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"South Africa camp provides skills, self-confidence and smiles"
San Dige News Network
April 25, 2010
By Cori Glass, Guest Contributor

Article link here.

“When we are happy, we sing. When we are sad, we sing. When we are hungry, we sing.  When we are full, we sing!  When we are tired, we sing!  No matter how we feel, we sing!!”

This was one of the first lessons I learned as I stood outside the dining hall, surrounded by 150 campers and vochelis (counselors) smiling, laughing, singing and dancing in a manner that would seem choreographed to the western eye.

Mbali Nkwanyana, the director of Camp Sizanani explained. Far from choreographed, anybody who felt like starting a new song simply sang and clapped louder than the others, and within seconds, smiles spread across the group as everyone joined together in a new song. Nobody seemed concerned about the meal that was awaiting them inside, despite the fact that many of these young South Africans were being fed three meals a day for the first time in their lives.

Camp Sizanani, the brainchild of Phil Lilienthal, is the first residential camp in South Africa. The camp brings together girls and boys, ages 10 to 15, from disadvantaged communities who have been exposed to the presence of HIV/AIDS in their families.

Following 30 years as the owner and director of Camp Winnebago in Maine, as well as the man behind Ethiopia’s first residential summer camps (which he started while doing legal work with the Peace Corps), Phil set off to South Africa to see if he might be able to use his camp experience to help HIV/AIDS affected children.

Realizing that no camp of the sort existed, he went to work. In 2003, Phil developed Global Camps Africa in the hopes of using camp as a vehicle to change the attitudes and behaviors of youth about HIV/AIDS and their future.

After partnering with HIVSA, a South African organization, Global Camps Africa established Camp Sizanani in 2004. Sizanani means “to help each other.”

The camp program is part education, part HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, and part crucial life skills, all wrapped up in a spirit of fun and camaraderie. Six 10-day camps are held each year, bringing together 130 children each time and 30 to 35 vochelis. In the past six years, over 4,200 children have been taught and loved by the vochelis at Camp Sizanani.

Providing a safe place

When I first heard about Global Camps Africa, my love (those who know me best call it an obsession) for camping, along with my interest in South Africa (again, obsession), immediately drew me in.

I knew that I had finally found the right organization to become involved with when I read about their Kids Clubs. After leaving camp, the Sizanani campers join clubs that meet twice a month and provide a safe place to eat, reinforce life skills, and re-connect with their beloved vochelis. This follow-up is an invaluable detail that Phil implemented, and is the reason that I found myself singing and dancing at Camp Sizanani this past December.

During the opening campfire, Phil reminded the campers that Sizanani is not just a 10-day experience. “Hopefully, you will all spread the word, and show by example what’s going on here,” he said. “We want you to have a good time. But while you are having a good time, we want you to learn important things.

“All it takes is staying awake, alive, alert, and …” As if rehearsed, the vochelis joined Phil in shouting “enthusiastic!”

“Have a great week!” That was all that we heard from Phil, until the closing campfire.

Though Phil, referred to as “Dr. Phil” by many of the campers, was often observing activities or clapping his hands and singing along with a grin from ear to ear, most of his work is done behind the scenes. Aside from a handful of international volunteers, it is South Africans who run Camp Sizanani, including many who were previous campers.

During the training days prior to the arrival of the campers, I had the opportunity to get to know the other vochelis. While waiting for the bus on the first day, I was wishing that I understood the Zulu or Xhosa language. To my pleasant surprise, a young man came up and introduced himself in English. Behind him, three others followed by first giving a Xhosa name with numerous intonations and clicks, and then saying, “But you can call me Jimmy.”

Once the third smirking young man walked away, I knew that they were messing with the American. By calling themselves “Jimmy,” they were asking me to refer to them as Jesus!

The three hours that we spent waiting for the bus to arrive helped to get me in the right mindset for camp. I discovered that “is it?” (pronounced izzit) does not necessitate a response. I learned that a “robot” is a traffic light, a “bakkie” (pronounced buckee) is a pick-up truck, and that if something is going to happen “just now,” that does not mean now!

For two hours I needed to use the bathroom, but was afraid to go because people kept telling me that the bus was coming “just now.”  Of course, the bus did come when I finally decided to go. As I ran back to get on the bus, feeling badly that 30 people were waiting for me in the heat of the day, I realized that I was the only one feeling bad. The others were happily singing, dancing and creating percussion instruments out of soda bottles, plastic bags and the ceiling of the bus.

Teaching how to fish

In the humbling two weeks that followed, I developed friendships with my fellow vochelis and love for the campers. I watched the shy campers arrive and within minutes feel a part of the welcoming Sizanani family. I saw the surprise on campers’ faces as they realized that they each had their own bed to sleep in.

I watched both campers and vochelis enter a swimming pool for the first time, and within days swim across that pool. I taught campers how to play basketball, and learned from them how to play netball. I saw boys pass a soccer ball to the girls rather than taking an easy shot on goal.

More than once, I felt chills from head to toe as the girls in my cabin sang. I heard countless stories of abuse, neglect, hunger and rape. Countless. I can only imagine the conversations that took place in the life skill classes, while I was playing sports with the campers.

Bears from South Africa camp

At camp, each child is given a hand-knitted or crocheted bear, bearing a tag signed by the knitter with the message that they are unconditionally loved. The bears come from the Mother Bear Project, which is dedicated to providing comfort and hope to children affected by HIV/AIDS in emerging nations.

As I lined up with the other vochelis to hug each and every camper before they got on the bus on the last day, I was not the only one with tears running down my face. It was painful to think about what these kids were going back home to. I wanted to wrap them up and take them home to San Diego with me. I wanted to give them a loving home and an opportunity to go to college. I wanted to give them shoes with soles that were not falling off. I wanted to save them from their lives.

But as I hugged them, I remembered what Phil had written in the very first email that he sent about camp: “There can be a tendency to want to make things (such as life) work for the campers. They are endearing, wonderful children. Our role is to give them a framework from which to make life decisions, not to give them the material things that might ‘help’ them get out of the misery that many of them are in.

“We are not in the material goods business. We are in the transformational business. …What we want the children to gain from the camp experience is the ability to return to their homes and know that, if they apply themselves, they will be able to find a better life after they get an education and can negotiate meaningful lives for themselves. We are truly teaching them how to fish, not giving them a fish.”

Every day, I think about those amazingly resilient young campers, and I hope that they are carrying their fishing poles. Knowing them, even without the poles, they have probably figured out some better way to fish, because that is the sort of kids they are.

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