Finding Their Voices
Andrea Clarke ’14 used to think of theater as a fun, rather self-indulgent hobby, until she came to Washington College and started studying how powerful a medium drama can be. This new understanding led her to, of all places, northern Cameroon, where she worked last summer with local girls in a theater-based program she developed.
Clarke, who’s majoring in English and drama with a French minor, created the drama program as a way to help young Cameroonian girls gain self-confidence and self-awareness in their patriarchal culture. She chose the remote African village of Mora because her older sister, Jessica, had been working there as a Peace Corps volunteer for the past two years. Using funding through Phi Beta Kappa’s Gerda Blumenthal Award and the Douglass Cater Society of Junior Fellows, she headed for Cameroon last August, at the beginning of her junior year. She met up with her sister, who helped her find volunteers and participants, manage the complicated logistics, and navigate three different languages.
“The theme of my camp was Strong Voices. Every day the girls would chant: ‘I have a voice. It is a strong voice. I want to express myself,’ ’’ Clarke says. “I was thinking, if I can take what I know to be so crucial to the stage in terms of presence, articulation, projection … and give these girls a solid sense of self, perhaps I can help make them good communicators within their circles and their community, and give them the gift of expression, be it as small as, ‘I don’t want to leave school,’ or, ‘I don’t want to marry you.’ ’’
Working with about 40 girls, mostly 8 to 12 years old but some much younger, Clarke used the structure of a liberal arts education as the camp’s foundation. She broke the girls into small groups and presented them with various exercises, some of which she and her sister created, and some Clarke pulled from the classrooms at Washington College. The girls experienced a wide range of skill-building activities, from voice projection exercises to acting in short skits based on solving everyday situational problems in Mora.
At the camp’s beginning, Clarke says, the girls’ skits were dead: “No props, no movement, backs to the audience, no volume.” By the end, “girls were cheating out so people could see their faces, there were props, there were bold character choices, and they were not looking to the volunteers asking, ‘What should I do now?’ They were confident in what they had to say and used creativity to effectively communicate with the audience.’’
Perhaps because of her previous travels to other countries, Clarke brought a realistic view with her to Cameroon, understanding that her time there was temporary, and that in no way did she want to impose western values on their lives. But she wanted to leave the girls with what she hoped would be a sense of what they can do, and also knowing how to support one another within their communities and country.
“I saw flashes of self-confidence, and strength and ingenuity and curiosity, but no one is encouraging this,” Clarke says. “In our society, we are here because someone supported us, someone told us, yes, you can. They don’t really have that. So I was trying to be their friend and cheerleader and hopefully show them how they can maintain their culture but also be strong, and be players in their world.”