a long way in keeping their families in good health.
At night, we all settle down for a movie. We watched Twister and Monsoon Wedding on two different nights. It was a treat since none of the girls have a TV at home. Out of fear of tornadoes, I don't think any of the campers want to visit the United States after watching Twister!
The next day Casie welcomes her friend Aichatou. Aichatou works at the regional hospital and has come to lead a health session. She rides in on her motorbike, which really impresses the campers. In Niger it is more common to see men drive cars and motorbikes than women.
Aichatou begins her session by talking about the importance of family planning. In Niger it is common for a woman to have, on average, eight children in her lifetime. This is due to many reasons. Nigeriens love children and having a large family. Large families also ensure that some of the children will survive past the age of five. Family planning and birth spacing help ensure both mother and child are healthy and have enough nutrients to grow and thrive.
Aichatou also talks about the importance of a balanced diet and the different food groups. This may seem basic, but remember, many of the campers have not gone to school.
We follow Aichatou's presentation with a session on malnutrition where we play "feed the malnourished child, " a spin-off of "pin the tail on the donkey." In this game, campers work in a team to discuss the different food groups and then pick out a balanced diet for their malnourished poster child. One of the team members must be blindfolded and will be the one to tape the food on the poster.
The game is timed, and the team with the best balanced diet wins prizes. At the end of the allotted time, each team must explain why they choose the food items placed on the poster. It's great fun to hear the shouting as teams direct their blindfolded member to the right area.
During break, we play "duck-duck-chicken, " which is a spin-off of "duck-duck-goose." Most families raise chickens to sell; very few families raise ducks, and only rich city families raise geese. The campers are quick learners of all the new American games.
Later, we move on to a stitching and embroidery session. Campers are learning how to embroider and stitch as an income-generation skill.
They take the embroidery lesson very seriously, as women in the village who can earn money for their families are admired and respected.
After lunch, the campers are ready for a break. They play UNO, take a nap, or continue working on their income-generation projects.
Camp is never complete without a water balloon toss contest!
A final session addresses conjunctivitis. Here in the United States, conjunctivitis is commonly known as pinkeye. It is a contagious viral or bacterial eye infection. In Niger, eye infections can escalate to severe conjunctivitis due to dirty hands rubbing the eyes, flies landing on the corner of the eyes, or just bad luck when the wind blows dirt in the eyes. That's why it's very important to wash hands and faces as often as possible.
In this Peace Corps skit for the campers, Joe plays a child with severe conjunctivitis. Sitting next to him is Jen, his mother. Bindi is a village friend who has come to visit. Bindi shares an easy recipe she learned from a nearby health clinic for a salt water solution to help clear up Joe's severe eye infection.
On the last night of camp, we have a party to celebrate our hard work. The girls are learning the Macarena thanks to Zara. We all have a blast dancing all night to American and west African music.
On the last day we hold a skit competition, and the campers perform their own health skits. We are all amazed by their talents and how much information they've absorbed during camp. While the winning group receives new headscarves, everyone receives a hair pick for giving it their best effort. They are tasked with performing a health skit in their village. Upon completion of this task, their Peace Corps Volunteer would give them a gift bag with a mosquito net, health card, soap, and menthol rub.
As you can see, Camp GLOW is a lot of fun and an unforgettable experience. One of the Peace Corps' goals is to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women. In line with this goal, Camp GLOW is a great vehicle to share life skills knowledge and to give the campers the confidence and support they need to make simple life changes for a healthier future.