The National Girls Forum is OVER! I have been stressing out over this event for MONTHS, and could not feel more relieved (or exhausted) now that it is all done. I realized as the forum started that I don’t think I ever really explained the forum to everyone back home. So much is happening over here, that it gets very difficult to update everyone on everything… especially considering the frequency of my updates (despite my constant promises to improve on this). So, perhaps now would be a good time to fill you all in.
As you all know, the Youth Development program in Cameroon is brand new: my training group was the pilot stage and we have spent most of our service designing the program at the administrative level. To celebrate the successful first year of the YD program, Peace Corps Cameroon wanted to host a national girls empowerment event, and designated my program manager as the coordinator. The poor man has way too much on his plate already, so he reached out to us and formed a committee of four volunteers to help him organize the event: one from each region YD works in. I was the representative from the East, Shanna Beech from the Adamaoua, Sarah Jennings from the Extreme North, and Georgia Gootee from the South West. We had our first meeting back in May to decide on the structure and substance of the event and one meeting in June to decide on participants, presenters, and the schedule; but due to the distance between our posts, we had to do about 90% of the preparation independently, coordinating a national forum with nothing but iffy internet and spotty network coverage. Needless to say, it was a struggle. I found myself spending entire days on the computer at the Bertoua office working on spreadsheets and coordinating with presenters. I cannot say that it was always pleasant, but it was certainly a great learning experience! All of the frustrations I encountered were valuable lessons in event planning, cultural exchange, bureaucracy, and most basically in French.
So what was this National Girls Forum? Exactly that. A platform for the sharing of personal experiences and best practices for individuals and organizations (local, regional, national, and international) that work in the realm of girls empowerment. We did not want a didactic conference or a training. More than anything, we wanted the forum to be a networking event. In Cameroon (as in any developping country, I am sure), there seem to be a gazillion and one aid organizations, most of which are doing the exact same work but with no communication or collaboration. There are local organizations that are limited by lack of funds and huge international organizations that have no idea where or how to invest their money. This becomes incredibly frustrating to watch as a PCV… So we designed the forum to be as interactive as possible, calling on many participants (Americans and Cameroonians) to present on projects they have undertaken in their communities around the country and even included a networking fair where larger organizations could set up tables with information on resources they have available.
Overall, I think it went quite well. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a first in every way possible: first girls forum in Cameroon, first event for YD, and definitely a first for me. I learned a lot and can’t complain. I really hope we have the chance to do something like this again before we leave. At this point Peace Corps Cameroon wants to have this event every two to 4 years, but we are in the process of fighting for it to become annual. I can also see myself doing similar work after Peace Corps. As stressful as it was, it was so gratifying to see the forum come together and to meet all the Cameroonian counterparts that came from all over the country.