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 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.