Written by Chris Biles
Between the 24th and 29th of April this year, 10 Peace Corps Volunteers, 40 secondary students, and 10 counterparts came together in Morogoro for a week-long conference designed to educate and empower youth. The volunteers, students, and counterparts came from different regions all over the country: Mbeya, Songea, Njombe, Iringa, Dodoma, Kilimanjaro, and Tanga. However, while they may have come from very different locations, they soon realized that they shared many experiences and came from similar places.
The week was filled with non-stop learning and confidence building. On Monday the students from each school bonded with various team building activities, and teamwork lessons. Each created a team name and cheer, and then presented together their thoughts about why teamwork is important.
The students did trust falls, a blindfolded maze, and blind drawings.
In the afternoon, the students participated in a few malaria activities to learn about the importance of using bed nets, how malaria is transmitted, and the consequences of getting malaria.
Also, they learned about HIV/AIDS and did a few activities to help articulate the consequences of risky behaviors.
This activity is called Risk Limbo. The broom handle represents HIV, and as behavior gets more risky, the handle lowers, making it more and more difficult to safely pass beneath.
After dinner, the students enjoyed an evening of coloring focused on malaria prevention – an activity to support World Malaria Day.
Tuesday morning focused on sexual health. There was more talk about risky behaviors, and mitigating risk especially for females. There were also condom demonstrations and practice with both male and female condoms. The students asked a great many questions, and clearly appreciated the opportunity to clear up misconceptions in regards to condoms, pregnancy, and sex itself.
The other main focus for Tuesday was on nutrition and the benefits of home gardening. After a discussion on the importance of a balanced diet, and a thorough explanation of why ugali alone is not enough to give you strength, each group made their own bowl of guacamole. Some liked the concoction, others not so much, but they all understood the nutritional benefits of eating it.
After making guacamole and enjoying it with lunch, the students went outside to make a type of home garden – a bag/sack garden. This vertical gardening technique is easy and saves space. In a bag garden, holes are made in rows around the sack for planting, with additional space to plant at the top opening. With a column of rocks surrounded by a mixture of composted manure and soil, all plants in the garden can get water and the appropriate nutrients. The students planted watermelon seeds around the lower row, tomato seeds around the middle row, and propagated onions at the top.
That night was spent with a quick discussion of human impacts on the environment and the viewing of Wall-E to help visualize what might happen to our planet if we keep throwing trash out bus windows.
Wednesday was a day devoted to goal setting – why goals and dreams are important, how to set realistic goals, the differences between short-term and long-term goals, how to develop a plan to reach a goal, etc. etc. In the morning, three guest speakers from an organization in Morogoro (Nafaka) came to tell how setting goals in their personal lives led to bigger and better things for them. They talked about the difficulties of coming from small rural villages and secondary schools that face some challenges, but also the fact that anyone from any background can reach their dreams in they can find the motivation to try hard every day and to reach for all opportunities available. The students were able to ask many questions and to get a great deal of advice.
In the afternoon, everyone travelled to Sokoine University of Agriculture. The duty vice chancellor of administration and finance organized a wonderful university visit for us. An admissions advisor came to speak about the application process and the opportunities available at the university. Also, four current students (two undergrads, and two masters students) came to tell their stories. All came from similar villages and schools as the students, and they all explained how they managed to make it from there to the university – and why they are so grateful they were able to do so.
After the sharing of those experiences, the students had the opportunity to visit a laboratory, and to see common areas, dining facilities, and a hostel. They were buzzing with excitement at the end of the walk-around. It meant so much for their nebulous ideas and expectations about university life to transform into a more concrete vision of what their futures could be like.
In the evening, the students all came together for some more arts and crafts. They each incorporated all they had learned earlier in the day to create a vision board – a simple collage focused on their goals, hopes, and dreams for the future.
Thursday morning also allowed the students to practice their teamwork during some science competitions. The students participated in an egg drop competition and a boat building competition. And there were of course prizes for the very proud and happy winners.
The afternoon was spent discussing gender roles, stereotypes, and equality. The students shared many good ideas about what leads to gender inequality, and what the results of those inequalities are and could be. Then the students were able to practice a favorite school activity: debate. They debated three different topics – that poverty affects girls more than boys, that society would be healthier, stronger, and more peaceful if girls were educated and boys took care of the farms and household, and that women should control their own finances.
That night, the students enjoyed some free time and eating banana splits! They weren’t too sure about what to make of those either… (like the guac). Some wanted more, some didn’t even finish their small portion.
Friday was spent wrapping up the week. The students did some action planning, determining in their teams how they should take the things they learned back to their schools and communities. Some were planning on teaching one of the sessions they participated in over the course of week, others wanted to do morning speeches to tell the other students about their various experiences.
Once the students completed their action plans, it was time for a celebration: soda, biscuits, certificates of completion, and a video/slide show of the week. All in all, it was a very happy afternoon full of proud, confident smiles.
After the celebration, however, the students got down to business once again in their final preparations for the talent show that night. They organized an excellent and impressive talent show, which allowed for even more creative expression and confidence building.
In addition to all of the activities and sessions the students participated in throughout the week, they also managed to prepare two nights of teach backs. They shared the things they found most important in each session, and took advantage of the platform to practice presentation and creative expression. The teach backs took the form of short lectures, poster presentations, and skits.
On Saturday morning, everyone started their journeys back to their villages and schools. They were tired, but full of energy at the same time. They had reached the end of what seemed at first a great challenge, as well as a great opportunity, and they were all filled with the contentedness one feels after finding success. After this conference, the students were clearly motivated by their new depth of knowledge and understanding, by the opportunities they now know exist for them, and by the fact that they travelled to a new place and now have new friends scattered across the country. Truly, this will be a week they never forget.