These first five weeks of the New Year have been an interesting trial in attempting to get the ball rolling on different projects. Over the course of the initial three-month integration period, I believed that I had a fairly firm grasp on the cultural differences concerning time, work, and the general flow of things here. With this “firm grasp” of understanding, I thought I could handle anything with ease and sans frustration. I thought wrong.
As it turns out, having an understanding based solely on observation is not having an understanding at all. As I have been working to achieve objectives that are neatly and logically arranged in my navy blue moleskin work journal, I have learned at an even quicker pace that, as with all community work, there is nothing neat about it. Conceptions about how something should be done or how an outcome should appear are bound to mutate as they always do with collaborative work. Knowing this, however, does not make it any less vexing.
After three weeks of feeling as though I was tethered to a pole, left only to run in circles, the beginning of one of my most exciting and nerve-racking projects was on deck: a high school girls group. For starters, high schoolers are terrifying. On top of that, I wanted so badly for this to work, that I felt sure, after the previous three weeks, it was doomed. I walked the mile and a half to the high school thinking of all the things that could go wrong; maybe a herd of white, emaciated cows would come out of nowhere (as they frequently do) and trample me, maybe the king of England would want to visit Benin and use the high school as his helipad, or worse: the girls would have no interest.
My interest in starting a girls group is a result of the large gap in equality and opportunity for women and girls in Benin, as it is in many third world countries. Especially in rural villages, like my own, which comprise most of Benin, girls’ education is not a priority; house chores, working in the fields, having children – these are seen as the priorities for a girl as decided by a severely patriarchal society. But Benin has recently named girls’ education as one of its’ priorities and has created an incentive program for girls to receive an education. There is a large difference, however, between creating a policy and implementation. In a third world country such as this, organization to apply and regulate are seriously lacking and with that comes corruption. Female empowerment is unheard of. Women work nonstop preparing meals, keeping tabs on who-knows-how-many kids, doing the family laundry, going to the well to get water, going to the jungle to get wood, harvesting the fields, the list goes on. And yet they are regarded as lesser beings than men. For these reasons, I wanted to start a girls group. I want the girls to know about opportunities beyond the kitchen, to know the importance of education, to know that they have the right to make choices for themselves, and most of all, that they deserve all of this.
I arrived at the school ten minutes early (shocking, I know, Mum) and classes were still going on and I didn’t see any girls. I had just come from talking to my partner on this project who forgot about the meeting and thus couldn’t come. I looked up to make sure the sky was still overhead and not making a descent. Two professors sitting under a tree signaled me over. I sat and spoke with them as they assured me that the girls hadn’t finished with classes yet, so I might still have hope. We went on chatting about mathematics and English when another professor tapped me on the shoulder and said, “If you want to have your meeting, you should go before the girls leave.” I turned around to see a troupe of teenage girls staring at me with curious, yet cautious eyes. I took a deep breath, and walked over. Thirty-three girls came, and thirty-eight at the next meeting. I was thrilled. They are enthusiastic, spunky characters that have a genuine interest in learning and patience with my strange French. And that’s all they need for right now.
As is true anywhere, everything doesn’t always go as planned. Things fall through, people regard deadlines as mere-suggestion-lines, and plans change. What seems to matter though, is how one is able to regard unanticipated change as a new opportunity and keep moving forward.