3/26 continued: So I seemed to have forgotten a rather large chunk of March 26 that fortunately I wasn’t a big part of. We so graciously offered the taxi drivers dinner and a place to stay last night seeing as though we arrived at night but also knowing full well that they pull all-nighters regularly on crazy cross-country trips with Zulu patrons. We awoke this morning to them refusing to leave and demanding to stay all five days claiming it’s too far to go and come back. We reference the contract they have in their possession that states they will do just that. They again claim ignorance to their previous awareness of the location of the camp and say they would do what was previously agreed upon if the venue was at ‘Drakensburg’ which again is a mountain range spanning two provinces in SA and two countries but they seem to believe is a town not too far away from Nondweni. The idea of us funding their mountain holiday is ridiculous especially after how inappropriate and upsetting their behavior was the day before. They weren’t budging. On the contrary, they threatened us by saying if we force them to leave now not only will they not come back to pick up the girls but they will ensure that no one else does. The situation escalated and we requested that the Camp Director get involved to mediate. A comprise was eventually agreed upon that involved the taxi drivers staying for the duration of the camp but were not allowed to be fraternizing with the girls or even to be seen in close proximity. This was just the beginning of our awareness of the power of the Taxi Association.
3/27: I circled around doing the wake-up call which involved greeting the already bright eyed and bushy-tailed campers. I walked into several cabins where all six campers were moisturizing, dressing or just chatting in the nude. I love their overall comfort level with their bodies; I wish American teens would feel the same.
Today we gathered in the clearing to do yoga. The girls took it very seriously, never laughing at the strange or sometimes awkward positions. One of the GLOW girls visited me several weeks later and when I asked her about her day she said she starts each day now with yoga.
After breakfast, we went into the forest for the high ropes course. The campers started by climbing up and down a 12 foot high net. They scaled it three or four at a time and though there were some tears everyone was cheering on the other girls no matter if they took 30 seconds or 15 minutes. We then walked up to a tire chained about three feet into the air. Each girl fell into the arms of several others and was guided, lying down, through the tire to the girls on the other side.
Those two activities paled in comparison to the main event. For this you started on a six inch ledge about four feet off the ground. You then attempted to time your jump nicely on the first swing so that your foot could catch the next swing without A: doing the splits or B: awkwardly swinging half heartedly back to the starting ledge. After four swings there was another ledge which allowed you to get your bearings before reaching the next vantage point by way of a sequence of tires. Since they weren’t bolted down the tires swung just as badly as the swings did but were more cumbersome. The consensus by the next ledge is undoubtedly to use the top of the tires as opposed to the hole in the middle. Trust me, seeing as though they are all hanging at quite different lengths trying to get to the hole is near impossible at times. And yes, out of stubbornness I stuck out my hole strategy till the next ledge. Next, you have a high balance beam to maneuver with the help of a rope arm rail for the faint of heart. The following ledge involves a rather large gap that is to be circumvented by way of a Tarzan-style rope leap and it’s then hoped that you would latch onto the vertical netting which by the way is quite difficult to manage though somehow everyone did. You then cross the netting parallel with the ground until you reach the final post. The girls loved it and as a spotter I saw quite a few going three or four times.
The last event was one that I demonstrated with Angie. There were two thick cables about three feet off the ground attached to three tree trunks. At one end the two cables were touching each other but gradually separated until they were perhaps five feet apart. I stood on one cable and Angie was on the other and to keep balanced we held each other’s arms first at the shoulders then slowly at the fingertips. Now we’re both shaking like leaves and fortunately for me I have several Nondweni girls behind me basically propping me up and the entire crowd of spectators behind me in case one of them flinches. Angie, on the other hand, has one tiny girl spotting her. I communicate my alarm at her lack of support through clenched teeth while teetering on this cable as 100 girls watched. As the Camp Director tries to soothe Angie’s fears she falls and has a gash from her knee to her ankle. At that point another scrawny girl runs to Angie’s side when we decide we want to give it another go. Three quarters of the way there and I’m essentially at like a 30 degree angle with my ‘spotters’ being the sole reason I don’t smack on my face. After some muttered begging from yours truly the Camp Director agrees to let us stop. Embarrassingly enough, three sets of campers go after us and had a far easier go of it.
Due to a miscommunication, we had a picnic lunch and many of the girls carried their sacks as close to the river as possible. One camper told me later that eating outdoors with her friends was one of her favorite parts of camp.
After lunch I facilitated a session on goal setting and achieving. I asked the girls to define short and long term goals and give examples of each on flip chart paper in small groups. After a few groups shared, I passed out a handout that had a chart with a space for a short term goal on one side and a long term goal on the other. After writing down a specific short and long term goal they had to outline the steps they were going to take to achieve them. The benefits of achieving the goal were discussed along with the stumbling blocks. At the bottom of the chart was a completion date and a lyric from ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ that says, “Your time has come to shine. All your dreams are on their way.”
One girl’s short term goal was to purchase a backpack. Her plan of action involved setting aside R1 ($0.14) each week out of her school snack money until December. Another girl’s short term goal entailed selling small snack bags and fruit to help support her family. She was worried about her starting capital but she figured she could start small.
Many girls had aspirations to be doctors and though they detailed the steps they would take to get there they also realized there would be quite a few stumbling blocks along the way. Several girls talked about how time-consuming chores like hauling water, cooking and washing clothes were and how those activities severely cut into their study time. Even so, I saw the girls’ faces light up when they read the completion date of their goals aloud.
After my session the campers tie-dyed t-shirts. We were fortunate enough to get thick organic cotton shirts at a heavily discounted price and high quality dye so that the shirts turned out great.
We had no idea of the time it would take for 100 girls to tie-dye shirts and let me tell you it’s longer than you’d think. Three PCVs took ten campers at a time outside to the various rubber banding and tie-dyeing stations while Angie and I entertained the masses. We started by asking them to decorate the outside of their notebooks. Though we had music playing and a very casual atmosphere attention eventually diminished which is when we asked them to decorate the back cover of their journals with a poem. This was a huge hit. Camper after camper volunteered to read theirs aloud and I can’t articulate how powerful they were. Phrases like, ‘I gave you my body/I gave you my heart/I gave you my time/you gave me HIV,’ or ‘I am a woman /I am strong/ I am independent/ I am a woman,’ are just a snippet of that impromptu sharing session.
Next was a session on relationships and sexuality. We asked each girl to write down a question they had concerning sex the day before and Trudell answered them during her session. Questions varied from what is sex, when is a good age to have sex, what if I’m gay to what should I do if I was raped, or what should I do if my teacher is touching me? She led a powerful session on taking a stand and owning your body. Every girl was taking furious notes.
After dinner we had a talent show which was a camp highlight for many including myself. Trudell’s counterpart GuGu was the mc for the night and with her million watt smile coupled with her natural confidence in front of a big crowd you would have thought she was Ryan Seacrest mc-ing for American Idol. And plenty of these girls would have blown the other American Idol contestants out of the water. Not only was there traditional singing and dancing but dramas, dialogues, gospel singing and poems as well. Poems with phrases said with such strength and power they brought the house down. Here are just two examples: You hit me harder and harder/Kick me when I’m down/You want me to cry/I refuse/You won’t break me, or Martin Luther King had a dream and/SO. DO. I. At this last stanza all 100 girls were on their feet, screaming and banging on the tables. Actually there were so many acts that brought the audience to its knees that one of the tables broke after so much banging. I can’t adequately explain the energy of that night but to say that every singer sang as loud and as passionately as she could, every dancer kicked as high and with as much enthusiasm, every word was full of meaning, courage and intensity. Frankly, I was blown away. I was utterly humbled knowing I was in the presence of greatness.
3/28: The talent show went well into the night so because of that we cancelled this morning’s Aerobics session in lieu of a little extra sleep. Little did we know how necessary it would be to fill up our energy coffers.
After breakfast, we set off for a hike in the mountains to see Bushmen paintings. It quickly turned into a death march. Our hike commenced up this steep mountainside that seemed never ending. Girls were stopping for breaks every twenty feet and it wasn’t long before morale waned. I was located in the upper-middle section of the pack so I had the unfortunate vantage point of seeing that the leaders of this operation were a handful of overzealous GLOW girls, not Greg, the facilitator of this session. Not only were there not enough adults but the few that participated had no communication between them. So I wasn’t aware that one PCV climbed down the mountain with a camper who was having an asthma attack until hours into the hike. Once the group I was walking with reached the top of the first mountain (out of 6!) I organized a cheerleading squad to encourage the remaining sixty. We waited for about half the group to catch up then we continued. When we reached our second peak Greg gave us some history on the Bushmen people. Unfortunately we were still missing about a quarter of our girls. (There were adults with them). Since we didn’t wait until the group was together there was no way to tell that nobody was hurt or got lost. Also, we were led by the group of five campers to an incorrect point because Greg was not leading us. At this juncture, the girls were exhausted and hungry and all were apparently convinced we were getting a ride back down once we made it to our elusive destination. When I burst their bubble they refused to go any further. A group of 40 or so GLOW girls stayed at the point they were led to by the other campers. No amount of cheering and enthusiasm on my part could get them to budge. Well, it turns out it was just as well because due to the rains we couldn’t access the Bushmen paintings after all. Greg claimed he knew of another location of Bushmen paintings nearby but after all this hemming and hawing the stragglers caught up and we were now with the 30 or so girls furthest away from camp. Once the girls saw us move west they all headed off. I was with five GLOW girls and I didn’t see anyone in front of me or behind me for an hour and had no idea if I was going in the right direction. I was in charge of these girls’ welfare and didn’t have something as simple as a map or compass to direct us. Greg was near the back. I think. I didn’t see him again till we got back to camp. One of the girls asked me, “Are we climbing a mountain or a Drakensburg?” “It’s a Drakensburg,” I responded. “Cool.”
What was supposed to be a fun morning hike where they learned about their ancestry ended up as a six hour hike to nowhere. The girls were pissed and rightfully so. We were able to frame it as an analogy for life with some success. We scrapped the scheduled scavenger hunt for more swimming which greatly boosted their spirits. Swimming attire meant stripping down to your underpants (who owns a swimming suit?!) but many of the girls in life jackets just wore panties using the life vest as the cover up for their upper body. It was much warmer so many girls jumped in. We also got a bunch of balls out so there were games of keep away and catch all over the place.
When we reeled it back in, the smiles had returned and it was time for Leah’s session on career development. When we read through the applications for Camp GLOW it quickly became clear that there are only a handful of careers these young women aspire to be: social workers, doctors, nurses, teachers and policemen. 95% of applicants listed one of these as their career ambitions with the high majority of those with the goal to be a doctor. That is all well and good but it’s also important to be aware of other career options. You don’t need to choose from five options, in reality there are thousands of careers open to you. Leah also discussed this and scholarships and other schooling opportunities.
Next was a session on values and human rights facilitated by my counterpart Lindiwe. She said something that has stuck with me almost a month later. She said, “If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far go together.”
After dinner we had an awards ceremony. We first gave a word of thanks to the counterparts and junior counselors and all of them received a nice necklace. Then each PCV and Counterpart called the girls from their village and everyone got a certificate for the hard work they did this week.
After that was the ‘I can’t’ funeral. Katie started by giving her mother’s rags to riches story about how so many people told her she would never go far in life and now she’s a successful businesswoman and mother in Seattle. She wove a beautiful and inspiring story about perseverance and hope. She looked each girl in the eye when she said, “If and when you make mistakes pick yourself back up. Don’t ever let anyone tell you you will fail. You cannot fail. Failure is not trying and I know you all will try and try and try. Don’t ever let anyone blow out the fire that is inside of you. People will see that you are special. You are all intelligent, driven, passionate women. Your charisma is seeping out of you. People will be jealous of you and try to take that spirit away. Don’t let them. Your spirit is all you have.
Who has ever been told you can’t do something? (Everyone raised their hands). Who has ever believed it? (Everyone raised their hands again). Make a decision to end that cycle tonight. I want everyone to write a list of things people have told you you cannot do. We will then go out into the bonfire and burn it. (There were many girls that had such long lists they covered both sides of their papers). When we were finished we gathered outside and each girl threw her paper into the fire and said, “Yes, I can.”
All 100 women then lined the walls of the meeting hall with a candle. Katie started with hers lit. She said, “There is a fire inside each of us. Commit today to never letting anyone snuff it out.” Then one by one each girl said a statement that started with “I will….” and lit her candle from the flame already burning from the girl standing beside her. There were statements like, “I will be a doctor,” “I will be a strong woman,” “I will be an electrician.” Then Katie finished by saying that the room is glowing with GLOW girls. Keep your light shining.”
It was another late night but we played the movie “Freedom Writers” for the campers that were interested. It’s a true story about a group of inner-city students who are taken under the wing of an inspiring teacher and are able to channel their difficult experiences by journaling. I was sitting next to one of my junior counselors that seemed a bit disengaged at times during camp. I glanced at her during the movie and noticed she was crying. When I asked her what was wrong she said she was just so moved by the students’ stories.
3/29: We had yoga and breakfast and announcements. Everyone was sad that this magical time together was coming to an end. Greg asked one of the girls if she was excited to go back home. She said she wasn’t. When he asked why not she said that she has so many chores, so many responsibilities. She has to cook for the family, clean, haul water, wash clothes. It’s never ending she says. Here she is free. She loves to feel free. Like a bird. Rather than minimizing her challenges he said he hopes she can come again. As I overheard that exchange, I was thinking the same thing. How can I recreate this?