African Summer Camp:
Cross-cultural Leadership Training and Female Empowerment
Under the Soutpansberg Mountains in South Africa
November 14, 2000
BROOKLYN VILLAGE, SOUTH AFRICA
As a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa, I have had many thrilling experiences. I expected this to happen, which was one of the reasons I applied for the job. On the contrary, I can truly say that none of the experiences themselves were ever anticipated much more than a short time before they occurred. I guess that's why they're so eye-opening (sometimes shocking and sometimes comforting, but always eye-opening).
Trying to lump all of the twists-and-turns, ups-and-downs, and eccentricities into one article would do none of them justice. So, I've chosen one week - yes, it was one of the best weeks - on which to write this essay.
The Peace Corps/South Africa has a committee on Gender and Development (GAD). The people on this committee (I am not one of them) work hard to engage South Africans in questions relating to gender issues: equality, human rights, and sexuality to name a few. Anyway, to make a long story short, it was 25 September 2000 and I found myself riding in the back of a large lorrie with a group of seventh grade South African girls. In a barrage of sounds, they spoke several different languages. Smiles stretched from ear-to-ear. Many of them clutched strings attached to balloons that were blowing furiously in the wind. We were on our way to the first annual (I hope) Girls Leadership Camp put together by the GAD committee.
We arrived at Schoemansdal Environmental Centre, just over 20 kilometres from the town of Louis Trichardt, in the Northern Province of South Africa, to find several other girls getting settled in and checking out the surroundings. The Soutpansberg Mountains towered above us. There was a murky swimming pool inhabited by tadpoles that would soon be frogs. Trees blossomed in radiant reds and purples. American volunteers rushed about doing this-and-that, preparing for what would become four days of truly positive energy and eye-opening experiences for everyone involved.
The girls carried their blankets and pillows to their various cabins, slowly opening up more and more to one and other. They spoke Sepedi, Xitsonga, Tshivenda, and Tswana. They also had the common language of English so the girls from different cultural backgrounds could exchange thoughts and ideas. When they got to their bunks (in shared dorm rooms of eight girls each) they found themselves divided into groups, each group given the name of an animal native to the region.
As they slowly filtered back to the camp's central meeting hall, the groups found they also had a camp counsellor and, in some cases, two. This was my job, acting as a co-counsellor with my friend Sara for a group of eight seventh grade South African girls. Collectively, we were referred to as 'the Bushbucks.' That night we learned each other's names, origins, interests, and other surface-scratching facts. Over the course of the week, we went much deeper.
Beginning the second day, we began our rigorous schedule. We heard from an inspirational South African who served as role models for the girls. We learned about women who had played large parts in South African History. We talked about sexuality and making responsible decisions. We discussed power and the human right to make personal decisions. Such ideas highlighted the importance of developing strong leadership skills.
These classroom-like discussions were intermingled with outdoor activities, also promoting leadership attributes. The girls all tackled a problem-solving course proving their strong communications skills. Strapped into harnesses and ropes, the girls came abseiling down a steep rock face. Armed with water bottles and newfound friends, they hiked to a nearby waterfall. The girls jumped at the opportunity to become teachers themselves when it came time to learn cross-cultural traditional dances. And, late at night, each group went back to their bunks and fell asleep talking about the fun times had and those to come.
For Americans, all of this may be reminiscent of a good time at summer camp - friends made, inhibitions lost, lessons learned. But, for seventh grade South African girls from rural, impoverished areas, this was reminiscent of nothing. They had never experienced anything remotely like what they experienced that week under the Soutpansberg Mountains. Black South African females, especially adolescent girls, have a tough road ahead of them. South African society is largely male dominated. Females, in many cases, are considered inferior and subservient. Young women are faced with situations such as abuse, discrimination, and even rape on an ongoing basis. Sometimes it may seem like no hope exists. Oppression continues, dreams are discarded, and spirits die. A lack of assertiveness, decision-making skills, and self-esteem may lead many to a life of victimization.
Enough of the depressing everyday realities for now; the GLC aimed to provide 64 South African girls with a safe, even nurturing, environment in which to kindle the sparks of self esteem contained inside individuals. It was highly successful and, by the time Friday morning rolled around, no one, including the counsellors, was ready to go home. One member of the Bushbucks summed it up best when she said, "I don't understand when they say we must leave. I think there will be more three or two weeks." However, we did depart that day, all going to our separate homes in separate places. I do receive phone calls from a number of our small group. They never say much but, by the sound of the voice on the other end of the line, I can tell that the flame is still burning and each and every one of those girls is still confident that she can and will make something with her life.