Camp BILT (Boys Improving Lives Together)

From May 17th to 21st, 30 boys from Saramaccan villages along the Upper Suriname and Gran Rio rivers attended Camp BILT at Tioboto Eco-Lodge to receive leadership and life skills education and it was a huge success!

Several days before the camp, Evan, Erin and I (the three SUR-17 camp directors) gathered in Paramaribo to finalize 6 months of preparations. My particular responsibilities for the camp included communicating with Langu Tide (our community partner organization), organizing the campers’ transportation, managing the lessons and acting as the lead counselor for the campers throughout the 4 day camp.

I will not go into the detailed schedule of the camp because it resembled those of Camp GLOW and Boys Leadership Camp. Instead, I will concentrate on our adaptations, highlights and challenges. We, the three camp directors, made specific changes to focus on certain camp themes and to encourage higher levels of participation from the Saramaccan adult men.  We also focused on referring back to and tying everything into the camp’s motto: “Na wan kodo maun sa hai boto subi dan” (Not one hand can carry a boat up a rapid).

The goal of Camp BILT was to teach the boys how they can improve their own lives and the lives of those around them in their villages, concentrating on the themes of leadership, taking initiative, personal responsibility and teamwork. We held sessions on leadership, decision-making, environmental awareness, HIV/AIDS, healthy life choices (drugs, alcohol and nutrition) and careers. In the afternoons, we organized more interactive lessons: we opened the camp with icebreakers and team-building games to make the boys feel comfortable, a Saramaccan women’s group performed a skit on HIV using traditional forms of singing and dancing, we played different versions of soccer to focus on the importance of teamwork and communication, and the boys performed skits of their own about the different lessons learned at the camp.

To further support the themes, Camp BILT gave the children more responsibility in the camp’s team structure.  The camp still divided students into teams for lessons, activities, and trust-building activities, with local adults and Volunteers assigned to guide each team, but asked the children to take on the bulk of team leadership responsibilities.  Each day, two “kid captains” assisted the adults with keeping their team in order and supporting lessons. All children were given the opportunity to be a captain and constantly reminded of the leadership challenge issued on the first day – be a leader who takes responsibility not just for yourself, but for those around you.

And of course, we experienced our share of stresses as well. Where I live in Langu is the furthest away and, already at the camp, I was worried that the boat wouldn’t leave Langu at the scheduled time (10:30-11 am). The two boats coming from Langu were arranged to pick up all of the boys from the rest of the villages as they passed by on route to Tioboto.  I kept calling Paul Amimba, a Ligorio teacher who offered to help get the boys on the boat, and A.P., one of the two boatmen, reminding them that they agreed to leave Langu at 10:30 am. Sure enough, in accordance with my familiar friend “Suriname time,” the boats departed Langu around 12:15 pm and I surrendered to an empty optimism, knowing the problem was no longer in my control. At 2:30 pm, the two boats pulled up to Tioboto and I was stunned. They arrived 30 minutes ahead of schedule, which is pretty much unheard of in this part of the world.  AP climbed the stairs and, with a look of “I told you so,” reminded me that he had told me not to worry.

Hiccup number two occurred when, on the first day of the camp, six boys from the village of Semoisie decided that they no longer wanted to attend because there was a party in their village. The camp was arranged to bring ten boys from three different schools for a total of 30 boys yet unexpectedly we were holding it for 24. Luckily, Paul Amimba was leaving Langu later in the day so that he too could attend the village party in Semoisie.  I asked him to bring along the two boys who we had set up as alternates. 26. Then Shannon, a PCV who lived in a nearby village, asked if she could send Thomas Poeketie, the camp owner, to round up four more boys from their village. By the end of the first night, we achieved our goal, utilizing the camp’s maximum capacity of 30 boys, now reaching a span of four schools instead of three. The only other difficulty was that on the first two nights it started pouring rain, making us adapt our evening activities and keeping the camp’s staff occupied with leaking thatched roofs.

Besides assuming a new role as one of the camp directors, the main difference of this camp for me was that, for the first time, boys from my village/school attended. Although they were often troublesome, I was proud of the Langu boys because they set a good example for the others, engaging in all activities, joining in discussions and always ready to joke around.  Three boys (Christiano Adame, John Pobosie and Waldo Pikintio) stuck out in my mind for their willingness to participate, always contributing their thoughts and asking keen questions. Naturally, the three of them were the first to stand up in front of the entire camp to take part in an exercise given during the Careers session, inviting the boys to reflect on their professional goals. One by one, these three boys revealed their interest in becoming teachers, expressing an aspiration to share their knowledge and skills with future generations. None of them even mentioned the financial benefits of teaching in a Saramaccan village.

Camp BILT presents boys with an opportunity to learn how to become and to practice being a leader; by standing confidently in front of a crowd and disclosing personal life goals, learning by practicing, these 3 boys were making the most of every opportunity.  Teenage boys are the people in my village with whom I spend the most time. They visit my house, attend my English lessons, play soccer/slagball and help me with various work projects. So to see three of them excelling in all aspects of the camp, to see them becoming leaders, filled me with a sense of purpose in Peace Corps work.

In terms of total sustainability, the youth development camps still have large improvements to make. The knowledge and empowerment passed along to the boys is sustainable, as they will inevitably share the information informally with family and friends. However, we still need to train the Saramaccan adults so that they can hold youth development camps and give life skills lessons completely on their own. Although achieving that goal will require further training, Camp BILT continued the trend towards greater local involvement, a critical piece of any sustainable project. Every lesson was planned and executed in partnership with a local mentor, increasing ownership for the involved Saramaccan adults and providing strong role models for the boys to see at the head of the class. Local mentors also slept in the cabins with the boys, taking responsibility for discipline and nightly cabin talks, further increasing the bond between the mentors and the boys.

I brought Thomas Alinkie, the headmaster of the school in Ligorio. He really appreciated the style of our lessons, interactive, entertaining and exercising positive reinforcement, and recognized the result, high levels of participation from the boys.  Several times, in his subtle yet authoritative presence, Thomas asked permission to say something to the boys. Perfectly grasping the camp concepts and applying relevant Saramaccan analogies to nature, he imparted meaningful life lessons and stressed to the boys the importance of aligning their actions with the knowledge they received at the camp.  He also kept encouraging the boys to share what they learned at Camp BILT with other people in their villages so that these messages can spread and grow. Sustainably speaking, Thomas is a key piece to the puzzle because he is in a position of power to truly spread the messages and teaching techniques with other teachers in Langu – a potentially powerful impact.

Once we returned to Langu, Thomas asked the boys who attended the camp to stand in front of the rest of the school with their Camp BILT Certificates and two of them spoke about what they learned at the camp.

As Peace Corps Suriname nears closing, the organization faces the same challenge that Camp BILT put to the boys every day – how can we make the lessons learned take root in our communities so they can flourish and spread on their own?  Peace Corps Suriname is working with community partners as well as the government to hand off parts of what the camp model has to offer to youth in the interior, but there is no simple solution.  We are trying to transfer ideas and techniques so that the teachers can implement life skills lessons during the newly developed after school program. Also we are discussing the idea of holding a training-of-trainers camp to teach our community partners how they can lead Camp BILT-style lessons in a more formal, organized setting.  Furthermore, we will depend on the diverse group of Volunteers and their community partners to continuously look for more ways to transmit the knowledge and excitement that comes from these camps.

Sidenote: As of July 16th, our Sur-17 class (pictured above from July 2011) reached the one year mark in our villages! With that, we have already said goodbye to the majority of the Sur-16’s who are now returning back to the U.S. They did an amazing job of showing us the way and we will do our best to finish up strong!


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