During her first year of service as the first ever Peace Corps Volunteer in Guerou, Andrea encountered a number of obstacles- different culture, language, weather, a conservative community and being an American non Muslim woman promoting Girls Education and Empowerment - which a weak minded person could hardly deal with them. Andrea courageously managed to get the people used to an westerner living among them, established productive relationships with the community, opened a Girls Mentoring Center and, most importantly, recruited 13 wonderful young girls who are interested in improving their lives through education. To put it briefly, Andrea set in motion the consuming task of paving the rough road for future generations of Peace Corps Volunteers in Guerou.
For her second year and with a new male partner on board (I know it sound like a misogynous comment but gender plays a fundamental role in Mauritanian society) we set up our main goal for this next year: making the Girls Education and Empowerment Program and, therefore, our GMC sustainable in Guerou. What this exactly means is that if one day Peace Corps decide to pull out of Mauritania in case of an emergency, administrative order or political conflict (as we have lately seen in Mauritania) the community in Guerou would be able to run the program efficiently by themselves; after all this is a program that should be managed by the people in Guerou, and for the people in Guerou. To achieve this goal, we need to assemble a strong network that includes different key community actors - local government, educational corps, women cooperatives, NGO’s - that understand that it is in their interest to promote Girls Education and empowerment, not only to please the demands of a specific sector in the community but to improve the well being of their society and benefit future generations of Mauritanians.
Before I continue with my story, I’m forced to explain why Girls Education and Empowerment is such an important program and why are there thousands of individuals all around the world promoting such project. Educating and empowering girls is a vital effort that will help tackle other problems that affect our world gravely. There are several compelling benefits associated with this endeavor, which include the reduction of child and maternal mortality, improvement of child nutrition and health, lower fertility rates, enhancement of women’s domestic roles and their political participation, improvement of economic productivity and growth, and protection of girls from HIV/AIDS, abuse and exploitation. Girls Education yields some of the highest returns of all development investments, yielding both private and social benefits that accrue to individuals, families and society at large.
It is worth highlighting that girl’s education in Mauritania faces several socio-economic and socio-cultural constraints such as the high costs of school expenses, lack of schools installations (the ratio of secondary to primary schools is just 1 secondary to 21 primary schools at the national level), burdensome daily household chores at their own homes, early marriages and pregnancies (1 in 4 girls is married by age 12, 1 in 2 girls by age 14 and 3 in 4 girls by age 17), discriminatory social representations of women’s roles devalue girls education, sexist attitudes conveyed in the curriculum and school manuals reinforce traditional representations of girls (number of female teachers in secondary schools was 374 to 3167 men in the 2003-04 year), among other things. Although the Mauritanian Government has made incredible progress promoting girls education through the implementation of new compulsory educational laws, there is so much to be done.
While writing on this blog, I’ve compared my Peace Corps service with riding a rollercoaster. Every day that passes by brings new experiences and emotions, and trying to grasp so much information at once turns into a real challenge. Like all high adrenaline attractions, however, there is always a short moment when the rides slows down so you can take some air, regain concentration and prepared yourself for the next big slope that is waiting ahead; and that invigorating moment is what I exactly experienced this past two weeks.
After celebrating some religious festivities with our Mauritanian friends, everything started to work out pretty smoothly. This break gave Andrea and me the opportunity to settle down and analyze the road lying ahead of us. We had the opportunity to meet people that were willing to support us in our Girls Education and Empowerment (GEE) activities. During these productive meetings, we received good ideas from the community and incorporated them into our action plan for this year. It seemed that the complicated task of putting together the GEE puzzle in Guerou was finally underway. However, before we got ourselves to ahead, we received some unfortunate news: the majority of students in Guerou that took the BAC (test that students all around the Francophone world take to get into University) this year failed it, so they have to repeat their last year of Lycee. What does that mean? Well, there was extra number of students and not enough of school facilities to place them, so the room where we had our GMC had to be given back to the Lycee. Yes you got it right; they shut down one of the few solutions that they have to resolve their BAC problems to satisfy a short term necessity- Kinda bizarre huh? I must admit that after receiving the news, Andrea and I felt hopeless. Where can we find another place to move our GMC in a town like Guerou? To make the things worse, the girls were constantly calling to ask us when we were going to start activities. What where we going to tell them? That we had no GMC?
That night we had dinner with Yousef, a French Teacher and a good friend of ours, and sadly told him the news and even most importantly, asked for his opinion. He told us that his friend, the new Educational Inspector of Guerou, may have a solution or at least know somebody that could gives us some directions on what to do. The next day we met the inspector who, after having a short talk about our work and our recent news, generously offered us an extra room that he had in his new bureau. Although we were kinda skeptical about his promise, once we saw the room everything changed. It was awesome and perfect for our GMC. With tiled floor, electric fans, pleasant area, big garden and in a nice building, the phrase “things happened for a reason” really struck me. That next day, Andrea and I hired a “donkey kart” to move all our material from the Lycee to our new GMC and, with the help of the Girls, we cleaned the entire building; our new GMC.
Life sometimes works in a bizarre way. On Monday night I went to sleep with a feeling of hopelessness and bitterness in my heart, but on Thursday morning, I woke up feeling energized, excited and with a ton of ideas to implement in our new GMC. Ill Hamdouillah.