Eyes on Campers

chartered buses

By Guest Blogger Brian Crowder

A week ago, I returned to the U.S. after a week in South Africa. After 9 years of affiliation with GCA, I’d finally had the opportunity to become a practicing Vochelli—a camp counselor—and a minor part of this March’s session of Camp Sizanani in Rustenburg. As a stateside volunteer and donor to GCA, I had seen the photos and heard the stories from camp, but seeing Camp in person was something completely new for me.

The children meet the Vochellis in central Soweto/Alexandra locations to pile into chartered buses for the more than two hours of exodus from dangerous, impoverished slums to the beautiful, park-like setting arranged for them in rural Rustenburg. Upon arrival, the greeting rituals begin and campers begin to learn who these people are that have pledged more than a week of their time and care for them.

kids with SA flags

Cabins are organized and lunch is served. This is where a truly amazing transformation starts to happen. Generous portion sizes and the option for “seconds” brought smiles. The kids start making eye contact. Their idea of Camp is becoming clearer, and the safe space that we’ve all played a part in designing for them starts to take shape.

I watch the trust between campers and Vochellis grow throughout the week.

strong swimmers

Campers who showed up having never been in a pool learn to swim and even dive; Campers engage in emotional, open and cathartic communication about their deepest struggles in Theatre/Dance; Campers learn healthy ways to make decisions about sex in Life Skills sessions, articulating clear stances on how to avoid HIV/AIDS and teen pregnancy.

It’s a well-oiled machine of programmatic learning and relationship building.

By the end of the week, a refrain started to ring out among the campers. “I wish I could stay here forever.” Hearing that made me proud to be there. The kids truly appreciate what is happening for them. They see and feel the changes in themselves. They love the Vochellis.

To anyone interested in funding or supporting Camp Sizanani, please do.

But, also…go. See the faces and meet the people.

Camp Sizanani is empowering South Africa’s most vulnerable children.

morning yoga





Phil’s Notebook: Memories of Harris Wofford

We're mourning the death of one of our longtime supporters and member of our Advisory Council, Senator Harris Wofford, who passed away on January 21st.  

Harris was a relative through my wife, Lynn's, family and a household name who came to be a presence at two important stages of my life.

In my last year of law school I had been accepted into a Peace Corps lawyers program in Ethiopia as well as a legal fellowship program in Malawi. In 1965, who knew anyone who had been to either, much less to both? Harris had worked in both places.

In what I found to be his way of giving advice, he turned the matter over to me and asked what I was looking for. What is a not yet graduated lawyer with no worldly experience looking for when he is investigating programs in Africa? In fact, I have no idea what I said but, but he guided me down a path of examining what little I knew about the places and the programs. 

In retrospect, I don't know what he could have told me that would have given me a better way to formulate a decision.  (I decided on Ethiopia based primarily on being associated with a Kennedy program.)

The second significant interchange was shortly after I had started Camp Sizanani and Global Camps Africa. Harris was planning around-the-world trip with his latest grandchild about to turn 12. He asked if he could make his first stop be Camp Sizanani.  He and his grandson got into Johannesburg that afternoon, hired a driver and made arrangements to meet me at a McDonald's on a major road, from which I would lead them to camp. 

Aside from a slapstick mix-up when there were two McDonald's across the beltway from each other and we kept circling to reach the other, the visit was magical. It was during staff training and Harris spoke to our mainly black South African about his involvement with Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid movements, and the importance of open racial relationships. We had two Peace Corps volunteers, on their break from teaching, on our staff.

The evening ended and Harris, grandson, and driver went back to Johannesburg. The rest of us went to bed and met at breakfast. The PCVs, who had never heard of Harris before the night before, had been impressed enough to Google him that night. Their main report back was a frustrated: "What is there left to do? He has done it all!"

Harris was kind enough to join Global Camps Africa’s Advisory Council, and shared his insights with many of us - including our South African vochellis visiting the US - over the years. His example is one that continues to inspires us all.

Phil's Notebook: Reflections from our Founder & President

October 2018

Vochelli Lerato and her new baby

Vochelli Lerato and her new baby

I had the pleasure of being in Johannesburg for a week before our current camp session (the 82nd!).  I attended a Board of Directors meeting for our sister organization in South Africa, (Camp Sizanani Life Skills) and also led a meeting of our South African counselor staff.

Both meetings went well. The Board is fully engaged and encouraging the office's accreditation efforts. Having an understanding of the detail and volume of compliance issues makes them realize what a great job our Country Director, Mpumi Maesela, and the office staff are doing in addition to their operating the camp and club programs. We hope the process will conclude soon with happy results.  

Like the peasant who complained about the size of his home and getting advice from his counselor to keep move one more animal into the house each day, we hope that the staff will feel as though they are on holiday when they "just" have camp and clubs to administer.

The meeting with our South African counselor staff, whom we call “vochellis,” was designed to explain to them the requirements we face with accreditation and that certain requirements, such as proof of residency, their ID card, etc., were not being imposed by the office but were required by funders we are hoping will sponsor our program. As with any new structure or expectations, we’re all adjusting and trying to understand what is needed…but the vochellis asked good questions and were eager to make the necessary adjustments for the good of Camp Sizanani.

I took advantage of having time between meetings to connect with Vochelli Lerato, who had a baby last year and who hasn't been at camp since. I also visited Vochelli Nathabiseng, an arts and crafts counselor, who has been teaching and pursuing her career in the arts. 

I also made a longer than usual shopping expedition to the African Market at Rosebank Mall as well as to street vendors to replenish the jewelry we sell at the Lake Anne Farmers Market in Reston on Saturdays from May through November. Our volunteers this year, Susan Jones and Lisa Jansons Gray, have done a terrific job at the market this year, and I was happy to follow their shopping list. My only foray into spontaneity at the market were two large animals, one elephant and one rhino, with multi-colored beads over a wire frame. They are car-stopping-and-turning-around spectacular and that's just what I did. I passed the display on the street while driving and went and bargained with them on the spot. We’re planning to put those two special items in the silent auction at our New York event this October 24th. I hope many of you will come and see them in person!

Vochelli Nthabiseng and her family

Vochelli Nthabiseng and her family

The African Market at Rosebank

The African Market at Rosebank

Youth Clubs Helped Me Achieve My Dreams

by Khuselwa Wedama, former Youth Club Camper

I joined Camp Sizanani in 2007. At first, I thought that the vochellis [camp counselors] were just scaring us about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but after 8 months at the Youth Club near where I stay, I went to the camp and that’s where I got to see pictures of how STIs affect people’s health. When I saw the pictures, I decided to keep attending the youth club because I needed to learn more about life.  I had also made new friends from Soweto during the camp, so my mind was made up.

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When we returned from the camp, we were given career guidance during youth club meetings. There was a lot that I had not taken into consideration before. I learned about choosing the right subjects at school in preparation for my future career, the grades that I needed to achieve to get a bursary [tuition assistance] for tertiary education and the different learnerships [scholarships] available for young people. I found this information very useful and invited my friends from school to join the Youth Club.  My friends  joined the club, and we used everything we had learned from Camp Sizanani to pass our matric exams [final exams before graduating].

My friends and I made sure that we passed our matric exams before having babies. At Camp Sizanani we were taught that in life, nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it. We learned that that "books come before boys because boys before books bring babies." I passed my matric exams with 2 distinctions and 4 Exemptions. After graducation, I enrolled into the University of South Africa (UNISA) for a degree in teaching. My first year was good, I passed with 3 distinctions and 2 exemptions. Then I got pregnant.

I was scared because the vochellis had taught me that even after having sex once, there is a chance of getting pregnant. I was also angry at myself for being careless, but it was also a relief to know that I was not infected with HIV or STIs. I then remembered Vochelli Sizakele telling us that everyone mistakes, but we can learn from them. Making a wrong choice in life doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. You can always change the way you do things. So, I decided not to drop out of University.  I had the right to education and it was my responsibility to take care of my baby.  

I kept all the valuable lessons I had learned at Camp Sizanani and Youth Clubs while studying at UNISA. I graduated in 2017 and am now working as a qualified teacher because of Camp Sizanan's programsi. I wish Camp Sizanani and Youth Clubs could expand to the rest of South Africa.  Many children and young people in the country are not exposed to opportunities and educational programs like Sizanani.
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I would like to thank all the vochellis, especially those from Poortjie (where I stayed as a teenager) and of course, Phil for founding Camp Sizanani. You have touched so many lives out there, all my friends from the Poortjie Youth Clubs are now working. Even though we no longer live in Poortjie, we still use what you taught us during our teenage years at Camp Sizanani.

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.

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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 vochellis 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 Vochelli 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 (weekly meetings for Camp Sizanani children, sponsored by Global Camps Africa and HIVSA). 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 Vochelli Thulani talking to me. Whenever I did something wrong, I would remember the word Sizanani. I would remember all the motivations they gave us there.

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 who was 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 Lebogang 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. It’s hard to do right things. But I decided to do them. 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 vochelli (Sizanani camp counselor)
I’ve been a vochelli 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.