The peace corps volunteer-run Camp BRO (Boys Respecting Others) took place this year in Ouidah, a city known for being the site of the major slave port in Benin as well as the world capitol of Voodoo (Vodun.) This year, there were about 60 boys from the ages of 12 to 16 or so. I took two boys from Bante to the camp—they had a rollicking good time.
Simeon, one of the boys I brought, was a star. He could not just wear his camp t-shirt—it was not stylish enough. Every day he added a vest, a hat, or some other high-fashion accessory. Although he looked really good, he didn’t look quite as good as the boy who wore a Hello Kitty hat all day every day (gender norms are obviously different here…imagine an American boy wearing a pink Hello Kitty hat to a camp with 60 of his peers.)
One day, after talking about school and the difficulties some boys have staying in the education system, Simeon made a speech. He paced back and forth in front of a large group of boys saying “My friends… My friends, the roots of education are bitter! But we are not here only to taste the bitter roots! We look forward to the sweet harvest.” Although I think that his words went over most people’s heads, he sounded really good. Later, at the end of camp, he made another speech, this time in English, commencing with “I have a Dream.” I was pleased because he obviously read the Martin Luther Kind Jr. document I gave him! Although his I have a dream speech was a bit naïve—that all of Africa would be one country with no more war, where everyone treated each other as brothers—I was still impressed.
My favorite activity with the kids was watching them see the ocean for the first time. Just imagine; 60 boys who have never seen the ocean all arriving over a dune and being met by the sight of waves. It was a magical moment. Some boys were worried that the water was boiling and wouldn’t touch it until they were sure that the other’s feet weren’t cooked. Some who were more bold immediately stripped down to their boxer-briefs and rolled around in the surf.
Less fun was the experience with our sleeping quarters. The dormitory was nice, except for one thing. There were many, many rats. People found bites taken out of their travel snacks, as well as bites taken out of their underwear. WHY?
One night, I woke up at about 3 am with what was definitely a rat right under my bed near my head. Staying calm and collected, I did what was most logical; pretended to be an enormous snake. My sleepy thought process went something like: rats are scary, but they are scared of predators, snakes eat rats, so I should be a snake. Obviously. Hissing vehemently, I pictured myself as a large python. The rat, thankfully, bought it (or became bored) and left the vicinity of my bed. I was very pleased with the result, and drifted back to sleep.
During the day, the camp was full of important sessions about health, gender vs sex (gender being the roles given by society to a person of a particular sex,) conflict resolution, leadership, and other topics. The boys did art projects, learned the basics of karate, and studied what makes up a nutritional meal. But the most poignant moment that I witnessed happened after camp. Four boys and another volunteer stayed at my house for a night before heading back to their homes up north. We were sitting around the breakfast table talking about racism. We asked them—Why is it that many Beninese people treat white people with more respect than their fellow countrymen? Why are white people often afforded special privileges?
One of the boys said that it was a way to show respect because whites do things like invent technology, build airplanes, etc. while he had never seen a black person do those things. Before the other volunteer or I could respond, Simeon said, “Yes, but is this a case of gender or sex? By this I mean, is it a result of circumstance, resources, and culture, or is it inherent?”
And with that, this 13 year old kid made me so proud and so full of hope. Because I think he will be a leader in his community one day. And if everything goes right, he will remember the lessons about how to realize equality, about how to respect others, and about how to have confidence in himself. Camp was a success.