Day camp in Kagiso — a township surrounded by factories and mine dumps on Johannesburg’s far western edge — is much like day camp at the average American YMCA. But with a lot more singing and dancing.

Dance class at camp in Kagiso. (To learn more about Kagiso Township, read this article from the Mail & Guardian.)

Most American kids go to summer camp, whether it’s local day camp or sleep-away camp, at least once in their lives. I attended countless sports camps, drama camps, and everyday camps as a child, and my first summer job was as a camp counselor.

In South Africa, camp is a novel concept. Middle and upper class kids might go on camping ‘holidays’ with their families or with school groups. But organized camp programs, especially for underprivileged kids, didn’t really exist here until several years ago, when an American NGO called Global Camps Africa (GCA) and a South African NGO called HIVSA got together and started Camp Sizanani.

Time 2 Have Fun at Camp Sizanani. ‘Sizanani’ means ‘to help each other’ in Zulu.

Camp Sizanani gets at-risk kids out of their normal environments and into a safe place where they can express themselves, learn life skills, and (most importantly) have fun. HIV/AIDS education is a major focus of the program. The kids who attend Camp Sizanani often have difficult living situations and attend underfunded schools where they don’t get the individualized attention they need. They’ve never had the chance to play organized sports or do arts and crafts. They’ve never been spoken to honestly about sex and HIV.

Life skills class at Camp Sizanani. I was impressed with how directly the teacher spoke to the kids about sex and HIV. I was even more impressed with how respectful and eager to learn the kids were.

Kids celebrate victory in a game that involves picking up balls, chains, and other objects while blindfolded, as teammates shout instructions and encouragement from the sidelines.

I only spent one day at Camp Sizanani’s weeklong day camp, which took place at a Kagiso school during the kids’ spring holiday. (GCA and HIVSA also run residential camps and bi-weekly kids’ club meetings in Soweto and other locations around Joburg.) But one day was enough to blow me away.

None of these kids had ever been to camp before, and they were only three days into the week on the day I visited. It was obvious that all the kids were having the time of their lives, and educating themselves while they were at it.

Making masks in arts and crafts class.

At the end of each session — whether it be sports, drama, dance, or life skills — the counselors asked the kids what they’d learned. Typical responses included, ‘We learned to respect each other,’ ‘We learned not to shout at one another,’ and ‘We must use teamwork and work together.’

Campers wait patiently for their lunch.

It’s not only the kids who have a ball and learn a lot at camp. The counselors, who call themselves vochelis, get as much out of camp as the campers do. The vochelis come from the same underprivileged backgrounds as the campers, and most of them used to be campers themselves. The vochelis are role models to the kids and they take that role very seriously. Camp Sizanani gives the vochelis — many of whom are unable to find jobs and face other serious financial and social hardships — a sense of purpose.

“The best thing about my job is knowing that you get to make another person smile,” said Kabelo Malefane, a long-time vocheli and the director of this camp. “Even when you are hurting inside, you get to make another person smile. The gratitude that you get for that is worth more than anything.”

Vocheli directors Kabelo (left), Enos (middle), and Gotso (right) lead the campers in a song. Hmm, do you think they’re having fun?

During the last hour of the day, the campers have ‘cabin time’. They get together with the other members of their cabin — maybe 15 or 20 kids — and their cabin counselors, to discuss the events of the day and what they learned. The cabin I sat with had serious things to talk about. I missed much of what what said because the conversation flipped between English, Shangaan, and other languages. But there were several conflicts resolved and apologies made. The room was somber.

I stepped outside for a few moments. While I was outside, the cabin (which was actually a trailer, or what South Africans call a Park Home) erupted. The occupants were singing boisterously and the cabin shook from all the jumping up and down. I hurried in to investigate and was invited to join the party.

It’s not easy to dance and take pictures at the same time.

I hadn’t truly lived until I experienced spontaneous song and dance in Africa. I’ll never forget the first time it happened, at a health clinic opening in Tanzania nearly five years ago. The sound, the vibration, the emotion, and the pure joy all penetrate directly into my heart and fill my body from the inside out. It’s difficult to explain to those who haven’t experienced it. Video recordings don’t do justice to the real thing.

The singing and dancing at Kagiso was the most inspiring that I’ve ever experienced. Hopefully these photos can convey just a little bit of what it felt like.

The culmination of cabin time.

Dancing our way out of the cabin.

I took refuge inside the staff room to switch memory cards, and was about to go back outside when my favorite dancer sashayed past.

I stood and took pictures as the joy engulfed me.

Thanks for a great day, Camp Sizanani. I hope to be back soon.

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