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Graduate Kayla Choun in Peace Corps

Kayla Choun is a Community Economic Development officer in the United States Peace Corps serving in Ouassa-Pehunco, Atakora, Benin (West Africa).  In 2016, she graduated Magna Cum Laude from Lake Forest College with degrees in economics and politics.

Kayla works with a local NGO that advocates for women’s and children’s rights. The NGO sponsors leadership clubs for girls in many villages.  The girls learn leadership and life skills and are encouraged to play soccer, which is commonly viewed as a “boy’s sport.”  She also heads up a savings and loan group in a smaller village. The women meet every week and collectively save their money and make loans to one another. She is also active at a local high school where she mentors several girls.

In terms of gender equity, there are enormous strides to be made. Professional women are rare, though not unheard of. An international organization pays for the school fees for all girls up to 9th grade; however, school attendance and achievement rates are still very low. Many of the students she works with are the first generation in their family to attend school. Thus, convincing parents that education is more important than working is very difficult. The main reasons girls drop out of high school are insufficient funds (can’t afford their khaki uniform, books, pens, etc.), unplanned pregnancy, or forced early marriage.

For being such a small country, Benin is very culturally rich and diverse. Benin is the birthplace of Voodun (Voodoo). It is still pretty widely practiced today, especially in the south.  Geographically speaking, the South is predominantly Catholic, Evangelical, Voodun, or a mixture of all. The North is predominantly Muslim, local religions, and Catholic.  Kayla lives in Northern Benin, and her neighbors practice both Islam and a local religion. 

Kayla lives in a prominently Bariba community. The Bariba people reside in the area from the Northwestern border of Nigeria across Northern Benin. Bariba is the majority ethnic group in the north and most people in her village speak Bariba. French is taught and spoken in schools, but because most parents have not been to school, Bariba is spoken much more widely than French. Salutations are one of the most important customs in Benin. Usually a greeting will include many of these questions in French: “Tu as bien dormi? Et chez toi? Et la famille? Et les enfants? Et la santé? Et la fatigue d’hier?” Bariba proverbs teach the importance of saving face, guarding your emotions, and respect above all. This idea of saving face even shines through during childbirth, in which women are expected to remain silent. There is a Bariba proverb that says, “Between death and shame, death has greater prospects.” Thus, undoubtedly, the women I have met here are hands down some of the strongest women I have ever come across.