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Our View from the Ground: Grassroots vs. Treetops

Photo of Mieko McKay

Mieko McKay is Senior Program Associate at EngenderHealth.

For me, it’s more about helping to plant the seeds so that the roots, and eventually flowers, can grow. As a Peace Corps volunteer in northern Senegal, I learned how small initiatives can inspire real change.

Most girls there are married by age 15, but many I met yearned to stay in school. I formed girls' clubs to create safe spaces for them and to raise awareness of the importance of education, health, and hygiene. After the clubs had taken off, we decided we wanted to do more. I had heard about a bike tour in a more liberal region of the country, where girls themselves ride and educate communities about the importance of education and health. I decided to approach my girls and their parents about doing our own bike tour. The girls loved the idea from the start, and after my promising to guard each girl with my life, the parents consented.  

Nearly the entire village welcomed me and the five other volunteers when we came with the bikes—eight shiny, multicolored, gently used street bicycles on top of our Peace Corps Range Rover. As we pulled into the sandy driveway, I saw the girls practically fly out and was reminded why I was there. They were my reason for planning a big, fancy regional campaign.

Soon, they would take the 30 km tour. As I handed a bike to each girl, I felt joy, fear, and pride. I could see those same emotions reflected back at me in each of their faces. I also felt mischievous, because we had hatched a plan together that challenged Senegalese culture and ideas about womanhood.

Part of me was uncomfortable about meddling with their culture. I believe that people are entitled to their own beliefs, and challenging the social identity of women in Senegal through this project seemed to conflict with my principles: Who was I to come with all of my freedom and open-mindedness? I felt hypocritical. But when I saw how excited the girls were to be experiencing something that made them feel special and important—I knew it was something we had to do.

The girls were dressed in shorts (more like Capri pants to keep their knees covered at all times), and we taught them how to ride bikes. I had never seen such determination; they learned to ride in a week, and we practiced 7 km a day.

The first morning of the tour, I rode in a car beside the girls and cheered them on. Each was a mobile advertisement for a healthier and stronger Senegalese woman. People stood along the main road and rooted for them, and national television crews covered the ride. The image of African girls riding through the desert plains would stay, long after the tour was done.

I organized five village visits along our route and worked with Tostan—the organization featured in this chapter of the book—to have theater groups perform skits. Village elders and leaders came to these sessions, and government officials and health workers officiated.

Not used to speaking in front of crowds, the girls refused to speak at our first venue. I didn't push them; they would speak when they were ready. At the second village, I feared the same thing would happen, but then one of the girls stood up and spoke about the importance of education in her life. She spoke of wanting to understand the world, of finding work to help support her family, of dreaming to be a nurse, a secretary, or even a businesswoman. In a culture where a young woman’s most important attributes are beauty and having a good husband, this was a huge step. After that, the girls took turns speaking. Bravely, they openly discussed controversial topics.

People listened and were proud of the girls, and this bolstered their confidence. The final site was their own village. In front of their families, friends, and community leaders, the girls spoke out more boldly and emphatically than they had over the entire course of the tour. Their mothers applauded, their community leaders made speeches about them, and the entire village danced and celebrated the girls, who had a newfound voice.