Thursday, September 06, 2007


We all arrived on an overcast Saturday afternoon - some later than others - amidst the chaos of food arrangements and last minute scheduling details. Most of the chaos was my own - part failure to delegate tasks sufficiently, part panic and apprehension. my fears would prove to be misplaced, but in the meantime i put my patience to the test.

Only 1 boy was left behind due to illness - though he would arrive two days later - so 19 high schoolers, seven peace corps volunteers, and two friends checked into the DEPOT that day. The DEPOT (Dan Eldon Place of Tomorrow) also hosts Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World), the major project of the Peace Corps' Gender and Development committee, but had yet to host a camp of high school boys and were at least as apprehensive as the rest of us. in spite of the apprehension, we were all excited, and looking forward to the week ahead - especially the boys. on the hour ride to nairobi i asked Dominic how long it had been since he had visited the capital city. "10 years," he replied. He is only now a freshman.

My five boys - Dominic, Teddy, Gachoka, William, and Nicolas, all from Gatunyu Secondary near my house - were some of the most sheltered in the bunch, but continually surprised me throughout the camp with their lucid observations and largely progressive views on controversial topics. It really made me proud. Watching the boys change and mature, even in six days, was by far the most rewarding aspect of Boys2Men. Because the school system in Kenya discourages individual thinking and questioning authority, students are by and large much more timid than their american counterparts. This deference is often mistaken for respect, but much more often it is a product of fear, which effectively limits the range of discourse and dialogue in the classroom. At the onset of Boys2Men, we encouraged the boys to be open and honest with us - there were no "wrong" opinions, nor would anyone be punished or reprimanded for sharing their point of view. This statement, backed up throughout the sessions by our reinforcing behavior as (mostly) objective facilitators, had an amazing impact on the entire week.

The first day was simple but fun. a couple of hours of icebreakers allowed us to get a feel for the personalities of the boys, as we took turns in a circle sharing our names and an item of the same first letter that we would take on a trip. John was taking javelins, teddy was taking teapots, peter plates, delick drugs. This last was a talking point on two fronts - one, obviously, was that he would choose to bring drugs on a trip. The second was less concerning but much more amusing. His parents, apparently unable to differentiate between the pronunciation of the letters "r" and "l" (as many kenyans are unable to do), ended up spelling his name very uniquely. Perhaps as strange was that no one, except for the Americans present, thought anything of it.

The educational sessions during the week were interspersed with meals, tea breaks (two per day - Kenyans can't really survive without them. Thanks, England!), campfires, and DEPOT activities. All of their activities are geared toward teambuilding and leadership, and the surrounding forest is dotted with activity areas, often a conglomeration of boards nailed to trees in different intriguing patterns. In one activity, the group was faced with a web of string running between two trees, about 15 feet apart. They were instructed to get every member of the group to the other side of the web in 10 minutes, without touching the string and without going over or under the web or around the trees. Since the openings in the web were less than two feet in any direction, and were mostly triangular, it seemed impossible. As facilitators we were given the tasks independently of the group of boys, to prevent our dominating the decision-making process. While we only had six people to fit through the web, the boys had 20. By the end of an hour the boys made it, and were all smiles and jokes.

Much of the teambuilding and education took place outside of the structured sessions as well. During the introduction to Boys2Men we split the boys up into five teams, which were all responsible for sharing the chores of camp. Since there were five main chores in a day, each team had responsibilities.

1. Breakfast prep and cleanup
2. Lunch prep and cleanup
3. Dinner prep and cleanup
4. Bathrooms
5. Campfire and water tank duty

Some of the chores were more labor-intensive than others, but we rotated the teams throughout the week so everyone performed all of the duties at one point or another. Bathrooms were easy - scrubbing the floors after breakfast - while meal duties took longer. Campfire responsibilites included building the campfire at night as well as maintaining a fire under the bathwater tank in the morning and evening.

Many of the boys had never washed a dish before in their lives - most household chores are delegated to women, or girls, and men often do not assist in them. This was the main aim of requiring the boys to perform chores around camp; boys need to know not only that they CAN perform those duties just as well as their sisters, but also that it is acceptable to do so. One of the challenges of the camp was the presentation of this idea without forcing the boys to accept it. Ultimately they returned to their homes and societies where certain gender expectations exist, and we didn't want them getting in trouble or reprimanding their elders over controversial topics. But no one is going to be punished for offering to help with the dishes, or by asking their mama if she needs their assistance. In the end all we could hope for was that the boys understood the information we gave them and were able to come to their own conclusion about it, in the context of their own culture as well as objectively.

The education sessions covered a wide range of topics, some more controversial than others. During Rape & Sexual Assault, discussion raged for over an hour about what, exactly, constitutes consent, and whether or not a man has the right to force his wife to have sex with him (which is actually a very commonly held Kenyan belief, and which the MP's recently debated in Parliament before deciding that they could not, in fact, call it rape). During debates we tried to remain objective and not to present our views as fact, which proved to be especially difficult during some of the more emotionally-charged discussions. It helped, during Rape & Sexual Assault especially, that we had previously covered Human Rights, during which the boys outlined basic human rights that all people - men, women, and children - are entitled to. Some of the boys found themselves cornered when we asked them why it was OK for a man to force his wife to have sex if she had the basic human right to make decisions about her own body.
The dance party took place on the last night of camp. If you're thinking that a dance party of high school boys wouldn't work, think again. When I joked that the dance party was cancelled and everyone was going to bed early, the boys were genuinely and visibly upset. Homosexuality may be illegal in Kenya, but the cultural lines of what defines homosexuality is very different from those of the US. Most visitors are surprised the first time they see two men holding hands or caressing each other as they talk. Most would probably be more surprised to see the way men dance with each other - though it's really no different from the way girls dance with each other in clubs in the US. The boys at the camp were no exception, and the lack of girls didn't stop them from getting down.

The final day was relaxed as we took down our tents, wrote notes in each others' journals, and had a final "tie-it-together" session before lunch and departure. The session was one of the most rewarding of the week, as the boys expressed how they would apply the knowledge gained during the week to their communities at home. One told a moving story about his alcoholic father, who he would encourage to quit drinking after learning about the detrimental physical and mental effects of alcohol and drug abuse. Another said he wanted to start a campaign against sexual violence. All of them thanked us for giving them "the best style of learning ever."
We moved out of the DEPOT together, and although boys don't cry (ok, they might cry sometimes. the camp wasn't for nothing), it was definitely a sad group of boys that moved out that day.


  1. Anonymous12:52 AM

    That is an awesome report of the experience. It sounds like it would have a great impact on the boys, and hopefully it will sow seeds of empowerment with them.

    Love Always,

    Mzee Poppa

  2. Anonymous10:03 PM

    i am kenyan from mabanda village and i have seen men wash dishes only not when there women around to wash them. they also usually do their own laundry by hand

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