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Under the Mango Trees

Creativity is key for Burkinabe girls—and us all

There is an hour in the early morning when every beast in Burkina Faso takes to howling. Deep, cacophonous, and urgent, this unconventional creature harmony rouses a lazy, yellow sun from over Solenzo’s mango trees.  

This is my alarm clock. My first morning chore is to head toward the communal pump and greet the 30-or-so girls—my surrogate sisters—who live at the Center Marie Moreau, a Catholic vocational girls’ boarding center where I also live and work as a Peace Corps volunteer. Many of these girls left school a long time ago and have no plans to go back. 

The nuns who run the center stress a code of behavior that emphasizes three values: fraternity, work, and discipline. Each word seems perfectly inappropriate for a teenager. But this doesn’t bother me as much as the aspirational statement, which declares that the center is intended to prepare young women for their roles as wives and mothers. When I learned this, it seemed as though the center’s potential as a women’s empowerment tool was being purposefully snubbed. 

Do not misunderstand me: Being a spouse and parent are among the most challenging, rewarding, and important jobs a person can hold. I personally look forward to that. However, I have something these girls are not as fortunate to have: the ability to make choices about my future based on an extensive liberal arts education. Despite the domestic skills my little sisters already possess, many of them have severe trouble with reading, writing, speaking French, and thinking critically—prerequisites for interacting with the world beyond their villages. I have taken these skills for granted for most of my life. Being at the center makes me think back to my time at Swarthmore where I was pushed to be innovative and think creatively in every class. That mentality gave me the ability to build a life that excites and fulfills me, and it is a point of reference I am struggling to reproduce for my little sisters. 

But I have met with groups of Burkinabe men who told me that women don’t have a place in politics and must always be subservient to their husbands. I have been told that educating women leads to high divorce rates and moral depravity. I have listened to their viewpoint that women already have too many rights, and that no man wants a woman who would argue with him or who earns more money than he does. 

So when I approach these girls waving all my Western ideals, I can only thank them for humoring me. Without a high school education or any kind of equivalency, the odds are highly stacked against them augmenting their positions in society. So who am I to tell a group of already disenfranchised young women that I want them to focus on skills they may never use? What they need, you could argue—as the center does—are fraternity, work, and discipline.

If you are like me, however, you have already seen the flaw in this argument: Should we prepare our children for the world we live in or the world we want to live in? The answer, of course, is both. I’m not just here to bolster what is already being done, I’m also here to push them to look beyond that, just as I learned at Swarthmore. And as part of that effort, I was able to convince the nuns to add one more word to the center’s goals: creativity. 

And with those four words nicely framing my own goals here at the center, I sleep a little easier every night under those mango trees, ready to wake up to that strange, four-legged symphony—and to another day of dawning hope for these girls, and myself.