Kaydee Dahlin- Art for Extraordinary Girls

07 Jul, 2007

Kaydee Dahlin- Art for Extraordinary Girls

Loubna regarded us warily as we walked in with our art supplies. Her students, ages 6-14, felt bashful and seemed to retreat like turtles into their headscarves. As we launched into our workshop with an explanation of the difference between geometric and bio-morphic shapes, ('bio' meaning life and 'morphic' meaning form) one could detect a whiff of scepticism. Some of the girls had never held scissors before, or even a pencil. They were learning the alphabet and numbers. Even their teacher Loubna was exposed to the concept of "life-form" shapes for the first time. We had no idea how many challenges we would face, but we quickly learned to adapt. By creating a safe and fun environment, even those girls who seemed not to register our words still intuited our message. To our surprise, they grasped the shape concept and followed the assignment, exploring their creativity and communicating through symbols. Perhaps all of us had underestimated them.


Rural Egyptian girls face dim prospects. According to the Human Development Report, the average literacy rate for Egyptian adults is 58%. The breakdown is males 69% and females 46% nationwide; rural, poor women remain only 15% literate. Rural families survive on an estimated $0.80 a day. They seldom have access to fresh water, and in many regions it is typical for a girl to marry at age 12 or 13. Many families believe it is more valuable to send their children to work in carpet factories or in the fields rather than to school, as they can bring home two Egyptian pounds a day, or 0.35 – 0.87 cents. The prevalence of female circumcision is as high as 98% in most rural areas demonstrating the cultural barriers they must overcome to improve their lives.


The public schools available in some rural areas are highly centralized and rooted in the methods of rote and memorization. Teachers are prevented from deviating from nationwide uniformity, and student activities are often dictation exercises.

However, in 2004, Egypt launched an education initiative using UNICEF's "active-learning" model departing from the national curriculum, addressed to the most needy rural girls. "Girl-friendly" schools are managed by Egypt's ‘National Council for Childhood and Motherhood’ (NCCM) under the leadership of Ambassador Moushira Khattab. Apache Corporation created the non-profit organization, Springboard: Educating the Future to join with NCCM and donated 201 schools in accord with their motto "educate a woman to educate a family."


Heather Plank had been interested in the girls' school project since their construction. Devoted to the girls and to this opportunity for their education, she proposed an innovative project for direct involvement in December 2006. With art as a central theme in her life, from undergraduate studies, work in museums, artist residency programs and "Free Arts" therapy program for children, Heather combined her passions in the project proposal called "Art for Egypt's Extraordinary Girls." Springboard and Apache quickly met her with their support, as her project coincided with the opening of 75% of the new Springboard schools. All agreed schools would benefit from nurturing and interaction during the crucial early stages. The workshops proposed progressive opportunities for girls in the worst circumstances to develop their creativity, self-expression, and exposure to art. Indeed the project was cutting-edge vis-à-vis the entire public school curriculum of rote and memorization.


I was tasked with program reporting, partner relations, budget management and assistance with Arabic-English translation, coming from a background of several years working on women's development issues in Morocco.


With support and guidance from NCCM, Springboard and Apache, Heather and I conducted a total of 29 two-hour workshops and worked with over 600 girls, teachers and school supervisors from January to May 2007.


The schools are far-flung in difficult-to-access rural areas, whether in the desert, along quiet riversides, or up long, rough trails to cliff tops. Villages consist primarily of packed-dirt homes, where women wash dishes in polluted irrigation ditches, and people burn leaves, grass and branches to cook. The Springboard 'girl-friendly' schools stand in stark contrast: built of solid stone, painted brightly, and designed by an innovative young Egyptian architect.


Heather based the four art workshops on Egyptian cultural heritage and contemporary and ancient Egyptian art. The modules were 'hieroglyphs,' 'line,' 'shape,' and 'colour,' respectively.


For hieroglyphs, girls translated their names into the language of the pharaohs. They drew their "cartouche" or nameplate on a piece of papyrus paper, which ancient Egyptians used as their primary writing surface for thousands of years.


In the shape workshop, we explored the difference between geometric shapes and their opposites, biomorphic shapes. The girls learned shapes by matching cut-outs to pictures of Egyptian artefacts, such as statues of Pharaoh Akhenaton and Queen Nefertiti, and made a drawing using both geometric and biomorphic shapes.


For 'lines' we explored how different types of lines, such as thick, wavy, broken, straight, zigzag etc. can express emotion, create a visual, and convey information in art. Children studied lines in pictures of contemporary Egyptian art, before drawing their pictures using four different kinds of lines.


Lastly, the colour workshop started with the colour spectrum, by projecting the sun through a crystal prism. We created a colour wheel while discussing the three primary colours, how mixing them produces secondary colours, and mixing secondary colours produces tertiary colours. Heather also talked about colour families and colour opposites, or complementary colours. Children cut shapes and made a collage out of different shades of vibrantly coloured paper.


NCCM staff supported us every step of the way. They work long hours with conviction, often despite hardship and little material reward. The NCCM's Director of Education found the workshops a valuable enrichment of girl-friendly curriculum, and invited Heather to train trainers who adopted the project. The trainers are now incorporating the workshops into the permanent curriculum in approximately 675 other NCCM schools across seven of Egypt governorates (Egyptian equivalent of a state.)


After all our exposure to the human spirit's triumph over tremendous obstacles throughout the course of our project, we should have known that our 'Grande finale' would be no different. After three and a half months in the field, we prepared for an exhibit of the girl's art and a formal closing for our program, to be an elegant outdoor celebration. The day we had been working toward arrived, and so did the worst sandstorm to hit Cairo in years. The wind blew trees down and limbs crashed in the yard and on our car. Dust covered everything. We thought surely nobody would come.


As things began to look grim, the team innovated for solutions and volunteers found alternatives. Teachers and supervisors from outlying areas hazarded a two-hour drive with low-visibility, determined to attend. Even the dignitaries came to an outdoor party in a storm. In total, nearly 100 people overcame the conditions to see the girls' artwork, and to renew the fellowship of helping these girls achieve equality with others in Egyptian society.


Where there are girl friendly schools in the rural areas, girls are learning to read as rapidly as Loubna and her students grasp new ideas.

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