Travel Stories

Camp Sizanani

         HIV and AIDS are immensely prominent concerns in South Africa and at Camp Sizanani.  In some ways they are the central concern.  I’ve tried to find a comparable issue in American life, something that is so much a focus and concern of everyday life, but the closest I came to it was money, and in too many ways that analogy fails.  But at the risk of trying too hard to make my point, HIV is to South Africa, what balls and strikes are to baseball, you can’t play the game of life or baseball without being intensely aware of them.  And the social, financial, and sexual consequences of the epidemic are nothing less than overwhelming, evoking in South Africans a sense of the need for an almost puritanical, clinically “safe,” sexual morality that focuses on abstinence, testing, and disease prevention in the face of statistics that suggest over forty percent of all South Africans under the age of fifteen are HIV positive and that more than half of those HIV positive youth will die before reaching the age of thirty.    
         There are six international volunteers among the two to three dozen counselors/vochelli on the bus going to Camp Sizanani for five days of training before the one hundred and fifty campers arrive.   One volunteer, a dentist from New Jersey, was a bunkmate of Phil Lilienthal, the camp director, sixty years ago in Maine.  I was Phil’s high school classmate.  Other than these six all the other counselors are young Africans mostly from the township of Soweto, which is where all of the campers are drawn from.  Many vochelli have been campers at Sizanani themselves.  The energy on the bus is electric, with men and women standing in the aisle, chanting, singing, dancing, and laughing.  Everyone knows the words to all the songs and the moves that accompany them.  Some have a call and response quality.  Everyone is laughing, hard.  This energy and behavior, interspersed with good-natured ribbing and teasing, basically continues unabated for the entire ninety-minute ride to camp, for the five days of vochelli training, and for the full eight days the campers are with us.
         A few of the vochelli sit down next to me during the ride to introduce themselves.  Most are Zulu, although there are also Xhosa, Sotho, and Tswana among them.  Each has a given birth name that means something, like “education,” or “daybreak.”  My favorite belongs to a Zulu man named Bongani, which means gratitude.  All of the Black Africans are able to speak and move competently and familiarity between two and often three languages.  At one point one of the leaders in addressing the group uses the word “quickliest” to describe something, and instantly realizes he has made up a word, which causes him and the others to laugh.  “It is the quickliest,” he repeats out loud a few times with great pleasure. “Quickliest.  Quickliest,” repeats the group laughing.  Over the course of our days together quickliest breeds niceliest, firstliest, and a whole genera of words like happiliest, a modification to English adjective use long overdue. 
         I am reminded in this specific regard of a conversation I overheard in the bathroom at the Backpackers’ Ritz right before leaving for Camp.  Two young African women were showering in adjacent stalls and conversing, switching back and fort between Zulu and English, unaware of my presence, when one said to the other, “But why is it that we can comfortably speak their language and they cannot speak one word of ours?”  It is a question worthy of consideration in a country where the stanzas of the national anthem are sung in four different languages successively: Zulu, Sotho, Afrikaans, and English.
         Camp is held at a beautiful retreat center abutting a game reserve with zebra, giraffes, and antelopes, about an hour and a half out of Soweto.  On arrival each vochelli is assigned a bunk where we drop off our packs and then reconnect for a day of very intense team building, high ropes obstacle courses, and games that can’t be won.  I am cautiously physically engaged, fully emotionally engaged, and profoundly aware of my old man’s lack of strength, flexibility, and quickliness.  Camp is so different than the ashram I studied at for a month in India more or less a year ago – the ashram being about spiritual engagement and the seeking of one’s highest level of awareness by a combination of active physical practices (asana), breath practices (pranayama), and the mindful disintegration of attachment and the notion of self - while camp is in its very essence about self-awareness, increasing self confidence, and encountering one’s discomfort zone, with a bottom line focus on having fun in the moment, self-empowerment, and preventing the spread of HIV and AIDS.  The work here is not about reaching enlightenment and minimizing the self, it’s about survival and reaching thirty.
         Another contrast is that at the ashram, aside from instruction in asana and yogic practice we were fed vegetarian meals fit for a king: endless freshly baked chapattis, yogurt, vegetables, fresh fruits, beans, marvelously spiced stews and other dishes.  Here I regret to say, from an American’s perspective, public school lunch meals and prison food would be far more nutritious than what we are served, lunch usually being some ghastly processed meat on a roll, a small lettuce salad, bug juice, and as much bread, margarine, and jam as one could care to eat, dinner a meager portion of boney meat or chicken in a vegetable free sauce with some white rice or ground maize, bug juice, and as much bread, margarine, and jam as you’d like, and breakfast being tea or water flavored with a minimum amount of instant coffee, half a small bowl of cornflakes and milk, one hard boiled egg (on a good day), no bug juice, and as much bread, margarine, and jam as you’d like.  There is an emphasis at the camp on teaching nutrition.  I can’t wait to see it … or a piece of fruit.  Still, the energy is very positive, egos seem to have been checked at the door, and a sense of mission and service to others most characterizes what the camp is about and why people are here.  Besides, as a practical matter, on a comparative basis this is fare that far exceeds what the campers and the vochelli get at home.
         Also introduced at meal times are a variety of unusual conventions, all designed I suppose to help break down barriers and that will be part of the fare once the campers arrive.  Of particular note is a “utensils free” meal eaten with the fingers, a “hands free” meal eaten by burying your face dog-like in the plate (very messy), and a meal where everyone feeds the person on their left and is fed by the person on their right. 
         The training goes on nearly twelve hours a day.  All alcohol, tobacco, sexual relations and cell phone use is forbidden.  The focus is on establishing and maintaining caring adult relationships with vulnerable children, about mentoring, encouraging success, and offering value judgment free information about HIV/ AIDS, teen pregnancy, condom use, drug and alcohol use, peer pressure, and physical abuse.  The expectation is that a mere week here can and will change the lives of some of the youth who attend camp, especially those who follow up with “Youth Club” membership after they return to Soweto.  The Camp’s data suggests this is true.
         In one exercise we are asked to write about a hero and what made that person heroic to us.  My sister Sheryl and I independently name Alan Berkman; there is a smattering of Oprah, Nelson Mandela, Barak Obama, and inspiring teachers.  But far more than half of the counselors name their mother as their hero, a function I suspect of their youth, but also something about mothers, mostly single mothers, in a the challenging context of Soweto, and how the South African mothers provided for, encouraged, loved, fed, and kept their families together.
         And throughout it all the harmonic, rhythmic, and compelling singing and dancing of the vochelli, something that literally lifts spirits and energy and feeds upon itself, one song ending and another beginning merely upon the call of a new song leader.  This, and the range of artistic skill, emotion, humor, and raw talent on display at the vochelli talent show is also amazing, including a one man skit depicting the forces that shaped the nineteen year old protagonist’s brother’s murderous path that left people in the audience crying.
         The five day long vochelli training program concludes with the assignment to camper cabins and daily activity groups before the campers arrive.  I am assigned to something called Life Skills, an immensely ambitious attempt in eight days to introduce the campers to the notion of exposing their lack of accurate information, their fears, and their pains, as well as impressing upon them what resources are available outside of the camp experience that can support and help them as they struggle with issues of drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS.  The core of the LS experience is about sympathetic listening, resource sharing, and guidance, far more than it is about problem solving. 
         Other daily activities include swimming for 150 non-swimmers, sports and adventure including the obstacle course, theater and dance, nutrition, mental IQ/chess with a ranked U.S. master who has taught kids for years, arts and crafts, three meals a day, cabin time, and one or another post-dinner activity, such as skits, talent shows, and campfires.  
         During the last training exercise each vochelli is asked, as campers will be asked, to say what people see when looking at what is “written on the front of their” shirts and what is not seen on the back of their shirt.  A majority describes the positive energy and happy face they present to the public on the front of their shirts and the sadness, hurt, frustration, and pain that they wear inside on the back.  Sheryl, reveals she is mourning the death of her son on the back of her shirt.  There is a fair amount of crying.  And then, as a finale, each person stands one at a time in the center of the circle while their peers call out all the positive characteristics they see and ascribe to that person.  It was actually quite powerful to hear the rolling volley of warm, friendly, positive adjectives sailing through the air.  The unique characteristic I hear ascribed to Sheryl is “motherly,” a testament to the reality of her status and to what she so lovingly manifests.  And I was quite pleased to hear “wise” and “role model” ascribed to me, although I could have done without the truthful and equally accurate “old man.”    
         When the campers finally arrive for their eight-day immersion it is fascinating to witness the way they are drawn in and encompassed by the vochelli from the very minute they step off the busses and are greeted by singing, dancing counselors, assigned to groups, and brought quickly to a hands free hot dog lunch.  And the entire first day is basically spent dancing and singing, which breaks down inhibitions and barriers for kids who don’t know one another with amazing grace and speed.  And dance and sing they do, walking from activity to activity, waiting for dinner, before clearing tables, and around the campfire.
         And that is basically Sizanani; seven structured activities a day - swimming, sports and adventure, theater, nutrition, mental IQ, arts and crafts, and Life Skills - interspersed with meals, cabin time, and an immense amount of singing and dancing.  What is clear from the start, however, is that the recreational activities like swimming, sports, and arts and crafts, are the contextual entities that surround and support the real core of the Sizanani program, which is the increasing of self-awareness and self confidence, as well as the dissemination of an immense amount of information, particularly about HIV.
         In Life Skills the five vochelli assigned to that program meet with five separate groups of boys and girls divided by cabins and age and their cabin counselors once each day for an hour.  We sit in a circle.  It is very personal, and intensely intimate.  One day there is a discussion about evolving bodies.  Tampons and absorbent pads are displayed.  Myths and facts about menses and pregnancy are explored.  Everyone handles a tampon.  Naturally the specifics are very different when presented to eleven year olds, as opposed to when presented to eighteen year olds, but there is much to learn and share in each group.
         Another day is spent on the question of peer pressure, what it looks and feels like, how it has been experienced by the campers, what its connection is to drug and alcohol use/abuse, bullying, and having the strength to say “No.”  Even the distinction between good and bad peer pressure is explored with examples drawn from the campers’ real lives.  The eagerness and willingness of the campers to participate and share their experiences is impressive, even passionate, and held at a high level of cognition, with more than one camper addressing the differences, for example, between arrogance and self-confidence.  And so much of what goes on is not “teaching” per se, or “processing” per se, but a wonderfully organic blend of the two.
         Another day is spent talking about safe sex, HIV and AIDS.  There is a graphic display on the use of condoms with real condoms, wooden model penises and plastic vaginas that the students handle and practice on, as well as a display of female condoms that has both eleven year olds and eighteen year olds gasping.  Books with graphic pictures of STDs in their most severe manifestations are shared.  There is an immense emphasis on abstinence, testing, and fidelity.  Not insignificant in these presentations is a significant amount of nation building talk and the responsibilities this generation of freedom-born young men and women have for the future well being of all South Africa.  And I particularly like how vochelli routinely ask the campers if they would like to try to answer other campers’ questions, before answering questions themselves.
         Another fascinating day at Life Skills is spent on the question “Who I am,” where I am again amazed by the commitment of the campers to participate, to actually writing out their answers, to describing their journeys of “self-discovery,” to talking about teen pregnancy, to referencing teens they know who are pregnant, to talk about coercion, abortion, and rape.  One statistic of note here is that fifteen percent of rape survivors in South Africa are reported to be under age twelve, and over forty percent of rape survivors are under age eighteen.  I am impressed by the number of campers willing to share that they are short-tempered and angry, as well as smart, talented, loving, playful, and African, a very important part of their identity.  
         The penultimate day of Life Skills, before the wrap up session on the last full day before the campers return home and the vochelli debrief, is something called the “Journey of Life,” where grief, sorrow, pain, and anger are so openly shared and prominent that it is a bit hard to separate myself from the very strong emotions I am witness to and those that I share.  The comparison to some form of group psychotherapy experience is not unwarranted and many of the concerns a Western trained and oriented clinician might have, particularly about opening emotional doors without the real possibility of meaningful follow-up are on my mind, and is a concern/awareness shared by the counselors.  Still the day is seen as a peak moment of the Sizanani experience.
         So picture a room filled with thirty eleven year old or eighteen year old boys and girls all of whom are being encouraged to openly reveal the most painful aspects of their lives, the things people who look at them cannot see because they are written on the backs of their T shirts, and they do: abusive parents, fathers who have killed their mothers, mothers they’ve never met, constantly bickering parents, drunk mothers, relentless criticism at home and in school, the pressure to offer sexual favors for money, homelessness, hunger, rage, fear.  The tears flow freely and copiously.  The vochelli and other campers are physically comforting, but the pain is raw and real, and although the notion of “letting the pain and shame out” as an act of healing and catharsis is repeated frequently there is also an overwhelming aura of pain suspended in air, of homes, families, and communities that will have to be returned to, of the real scarcity of counseling resources available and the limited opportunities for continuity and follow up.
         What I find most interesting in ways is that the vochelli tell the children that they love them unconditionally, that they loved them before they met them, that they will always love them.  This level of lovingness actually seems real to me, as much as it is somewhat unimaginable.  And when the kids wrap up on the last full day although there is a fair amount of critical candor, particularly about the behaviors of certain vochelli, and the size of the food portions, there is also no shortage of genuine and intense appreciation for the overall experience as these beautiful, touching, vulnerable young people share what they have learned and gained: “to face my fears,” “how to put my face in the water and breathe,” “what good nutrition is,” “more brothers and sisters,” “how to use a female condom,” “how to better express myself,” “teamwork,” “trust,”  “where I can find help,” “more about HIV,” “to feel safe saying things I never said before,” “to call things by their true names,” “what peer pressure is and how to say no,” “to say ‘I’ and not ‘we,’ ” “to treat women with more respect,” “how to interact more openly with guys,” and on and on.  One even says he loved me because I was like a father to him.  What more can a man on walkabout ask for?
         At the final night’s campfire, after a lovely slide show and very heartfelt hugs and goodbyes, Phil tells the campers that it cost about 2500 Rand (300$ American) to bring each of them to camp, and that the only thing Sizanani asks of them is that they “play it forward.”  For those readers inclined to offer their contribution to playing it forward I ask that you visit the Camp Sizanani or Global Camps Africa website and find the donation page.  The future of an entire generation of African depends on it.
         In concluding these observations about this phase of my Africa journey, I must emphasize that the shanty towns of Soweto from which the vochelli and campers come are as poor as any village I every saw in India, and when at the end of camp we are invited to visit the camp director’s home – a squatter’s shack in the Kliptown section of Soweto – it had no electricity, no running water, outdoor potty toilets, a neighborhood water fountain, barefoot children running in muddy lanes, and a leaky roof on an earthen floor. 
         And lastly I must acknowledge that I am not at heart a big devotee of camp life, and much as I truly enjoyed the energy of Sizanani, and the incredible display of dance, song, and theater talent displayed by all, and am grateful to have been welcomed as witness to and participant in the lives of the campers and counselors, and to sharing so openly in the lives of over 200 young South Africans, I also was subject to far more structure than I personally favor – 8 A.M. breakfast, 9, 10, and 11 o’clock life skill sessions, lunch, planning session, two more life skills sessions, dinner, etc., and I was only able to sneak away for a few hours one morning when I took a magnificent walk alone up into the hills beyond camp, following a dirt road and the tracks of springbok, catching a glimpse of a grazing giraffe and zebras, seeing butterflies in colors and patterns I’d never before seen, and being ridiculously happy alone in space and time, hearing the call and response of birds, witness to the flight of seeds and the flow of clouds and seasons.  Besides, speaking as any good spirit being and guide might, it is important to know when it is time to move on, and that time is now.  And beyond all that, my friends, what I really want is a cold beer, maybe two.  Next stop the Hyde Park mall.  Tomorrow Dar es Salaam.