Puppet Smackdowns, Pairs & Plays: Young Women Learn & Teach Tolerance in Egypt

 

Valuable Girl Project participants laugh at puppet mayhem (with a positive message).
Valuable Girl Project participants laugh at puppet mayhem (with a positive message).

I’m in Mattay today, watching a puppet show with a crowd of girls. They’re Big and Little Sisters in our Valuable Girl Project, and they’re doing normal girl things: A couple are giggling, and one is filming the puppets with her smart phone.

What makes this crowd stand out, here in Upper Egypt, is the mix of headscarves and uncovered hair. In fact, when I arrived here, many of these girls were bent close to each other in Big-Little Sister pairs, hijab and hairstyles together, talking at tables draped in bright blue. I could hear soft dialogues: one asking, the other answering. Often, they smiled at each other.

That’s the essence of the Valuable Girl Project, if you’re not already familiar with it. At five sites like this one, in Minya, Sohag, Quos, and Armant, 142 Little Sisters and 142 Big Sisters meet twice a week for mentoring in schoolwork and life skills. Many pairs are Christian-Muslim. Site coordinators teach them the value of teamwork, creativity, planning, and accepting others.

Tolerance is a concept that’s conveyed in many ways — including the puppet theater I’m watching:

Recording tolerance-promotion puppets for future viewing.
Recording tolerance-promotion puppets for future viewing.

Pow! A little puppet with a scruffy crew cut is getting stomped by a bigger guy-puppet. When the little one finally escapes, he runs into a girl-puppet who he used to harass for being different. Seeing her former tormentor all banged up, she tells him: “Look, being disrespectful to others can cause as much pain as a broken arm, and all human beings deserve to be treated with respect.” For once, the beat-up puppet doesn’t interrupt or harass her; he just listens.

It’s a happy ending to this puppet smackdown. But the puppets don’t clobber the audience over the head with their message. The idea conveyed — tolerance — is crystal clear.

The puppets are great, but it was another “stage production” I saw during this trip that really blew me away. At the site in Quos, a group of Big Sisters got together and decided to write a play about their lives “before and after” they joined the Valuable Girl Project.

Their play went as follows: Before joining the project, one character sleeps all the time, another can’t stop eating, and a third fritters away her time gossiping and fooling around. The lone girl who wants to study for an exam is led astray by the others, who advise her to bribe the teacher with a sandwich (or cheat, because, hey, “everybody does it.”) Neglected at home and at school, even the “good girl” ends up a delinquent.

Then the girls hear about the Valuable Girl Project. At first, they’re hesitant to take part in anything that involves mixing Christians and Muslims. In fact, they only decide to give it a try when they hear there will be free snacks. (OK, that’s not the ideal reason, but whatever works.)

150129_Talking at the tableOnce they’re in the Valuable Girl Project, the girls find what was missing in their lives: a community to belong to, and a positive role model and mentor they can learn from. New friendships bring out the best in each of them. They became responsible, understanding, and find happiness in their ability to help “the other.”

Can you see the tolerance theme running through, from the puppets to the play? I could. I wish you’d been with me, to see how these girls are beginning to be on the same page on this issue.

It’s not an easy process, starting dialogues about tolerance in Upper Egypt. It takes careful planning, dedicated and heroic site coordinators, and patience and goodwill among the girls themselves. And puppets and snacks. Whatever it takes, we’re getting there.

I have a lot more to tell you about this trip, but it will have to wait for next time. Until then, thank you for your faith that we can make change even in the most difficult situations.

Would you like to learn more about the Valuable Girl Project? I wrote “Girls, Tolerance, Pyramids (And Other Wonders of the World)” during my last trip to Egypt.

About Nermien Riad

Nermien Riad founded Coptic Orphans in 1988 after volunteering for an orphanage in Cairo. When she saw that most of the children had living widowed mothers who simply couldn’t afford to feed them, she gathered family and friends to sponsor children in Egypt. Today Coptic Orphans works through a network of 400+ church-based volunteers in Egypt, who visit fatherless families in their homes and make sure they get everything they need to unlock their full potential. That way, they don’t have to get married off as child brides, work as 10-year old family breadwinners, or go to live at an institutional orphanage.