Global Camps Africa: A Life Saving Summer Camp with a Difference

Getrude Matshe

Posted: 06/24/2013 12:19 pm

As summer approaches and we see articles on beaches, vacations, summer camps for the kids, and all manner of fun in the sun, do we ever think that one of our basic institutions, associated with fun and games and babysitting, is also capable of creating the most fundamental changes in society?

Yes, hard to believe, but that old chestnut, summer camp, butt of jokes from "Parent Trap" to "Meatballs," seemingly incapable of being taken seriously, except perhaps, by the 12 million children who attend and corresponding numbers of parents and family members who see dramatic change (however short-lived) who see the impact.

Think for a moment of societies where certain areas of vital concern are still taboo to speak of within the family. One of these is HIV. In many African countries where the pandemic is most severe, families do not address the issue: children are beaten or chided if they dare bring it up, and schools and churches follow largely along the same lines. Though a Life Orientation curriculum now exists in South African schools, the country with the most HIV positive people in the world (not as a percentage, but an absolute number) still sees its teachers mumble through the curriculum, barring questions and requiring only accurate, memorized responses on the exam.

Enter Camp Sizanani, a product of U.S. nonprofit, Global Camps Africa, and a South African nonprofit, Camp Sizanani Life Skills. Started by former Peace Corps Volunteer, lawyer, and camp director, Philip Lilienthal, in 2003, it has seen 5,200 children and youth, mostly from the large former township of Soweto, attend its camps for the past nine years.

Using experiential education as a way to get the campers involved, Lilienthal integrated life skills into the sports, swimming, theater, arts and crafts, adventure, and nutrition, not to mention the the life skills curriculum itself. The campers only attend the eight-day camp one time, as the need and demand is enormous. Rather, after they have been to camp, they are encouraged to attend (like camp, free of charge) four-hour Saturday sessions, offered biweekly, at the five youth clubs established around the large Soweto township.This also provides a leadership opportunity and a path to cherished counselor status for the few who successfully complete the rigorous training program.

The camp has attracted top camp professionals from the U.S. and Canada, as well as volunteers from a dozen other countries. Their universal reaction is one of disbelief that an eight-day camp can change the way a child looks at the world.

Entering camp, many campers think they will be dead of AIDS-related illnesses by the time they are 30. Their "career" goals are limited to what they see in front of them: teachers and police. The camp not only educates them as to causes of infection, but teaches prevention in open, interactive discussions.

These empower the campers in all areas. They form career paths; they become more participatory at home and school (teachers say they can immediately identify recent campers by the way they participate); and they are not the victims of their environments any more. They have choices and they are equipped with tools to avoid the gang activity, prostitution, and drugs.

It's not just fun and games at camp in South Africa.