Stories from Camp Sizanani

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.

Hiking.

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.

Coach Lebo.

Lebo’s story

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.

Lebo’s organization

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.

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28 Comments

  • Reply landofnams April 10, 2012 at 11:23 am

    <3

    • Reply 2summers April 10, 2012 at 7:19 pm

      I don’t know what <3 means but I assume it's good!

  • Reply Charles Visser (Chuckv) April 10, 2012 at 11:31 am

    A wonderful and touching story that brims with hope. Thank you.

    • Reply 2summers April 10, 2012 at 12:51 pm

      Thanks, glad you like it.

  • Reply Mr Bunny Chow April 10, 2012 at 11:40 am

    it’s so easy to forget there are good people in the world out there helping people and treating them as they’d like to be treated themselves.

    • Reply 2summers April 10, 2012 at 12:51 pm

      Indeed. Pretty incredible.

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough April 10, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    This is so amazingly moving, I don’t know what to say–except that I want to get on a plane and help (if only I had the money to do that). Are there grants these folks can apply for? How is the program funded?

    Can’t thank you enough for sharing this, Heather!

    Hugs,
    Kathy

    • Reply 2summers April 10, 2012 at 5:21 pm

      Hi Kathy,

      Right now the organization is privately funded, mostly by donors in the U.S., I believe. If you’d like more info, send me a message and I can put you in touch with Phil, the founder of Global Camps Africa.

      Glad you liked the post!
      Heather

  • Reply ahimsamaven April 10, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    Wonderful story thank you for sharing it.

    • Reply 2summers April 10, 2012 at 7:10 pm

      Thank you for reading it!

  • Reply thirdeyemom April 10, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    What a heartbreaking story yet inspiring as well. So much we take for granted here. I would love to hear more posts on this camp! Being a child is a magical time in life and I am glad that these children get a chance to be kids even if for a short while.

    • Reply 2summers April 11, 2012 at 8:41 am

      Thanks Nicole. I’m sure I’ll be writing more about Camp Sizanani.

  • Reply Eugenia A Parrish April 11, 2012 at 12:45 am

    I would like very much to hear more from and about Lebo. I understand that these people volunteer their time and don’t get paid, but how do they then live? How do they buy their own food, and do they live with someone, have their own home or have to pay for a roof over their heads? This seems like a full-time job to me, so how do they make out? You’ve made me as curious as I would be of a good friend or a brother!

    • Reply 2summers April 11, 2012 at 8:40 am

      It’s funny you should ask that. I asked Lebo many questions about this very subject, because I also wonder the same thing. I’ve met other people in similar situations, too, and asked about it before. The funny thing is, I’ve never received a real answer. It’s as if people don’t understand what I’m asking. Somehow, they just get by. There are many, many people in this country who work for nothing (or next to nothing), and I don’t totally get it.

      Lebo did tell me that he lives with his mother and two sisters. Somehow, the family is bringing in income. I’ll see if I can find out more.

  • Reply Debra Kolkka April 11, 2012 at 7:28 am

    It is wonderful that there are places like this and people like Lebo. Why is life so unfair???

    • Reply 2summers April 11, 2012 at 8:40 am

      Very good question. I wish I had an answer.

  • Reply Munira April 11, 2012 at 11:09 am

    Wonderful story 🙂

  • Reply Emily Cannell April 11, 2012 at 11:55 am

    Love this post! Your pictures of people are so inspiring also. You have a way of capturing the spirit.

    • Reply 2summers April 11, 2012 at 11:56 am

      Well, that’s what I love to hear! Thanks.

  • Reply Tenney April 12, 2012 at 12:24 am

    Great photos. Glad to see your camera survived the mud bath.

    • Reply 2summers April 12, 2012 at 9:51 am

      Yes, luckily there were just a couple of splatters on the lens hood.

  • Reply Thabang August 18, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    I am not sure if this is the correct Sizanani, but i was part of this camp back in 2008 as a student of Namedi Secondary School.

  • Reply Eric August 20, 2013 at 7:00 am

    I have to say that these are very simple individuals that are making really great impact on peoples live. I wanna be part of this programme and make a difference firstly in my life so its easier to make a difference in the next persons life. I admire all the people involved in this programme and respect them for simply giving other souls a chance to life when everyone else has given up on them.

    God Bless you guys for the great work you are doing and may he give you strength to continue the journey.

    • Reply 2summers August 20, 2013 at 7:59 am

      Thanks for your comment, Eric. I agree that this program and the people involved in it are making a huge impact.

      However, the people at Camp Sizanani are most definitely not “simple”. Quite the opposite, in fact! We are all complex human beings and these individuals are no exception.

  • Reply kobedi kunene from poortjie October 10, 2015 at 7:26 pm

    Thanks vochelli Dennis
    For teaching me how to
    Paint

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