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Benin’s girl-led podcast receives virtual support from the Peace Corps

A woman speaks into a microphone
A woman smiles in front of a Peace Corps flag
Osseni supports Peace Corps Benin's gender empowerment projects.

With women comprising over half of Benin’s total population, it’s no surprise that Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GenEq) is a local priority. The Peace Corps has a long history of supporting traditionally marginalized women in the West African country— from the Scholarship Girls Program launched in the ‘80s to today’s Young Professionals in Training (YPiT) initiative.

Peace Corps Benin’s Education program manager, Taibatou Osseni, explained GenEq’s integral role: “All Volunteers are encouraged to integrate gender into their work regardless of their sector. They receive GenEq training and learn how to use gender analysis tools to identify areas of improvement at their site and suggest transformative interventions to the community.”

Osseni went on to explain that when Peace Corps reopened Benin in 2022 after the worldwide evacuation due to COVID-19, the low number of incoming Volunteers inspired Peace Corps staff to give the Virtual Service Pilot (VSP) a try. “The small number of Volunteers didn’t fully meet all our partners’ requests,” said Osseni. “We shared the three ways to serve: [in-person two-year Volunteers, short-term, in-person Response Volunteers, and part-time, Virtual Service Pilot Participants (VSPP)]. The Batonga Foundation quickly expressed interest in working with a Virtual Service Pilot Participant for their girl-led podcast project.”

Launched in 2006 by Grammy award-winning singer and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Angelique Kidjo, the Batonga Foundation equips girls and young women in remote areas with the necessary skills to be agents of change in their own lives and communities. One way in which Batonga achieves this goal is to teach adolescent girls the technical and communications skills required to produce a podcast. Each 10-minute episode of Gbètché-Xo (Podcasts for Equality) also spotlights an inspiring story from their community.

Germaine Houenoumandin, the young woman featured on the first episode explained, “Gbètché-Xo podcast spotlights young people and focuses on their life to [share] their bravery, endurance, and pride, and to serve as an example for other young people.”

A woman smiles with hands on hips in a Georgetown University shirt.
Brady attends graduate school when she's not engaged online with Batonga.

While Batonga has collaborated with the Peace Corps for nearly 10 years, the organization viewed virtual engagement as a viable solution to support communities in regions where in-person Volunteers are not currently placed. Batonga worked with Benin’s Peace Corps staff to develop a 27-week-long virtual engagement, in which a VSPP would collaborate with Batonga to provide technical advice and expand its programs.

Carolyn Brady, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and three-time AmeriCorps alumni, answered the call to serve. Her in-person Volunteer service in Madagascar had been cut short in 2022, so she was thrilled to discover she could still serve online, and that the engagement with Batonga would enable her to continue building French language skills.

“Early on, it was a lot of me listening to the podcast, reading their strategic vision, and learning about the on-the-ground work, because as a VSPP, I am not in the country, so gaining cultural context was important for me to understand [Batonga’s] goals,” explained Brady.

Since the first season of the podcast was already complete, Brady set to work identifying expansion opportunities for the content. She also began reviewing and translating the second season’s scripts.

Brady confessed that while she expected a female counterpart, given the project’s focus on empowering women, her relationship with Brice Ahognonvi, Batonga’s male-identifying community content and radio program manager, has been one of many delightful surprises along the way.

“Brice talked about the roles of men in the community, and the job that they have in gender empowerment and gender equity. It's been interesting to get his perspective.”

A Beninese woman joins a virtual meeting.
Post staff conduct bi-weekly check-in calls to see how engagements are going.

To teach additional technical skills and support various learning styles, Brady and Ahognovi will guide the local girls as they reimagine the featured stories from season one into both stationary cartoons and eventually, animations.

Ahognonvi says that “Batonga conceived the idea of adapting podcast episodes into comics and cartoons to further immortalize the life stories and [reach] a broader audience. The more individuals we engage to read the [stories], the more hearts will be moved by the courage displayed by these role models. Consequently, an increasing number of adolescent girls and young women will be inspired to emulate their example, confronting the challenges prevalent in our rural communities and in the world. Personally, I am thrilled to be a part of this undertaking, as I’d like to witness greater justice and equity in our world, particularly concerning gender, by reshaping harmful traditional norms and dispelling myths.”

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Ahognonvi and Brady’s collaboration is how the content will serve as resources for Peace Corps’ in-person Volunteers. Ahognonvi and Brady are in the process of connecting in-person Volunteers with their nearby Batonga leadership clubs as well.

If you don’t think you have 5-15 hours to donate to a virtual engagement like Brady, think again. The VSPP supports Batonga all while managing her weekly commitments as a full-time graduate student at Georgetown University, an AmeriCorps VISTA leader with the National Forum of Black Public Educators, and a part-time Nordstrom employee. Despite her busy schedule, Brady recently requested to continue collaborating with Ahognonvi for an additional 20 weeks.

As for Peace Corps Benin, the team plans to identify other opportunities, such as the Teach English Classes for Ministry of Foreign Affairs Executives engagement, for VSPPs to learn and appreciate Benin’s culture while supporting local communities.

“For Peace Corps, a lot of the work involved is setting up the collaboration and making sure there's a good understanding of what is expected,” stated Benin’s director of programming and training (DPT), Kristina Thompson.

Batonga has since expanded its podcast programming to Senegal. The goal is to create new networks of connection, collaboration, and solidarity between girls across Benin and West Africa.