Monday, August 8, 2011

The REDES Conference!

The 2011 Southern Region REDES (Rapariga em Desenvolvimento, Educação e Saúde—Girls in Development, Education and Health) Conference officially ended yesterday, and this everyone traveled home. Five full days of conference and two travel days, one on each end. Wow, what a ridiculous and tiring week. At one point Anna sat down next to me and said “this conference is definitely not as fulfilling to run as it is to participate in!” But the girls had an awesome time and learned a ton, thus the conference was a success.
I feel like I should thank and apologize to anyone I ever knew who ran a camp. Or my boarding school, for that matter. When my patience was being tried, I kept reminding myself what a pain I was at 16 years old. And when I got really annoyed when we found out some girls had snuck out of their cabins at night, I remembered that I had done the same thing when I was their age. Payback sucks.
Since I am REDES Financial Director, I was in charge of all logistics for the conference too. This meant everything from making sure the right number of plates were served on time for meals, to getting enough chairs in our conference room. This would normally be quite a task, but this week had all sorts of surprises in store for me! I never got to sit through an entire session all week, I was either running errands or something would come up while I was in the conference room.
The week in review. One woman arrived with her baby on her back—the rules are explicit, no babies. In past years PCVs allowed women to bring babies but learned that this was a headache and a distraction. In addition to not wanting the baby at the conference, two other women (one of whom has been with the REDES Project for many years) weren’t coming to the conference this year because they were still nursing, so there was no way we could make an exception for this woman. Since people had cancelled last-minute, we had an extra cabin and she was able to sleep there that night. The next morning we sent her home and the plan was for her to leave the child with family and then come back, but we never saw her again. She also accidentally took the room key with her which meant that we couldn’t use that room for the rest of the week and we should have had to pay for the key (places here don’t use magnetic cards like in America, this key was the really old-fashioned type with a round stem and the teeth part sticking out) but Barra Lodge was too nice to charge us for it.
Two girls had health issues that they didn’t share with anyone prior to the conference, probably for fear they wouldn’t be able to come. One girl has gastro-intestinal problems and can’t eat anything cooked in oil. Everything in Mozambique is cooked in oil. She spent almost the entire week in bed and missed probably 85% of the sessions. The other girl had a tooth ache that was so bad she started crying, so we sent her home to have it taken care of. This meant me going into Inhambane City (about 30k away and part of that on unpaved road. I ended up having to go to Inhambane 4 of the 5 conference days which sucked) with her, taking the boat across the bay to Maxixe, then getting her on the chapa to go home, and then returning.
Two Facilitators (Facilitators are Mozambican women who run REDES groups, either alone or with a PCV) who were at the conference had deaths in their families and had to leave early (and one woman was too distraught to travel alone, so another Facilitator left with her). This involved organizing additional transport (because normally all Maputo province people traveled together on the same rented bus, all Gaza province people traveled on the same rented bus, etc) for them to return, and gathering up all their supplies and giving them their pictures and certificates before they left. And making sure we had their room keys!
Alice, our National Public Relations Director, had a severe allergic reaction starting the first day of the conference. Since it didn’t get better after a few days and we had no idea what was causing it, she had to leave the conference to go first to the hospital in Inhambane, and then fly down to Maputo to have tests run. Another PCV got really sick and went home on day 4 of the conference.
Since 2006, the annual REDES conferences have always had a large range in ages of the participants. In the past few years REDES groups have been created in primary schools too, as opposed to only secondary schools in the past, lowering the average age of participants a bit. This year at our conferences we divided girls into groups by age, in order to make discussions and sessions more age-appropriate and specific. So while there have always been 11, 12, and 13 year old girls at conferences before, the age gap (the oldest participant at our conference this year was 23) seemed more apparent this year with age divisions. One of the sessions was about condom use and included a condom demonstration. When the condom demonstration started, one of the Mozambican women who has been with REDES for years and was one of the conference coordinators since the beginning stood up, interrupted the session, and removed all of the younger girls, saying the information wasn’t appropriate for them. One of the other PCVs came over and told three of us PCVs who were running the conference. We rushed outside and confronted these two women (Mozambican Facilitators who came to both conference planning meetings this year, were two of the conference coordinators, and have been with REDES for years). A fairly loud argument ensued, which is unfortunate because we were outside and in front of the girls. It ended with me pissing them off by telling them that we could have a discussion later, but right then the girls were going to re-enter the conference room. It’s a tough situation. They (note: not all the Mozambican women) believe that by teaching condom use to young girls, we are promoting sex and causing younger girls to have sex. We (the PCVs and some of the Facilitators) believe that we need to give the girls the knowledge and skills so that, when they decide to have sex, they are prepared to do it safely. This discussion is repeated everywhere in the world and I don’t think anyone has ever reached an agreement. One PCV wisely commented that, if we truly want REDES to become sustainable and a Mozambican project, we can’t pick and choose when we want to listen to the Mozambican women we work with. She is absolutely right. I don’t know what to do. We don’t want to be imperialistic and imposing with our beliefs and practices, but at the same time, the reason we are here is to implement change. Statistically, HIV rates begin to rise again in girls beginning at age 10. This means that nationally, girls are beginning to have sex at age 10, which is simply terrifying. Knowing that, I truly believe that it is my duty and responsibility to teach these girls how to protect themselves if they have sex, because they aren’t going to learn it anywhere else. I tried to stress the other side of the argument that we DON’T want our 11 year olds having sex and I wish we didn’t have to teach condom use to such young girls, but the numbers show that it’s necessary.
One day I went into the city to print pictures for all conference participants and Facilitators (each person was part of a “color group,” so they received a picture of their color group). I left Barra Lodge at 8am and was expecting to be back before lunch. Turns out the entire city of Inhambane was out of photo paper, so I had to take the boat across the bay (again. Each ride across takes 20-30 minutes, depending on how far out the tide is) to have the pictures printed in Maxixe. While in line in the photo place, a man walked up next to me. When I informed him that he was going to wait just like all the rest of us, he looked at me and the people behind me and said “oh, are you in line?” “No, we’re just hanging out” I responded. He gave me a puzzled look, but a few people behind me giggled. Then I got to the front of the line, there was a woman who had been standing there for a while, so I didn’t hand the guy working my flash drive, but indicated for her to go first. She didn’t do anything, so the guy behind me handed his flash drive to the worker. I grabbed it out of the worker’s hand and returned it, telling the woman to go first. She finally spoke up and explained that she was waiting for something else, during which time the guy behind me handed his flash back to the worker. I grabbed it out of the workers hand for a second time and gave it back to the man behind me. After returning to the conference many hours later from what I had thought would be a quick errand, Joyce met me at the door and I said “tell me something good about the conference!” She hesitated for a second before telling me that the girls were loving it and the sessions were going well. Two phones had been stolen that day and the woman had found out her grandfather had died.
One day I was sitting at “our table” doing administrative work when another PCV came in and said “umm, there are two boys taking pictures of our girls at the pool and I told them to leave but they’re still there.” I went outside and yelled at them while I was walking toward them. They probably thought I was joking until I grabbed both of them by the collars and marched them out of the lodge. When we reached the edge of the lodge I gave them both a slap on their heads and reprimanded them loudly. They ended up going to sit at the lodge beach bar, close to another group of girls who were outside for an earring-making session. I couldn’t make them leave there, but I took comfort in the fact that they were paying for overpriced beer just to be creeps.
We had only two people cancel for sessions during the week, which I suppose isn’t too bad for 5 days. For one, we had enough time to call someone to replace her, but the other session was cancelled the night before, so we had to hurriedly create a session from scratch.
There was a South African boy staying at the lodge who made friends with some of our girls. Normally I wouldn’t want a 17 year old boy hanging out with our girls, but I was just so thrilled that he wasn’t racist that I let it be. He had shaggy hair so all the girls called him Justin Bieber.
Those were all the things I had to deal with. But from the outside, from the girls’ and Facilitators’ points of view, the conference was fantastic. It was great to see all of them having such a great time and learning so much.
The Mozambique TV station showed up to the beginning of the conference and our closing ceremonies, interviewing girls, Facilitators and PCVs both times. Great press for REDES!
The Honorable Leslie V. Rowe, Ambassador to the United States, came to the opening ceremonies of the conference. She was wonderful and the girls loved her! She explained what an ambassador is and does, which is good because I don’t think most of the girls knew. She also talked about her educational background and stressed how important it is to pursue an education and how hard she worked to get where she is now. I think it’s awesome for the girls for such an important figure would come to their conference, reminding them that yes they really do matter. A lot.

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