In the above photo: Carrie Daniel stands with the principal of GBHS Kikaikom, two former Big Sisters, the head of the PTO at Kikaikom, Caroline, and the YWLP coordinator for Kikaikom
When I signed up to be a mentor through the Young Women Leaders Program (YWLP) as a second year student, I did not imagine that I would be engaging with issues facing girls and women around the globe in locations as exotic as the hills of Bamkikaai in the Northwest Region of Cameroon.
YWLP is an innovative mentoring program founded by the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center and the Curry School of Education at U.Va. in 1997. It is designed to support and enhance the sense of competence, connection and autonomy of a diverse group of college women (“Bigs”) and middle school girls (“Littles”) by promoting women’s and girls’ leadership abilities.
Two years after my first experience with YWLP as a Big Sister, I learned that I had the opportunity to travel as an intern to the YWLP site in Cameroon. At first, I was intimidated because I had never traveled for extended periods without other Americans in the developing world and I wasn’t sure that my former French classes would suffice in rural Cameroon. Luckily, I discovered that the majority of my work covered the 20 percent of the country that speaks English.
I had a broad idea of what I was to accomplish while I was there. I worked under Caroline Berinyuy, a Cameroonian woman who received her Ph.D. at U.Va.’s Curry School of Education and founded the YWLP site in Cameroon. Under her guidance, I met with YWLP participants, relevant community members and government officials to gather resources to bring back to the United States and contribute to the cultural exchange between our two sister sites.
“This is the first internship of its kind to YWLP Cameroon and it was a learning experience for us as well as for the intern. In spite of the fact that the internship was time-constrained, we believe it achieved most of the objectives. Carrie worked well with the team on the ground. For those big sisters and facilitators in high school, such easy collaboration was a boost to their confidence and self-esteem, as it provided an opportunity for them to try out their newly acquired leadership skills. YWLP Kumbo thanks Carrie and her sponsors for the internship. We look forward to future interns and will encourage them to take their cue from her visit.” ~ Caroline Berinyuy
Physically getting to Cameroon was an adventure in itself. I missed a connecting flight and had to spend a night in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), flew into an extra airport on the way into Cameroon, and finally landed in a coastal city called Douala about 26 hours later than expected.
Exhausted and disoriented, I stepped off the airplane into the tropical climate and was jolted into a fit of culture shock like I had never known. The air was heavy and difficult to breathe and it was very clear that nobody in the airport spoke English. It was time for my eight years of French classes to be put to the test.
It isn’t safe to travel by night in Cameroon, so I spent the night in Douala with Caroline before we embarked on the 10-hour car ride across the country to the city of Kumbo where we worked. If you’ve never travelled by road in a developing country, the only way I can describe the experience is to compare it to a game of Mario Karts. Most roads are unpaved and crowded with packed vehicles that drive too quickly on whichever side of the street seems most convenient at the time.
Although my senses were overwhelmed as I experienced inescapable nausea and traveller’s anxiety, the astonishing beauty of the landscape was a welcomed diversion. Near Douala, we were surrounded by luscious rainforests and dozens of plantations growing bananas, plantains or coffee. But as we travelled North, I watched the climate shift to become more dry and arid. We drove through mountain ranges that were at times barely visible through the fog and eventually dust that filled the air. Ten hours later, I stumbled out of the car in Kumbo to the Lap Centre where I stayed.
As I had already lost a day by missing my flight in Ethiopia, we began working right away. Much of my time was spent interviewing school principals, YWLP coordinators, former Big Sisters or Little Sisters, and family members of participants. It took me a while to learn how to relate with Cameroonians and conduct an effective interview, but I was excited to practice one of YWLP’s main values- connection, in an entirely different cultural context.
I learned about the realities of growing up as a girl in Cameroon, where you are often expected to drop out of school at a young age to pursue marriage or assist in household chores. They taught me about the realities of living in poverty but also about positive aspects of their culture, such as an intense loyalty felt to your home village and family.
At each YWLP school in Kumbo, I had the opportunity to participate in a working session where I observed a mentoring group. The groups were much different than the groups in Charlottesville. Instead of having eight one-on-one pairs of Big Sisters and Little Sisters, it was not uncommon to see 50-75 girls crammed into a room. In Charlottesville, we discuss issues facing girls such as body image, women’s representation in the media and leadership development. In Cameroon, their issues are more closely related to ensuring girls have the support system necessary to remain enrolled in school. This entails filling cultural gaps to learn about physical development or how to build a relationship with your mother, but it also includes learning about the same topics we discuss in the United States- self-esteem, goal setting, and sisterhood.
A typical group meeting began with a quick game or riddle and an opportunity for members to share positive or negative experiences that had happened in their lives recently. Then, a group facilitator will introduce the week’s topic and she will be assisted by her group of 10-15 Big Sisters in leading a discussion.
At this point, I facilitated a “Global Connections Session” where I taught girls about the structure of YWLP in the United States and answered questions that they had about being a woman in American society. They were curious about heavier issues like racism or healthy relationships but also about more trivial topics like how we celebrate Halloween. Groups often asked me if the YWLP girls in the United States considered them as sisters, to which I answered yes.
“I was sitting in the back of a classroom filled with close to 75 girls […] Kiyan was one of the most rural schools I worked in and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had visited for a working session to observe their mentoring group and share information about YWLP in the United States. After the Big Sisters sang a welcoming song, they quickly launched into a discussion about concepts of beauty. One Big Sister stood in front of the room and confidently explained that beauty comes from the most inner part of your soul. I was taken aback by her maturity and I knew that I never could have worded something so gracefully when I was in high school.” ~ Carrie Daniel
Even though we are facing very different cultural issues, we are still learning to apply the same concepts of “connection, competence and autonomy” to solving problems and achieving goals in our daily lives.
Two weeks in Cameroon flew by and I was sad to board my flight back home. But I am lucky because I have the opportunity to further engage with the site in Cameroon by conducting a series of post internship projects. Most notably, I will be revising the curriculum that girls in the United States use to learn about the YWLP site in Cameroon. I hope that girls in Charlottesville will be able to synthesize the connections between their issues and the issues that girls in Cameroon are facing, despite the drastic cultural differences. I hope they will realize that they are capable of making a difference regarding overwhelming current issues such as the global lack of education for girls.
And most importantly, I hope they realize the value of diversity and come to a deeper understanding of how our culture interacts with others.
To learn more about Carrie’s internship in Cameroon, consider attending her presentation on March 27. Carrie Daniel is a fourth year Foreign Affairs and Women, Gender and Sexuality major. Carrie has been a YWLP Facilitator for two years with a 7th grade group at Burley Middle School and was a Big Sister her first year in YWLP. She is also the Student Assistant to the Director of the Women’s Center.
This internship was made possible by a generous donation from a long-time supporter of YWLP.
Story and photos by Carrie Daniel