a 100% women's basketball camp in Senegal : Terang'Aby

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Aby Gaye is a professional French basketball and international player in the French team. Driven by her desire to participate in actively changing the world, she decided to organize a basketball camp in Senegal, her parents’ homeland. For 3 days, 40 girls gathered to play sports, discuss important themes and learn. For VraiesMeufs, she recounts the motivations, the building of the project and the course of its first edition. It all started with a belief…

In the summer of 2017, I returned to Senegal after 15 years of absence. Having grown up in the Parisian suburbs and having been educated by Senegalese parents, I received both French and Senegalese heritage. This dual culture has allowed me to have an open mind from an early age, and today I claim belonging to these two countries, without being forced to choose. Growing up in France far from Senegal gave me a rather fantasized vision of Senegalese daily life. The love and attachment to this country is born from the fact that my parents have never failed to remind me of our values and traditions. Senegal has a warm, pleasant atmosphere that has strengthened my connection to this culture. On the other hand, I was alarmed by a public health problem, the risks taken by the Senegalese youth and their future: massive voluntary depigmenting.

Depigmenting is the chemical process that consists in lightening the skin with creams, injections, pills: this plagues Senegal. Indeed, nearly 70% of women are concerned by this public health problem and potentially prone to diseases such as skin cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, scabies…. During my stay I noticed that many women practiced excessive depigmenting and the consequences are often irreversible. This massive practice alerted me and was the trigger for initiating my project. During my trip, I tried to understand why both women and men were so fond of Xessal. It is obvious that the legacy of slavery and colonialism continues to weigh on mentalities in Africa. Current media convey the idea that beauty criteria are only Western-centered. This cocktail of regressive ideas, deeply embedded in Senegalese society, is spread by women depigmenting their skin, and men who often push them to do so. It is not uncommon to hear them say that: “a beautiful woman is a clear-skinned woman”, “no one looks at black girls”, “I am more beautiful than you because I am clear-skinned”, and “a clear-skinned woman finds work more easily»…

I have often thought of dark skinned girls like me, those who are mocked at 10 because they do not have the right complexion, the girls people call “midnight” or “coal”. I realized that at their age I faced the same problems. However, I was blessed to have parents around me who supported and encouraged me, always giving me a positive image of myself. Thanks to that I grew up proud of what I was: a black girl. At this moment, I wanted to act and set up a project promoting self-esteem and confidence, in order to help my young Senegalese sisters who suffer from beauty dictates light years away from their natural beauties.

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As a professional basketball player, I wanted to use sport to educate young girls because for me it was a trigger to gain confidence both in my physique and in my intrinsic abilities. I am convinced that sport develops what is best in us and to me it is an essential tool to sensitize young girls. Indeed, basketball was a stepping stone in my confidence in accepting my difference. This is a belief I wanted to convey to young Senegalese women in order to change their mentality.

It took nearly 7 months to prepare this project in Senegal, combining sport and education. It was not easy because I had to manage this remote project with patience and thoroughness. Indeed, the realities are very different from one country to another, we must show understanding and tenacity when the people you are talking to do not necessarily understand the need to promote such values. Raising awareness became a priority to reach future women who might start to think about depigmenting, or to definitely convince those who were hesitant to start. In short, to free speech and discuss this subject so present in society and yet absent from public debate, despite the fact that it represents a major social problem.

After settling most logistical problems and getting the material to Senegal, I started fundraising online, trying to reach 2 000 Euros. Thanks to people’s generosity, we have raised nearly 3 000 Euros and this allowed me to pay for costs related to the project. My goal was to make of this camp a way to learn and progress quickly in just 3 days.Early in the morning, the girls were training from 8:30 to 10:30, around fun and practical workshops. After a thirty-minute break, they had an appointment with the two speakers of the day to discuss different themes. Following this moment of exchange we all met around large bowls of rice for lunch and recover strength, the Senegalese way. After the meal the girls rested in the gymnasium and then played games from 3:30pm to 6pm.

The days were long and the pace sustained, especially for the youngest girls who were 12 years old. However, they showed a great deal of motivation and self-sacrifice, watching them scramble to succeed meant we all had to outdo ourselves and not get defeated by exhaustion.

During the first intervention, the psychologist introduced notions of confidence and self- esteem. A literature teacher and playwright also spoke to the girls, there were lively debates, where they were able to ask questions and share their experiences. I was very surprised by the vivacity of some, especially the youngest ones, who showed surprising maturity and had no problem expressing their ideas. Some of them were very vocal while others preferred to take notes, each of them doing their part in order to get as much as possible from the experience.

The theme of the second day was depigmenting and it was a doctor and a business leader who spoke. The first produced a presentation on the history of depigmenting and its health and cultural consequences on the Senegalese population, while the latter introduced her natural cosmetics brand. A great way to show young girls that you can take care of yourself naturally.

Finally, the last day, a midwife and members of a local NGO (MARIE STOPES SENEGAL), intervened on sex education issues, without any taboo, to allow girls to talk about topics that they do not tackle at home. It was important to give our young girls the opportunity to express themselves with an open heart in order to strengthen their confidence and their self-esteem. In fact, assuming one’s difference and taking the floor makes it possible to redefine norms by trivializing confidence and being a confident black girl. The goal is to counter harmful speeches that tend to give girls complexes. Henceforth these subjects become accessible to all.

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To me, learning to be who we are is the best human experience. These young girls needed to express themselves on the field or with their words, and thanks to all the people present during these three days, a space of expression was able to emerge. This first edition has been a success both in sport and education. During these three days, all the technical staff offered quality trainings to allow basketball players to progress and enjoy themselves. Our speakers have shown a great deal of pedagogy so that the exchanges were as entertaining as possible. The workshops have been designed so that the girls can feel valued and thus strengthen their confidence and self-esteem. We wanted for these young girls to become ambassadors to their peers who could not attend the camp, to understand the importance of this mission: to build the country and to convey values in society. We made the bet to only invest on 40 girls, and focus on quality at the expense of quantity. In doing so we
expected them to pass on what they learned.

Tupac Shakur said the following: “I’m not saying I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.” I carried this through with me from the beginning of the project to the writing of this article, and it will continue to motivate me because I deeply believe in this initiative. It is likely that only 20 girls will be affected by it, that only 10 succeed in changing the mentalities around them and that only one of them will change things up. It only takes one sentence, a word to help developing someone with unsuspected potential. This is the mission I gave myself with the young people we took care
of at the TERANG’ABY camp.

Never give up and be patient are the two principles I believe in as an athlete but especially as a woman. Maybe I will never see the fruits of all this work but I am convinced that it has not been in vain. Everyone has the ability to change their world, it’s one of my strongest beliefs. Proud, dignified and responsible women they will become, I am sure of it.

You can find the whole project on the official website and follow Aby on Instagram.

translated by Lucie