Last week I visited Camp Sizanani, a summer camp for vulnerable children and youth. Camp Sizanani, sponsored by Global Camps Africa, puts on several camps a year — both day camps and residential camps — for kids in Joburg. (Read about my visit to Camp Sizanani’s day camp last year.) Last week’s overnight camp took place at a retreat in the Magaliesburg Mountains.
There are many things I want to write about this camp. I want to write about how, 30 minutes after I arrived, I was splattered head-to-toe with mud as the campers romped in a mud bath. (I wore mud-splattered pants for the next two days.)
My pants were never the same after this moment.
I want to write about the hike we took to the top of a mountain, when the Magaliesburg spread out before us and we saw wild giraffes, antelope, and zebras.
I want to write about jumping on a trampoline with a group of girls, who called, “Thank you for playing with us! We love you!” as I walked away.
The trampoline girls.
I want to write about the tears shed (my own included) at the life skills class I attended. Jabu, the life skills counselor, told his students that they aren’t stupid or useless, that they aren’t going to die just because they have HIV. He told the kids that they don’t deserve to be raped or abused, and that every one of them is special.
I want to write about the singing, which was continual and inspiring beyond words. My favorite song is the one that the counselors, who call themselves “vochelis”, sing to the campers. It goes like this: “Ah! I love you! AH! I LOVE YOU! Campers, I love you so much.”
Vochelis sing and dance.
I want to write about the children I met — children facing adversity that I can hardly fathom. I want to write about Cecil, the intelligent, sensitive 19-year-old who was celebrating his birthday the day we met. Cecil told me he steals to support his family. He doesn’t want to steal. It makes him feel terrible about himself. But he sees no other option. Who knows what will happen now that camp is over, but at least Cecil got to spend one week being a kid.
Cecil’s work of art.
I want to write about how I could hardly bring myself to leave Camp Sizanani, how I cried on the drive home.
I wanted to write about all of these things, and now I’ve written about them. But this post is supposed to be about something (actually someone) else.
Lebo, the swimming coach at Camp Sizanani, has a story to tell. It sums up what camp is about. If you want to understand the impact that Camp Sizanani has, read this story. I moved sentences around and corrected the grammar in places to improve the flow. But the words are all Lebo’s.
My name is Lebogang Mashapa. I live in Meadowlands, Soweto. I was a camper at Camp Sizanani in 2006, when I was 16 years old.
I come from a really bad situation/family. Before I came here I was smoking dagga (marijuana), I was smoking cigarettes. I was with these naughty gangsters, and I was the leader of the gangsters. My friends believed in me so much. When we (my friends and I) came to camp, we came with that mentality, that these vochelis will not tell us anything. That we’re going to be the boss here.
When I got to camp, the atmosphere was different. The first day, I wanted to go home. The second day, I was making sure that each and every activity, I would interrupt. And then Vocheli Thulani talked to me and told me how special I am, how smart I am. For the first time in my life, I felt appreciated. I felt like a human being. And that’s where I changed as a whole. When I went home, I wanted to implement all of the things that I learned here.
One of the things that I won’t forget about camp is that they gave me an opportunity; they gave me the privilege to be a child. I’d never had the opportunity to be a child. I never played like other boys did. I worked. So playing was something new for me.
When I went back home, I was attending Saturday Kids’ Clubs (local meetings for Camp Sizanani children). And the vochelis, they were giving me ongoing support. I started one day not smoking, two days not smoking. Each and every time, when I was doing the wrong thing, I could hear Vocheli Thulani talking to me. Whenever I did something wrong, I would remember the word Sizanani (which means “to help each other”).
Before Camp Sizanani, one thing that I’d never had in my life was knowing that I’m special, that I can make it in life. I’d never, ever had that in my life. For the first time, at Sizanani, I had it. So many people believed in me. Everyone here was believing in me. And I asked myself the question: Why can’t I believe in myself? That’s where self confidence was built within me. I want to thank Camp Sizanani for building the Lebohang that I am today.
Walking away from being a gangster
It was difficult to walk away, because I didn’t want to seem weak in front of my peers. I wanted to seem strong. When you do wrong things, that’s when people want to be your friend. That’s how it is. But then I decided to do right things. Some of my friends, they couldn’t be my friends anymore. Some of them decided to change with me, and that’s a good thing.
At the same time, I am still trying to change those that couldn’t change. But it’s hard, it’s very hard. Sometimes I blame myself, that my friend Siyabonga is like this because of me. Siyabonga was a good boy, and then when I came I corrupted his life and now he can’t change. So sometimes I have that regret. But then the most important thing now is that I’m trying so hard. Whenever I’m leading a group of people, I am leading them in a positive way. I’ve learned a lot about leadership.
Being a vocheli
I’ve been a vocheli for six years. Being a vocheli is not about the status or the position. It’s beyond that. When I’m with my campers, I’m becoming a leader. I don’t say, “Hey camper, do this.” I say, “Let’s do this.” I try to be on the same level with them and make them feel appreciated, make them feel loved, make them feel special.
I’ve had children at camp who were abused really, really bad. I had one camper…He once told me he was stabbed. His situation was more or less like mine. He was a gangster. I helped the kid to get out of that situation. I visited him after camp. I attended Kids’ Clubs with him. And now there is a change. He is working with us now, he is volunteering with us.
In 2008, I opened an organization called LIGP. LIGP means Lebo’s Indigenous Games Project. I wanted to give back to the community. I’m not doing it for money. I’m doing it to help other children. I was helped a lot at Camp Sizanani…I thought it’s time I make a difference to these campers, to these kids. I want to burn the past and build the present.
At LIGP, we are doing more or less the same things that are done here (at Camp Sizanani). We have adventure, we have arts and crafts, we have theatre. I’ve introduced a new activity, health and safety. We have fashion, where kids can express themselves by designing t-shirts, shorts, and all that. We do this with the kids after school, from half-past four to six o’clock. We start with homework, and after homework we do activities.
I have 16 volunteers. We’re doing it for free. Phil (from Global Camps Africa) is helping us with materials. Crèches (nursery schools) and parents give us things to keep us going. We’ve registered with the Department of Social Development, and hopefully they will fund the program to keep it going. But for now people are volunteering, even though sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes they (the volunteers) come from home and they haven’t eaten. But I love the spirit they have, that they have committed themselves to the project.
Thanking Camp Sizanani
Really, Sizanani is changing lives.
If I had never come here, maybe I would have many scratches on my face today. I would have given up school. I would have been a thug. I wouldn’t believe in myself. I would have low self-esteem.
Camp Sizanani really helped me a lot. I want to thank Vocheli Thulani for helping me with my difficulties. I want to thank Vocheli Jackie, who believed so much in me, who showed me that anything is possible. I want to thank Camp Sizanani as a whole.
One of Lebo’s campers dives into the pool at Camp Sizanani.
Lebo has invited me to an LIGP training session next weekend. You might be hearing from him again.