Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Here you will find my thoughts on days 1 and 2 of Camp GLOW! (Girls Leading Our World) Days 3-5 will come shortly.

Seven months of planning, organizing and fundraising all came down to these five days. It goes without saying that I barely slept in the anticipation. Many PCVs asked me during these seven months if I had any advice for someone interested in taking on a similar challenge and the first thing out of my mouth would invariably be, “do it alone.” Working with three other born leaders led to a constant feeling of too many cooks in the kitchen. Long debates ensued at planning meetings over issues that would be so easily decided if every choice was to be made my way! I would hold firmly to this piece of advice up until the day we were to leave but halfway through camp it was quite apparent that I could have never done this alone. Not even close. In fact, it was better than I had ever imagined it to be.

3/25: Adrenaline and caffeinated tea were pumping through my veins as I waited along the path at sunrise for our ride into town. Our driver’s internal clock was running on African time and when I called him to inquire about his tardiness he had no idea of the time (who owns a watch anyway?) but assured me he had only to drink a bit more tea before he headed off. That sounded perfectly reasonable to me, you can’t properly start your day without a good cup of tea to get your thoughts in order. In all honesty I had no need for tea. I was so excited I was jogging in place. Seriously. He finally made it and we squished ten girls and their blankets and luggage into the back of his pickup.

When he dropped us off in town I realized not everyone was sharing in my enthusiasm. Due to a complicated claim to territory, the bush taxis we took to the camp couldn’t come to two out of the four villages, my village being one of the ones off limits. Since I had asked two friends to take us into town I hadn’t yet been exposed to the taxi drivers and their scheming sliminess.

Said taxi drivers took no interest in waiting for late comers or had any empathy towards a PCV’s sick grandmother. When all 100 girls were packed in the bush taxis, doors closed, ready to go, the taxi drivers decided that the payment that was previously agreed upon wasn’t, in fact, sufficient. They claimed that the original amount was for the destination ‘Drakensburg’ (a mountain range spanning two provinces in SA and two countries) and not Underberg a town in the southern portion of the mountains. If they had known this they would have asked for more money which is why they’re doing so now. There are many reasons why their logic didn’t add up principally being they had our agreement in writing in their taxis that states the destination being the town of Underberg. But they wouldn’t budge. They refused to drive us any further without a considerable amount more. It took two hours of tense negotiations before we agreed to concede.

While we were humoring their little stunt, the girls started to get restless. The bathrooms (a gross, fly infested room with standing sewage not fit for humans) were closed so a few of the girls went in the grass. A security guard seized the opportunity of squeezing some extra cash out of the malungus and demanded the White women pay a fine in retribution for the girls’ folly. Now negotiations were being discussed on two fronts with us backed into a corner with no way out but through the money pit. When we finally left, our bridge with the taxi drivers was all but burned and the week had just begun.

As I felt the caffeine waning in my system I pumped in some more so my energy and excitement remained at super-human levels. The first tense hours with the drivers didn’t seem to faze me. Nothing could get me down at this point, I had waited too long and worked too hard for this week to be ruined by some money-hungry scum bags.
We drove all day with house music playing at ear-piercing levels and the girls dancing the whole way. Nobody was quite sure how long the drive would be and the animation started to fade after lunch. We stopped at a small shop on the side of the road where the girls were again asked to think creatively about bushes as bathrooms. It was then that one of the girls came up to Angie and said, “This is the best day of my life.” We were up before dawn, had been driving for hours on end getting an earful from our chauvinistic drivers while enduring permanent hearing loss due to the absurdly loud bass. The best day of your life?! Just you wait girlfriend, we’re about to rock your world.

It starts to rain as patience grows thin and we begin driving in circles. The taxi drivers need to again be talked into continuing with much ego-stroking and carrying on. It’s getting dark and though we know we’re close we’re unable to reach the camp director with directions for the last few miles. Angie convinces everyone that perhaps there are two entrances to the road we’re looking for and we finally find the camp.

Though tensions were high with some of the PCVs, the overall atmosphere was a joyous one as we had arrived at our destination safely (albeit at dark). All the girls were given a name tag that was to be worn throughout the duration of camp that signaled their cabin and village. We chose 12 girls from grade 11 to join the others in grades 8-10 as junior counselors. They were each in charge of a cabin and were thrilled with the extra responsibility. I fielded many questions about how many girls were to sleep per bed. When I responded by saying that every girl gets her own bed there were many cheers.

When everyone was settled we came back to the dining hall where a BBQ was in full swing and music was playing from the loud speakers. When everyone was finished, Greg, the camp director, though of British ancestry, explained in fluent Zulu how to roast a marshmallow. This was met by lots of giggling but many asked for a gooey second.

We then walked to a ten foot high campfire where I sat as several girls braided my hair and 100 voices sang songs that have been sung for hundreds of years. Many took turns kicking their legs to their ears to the beat of the music. Indigenous games were also played around the campfire that were reminiscent of tag with a fun song attached and stories were told of which most girls seemed to know all the words to. My heart was so full at that moment; little did I know I wouldn’t come down from that high until days after the camp was over.

It was lights out for the girls but the day’s debrief and the next day’s planning went well into the night for the planning committee.

3/26: Learning from the disorganization of the day before we decided to implement a ‘Decision Maker’ or one go-to person who would make all final decisions for the day. This resulted in a much more streamlined approach where everyone was able to take a day to lead and was able to support the leader during the other four.
As someone with seemingly endless stores of energy I elected to do the daily wake up call. Every single girl was awake, had showered and was dressed when I came around to their cabin at 6:30. When I circled back around I reminded them about Aerobics which were starting soon led by yours truly.

Since it had been dark when we arrived, it wasn’t until this morning that I was able to take in the full grandeur of our location. Our venue was in a small clearing surrounded by the mountains with a large rushing river running through the camp. The cabins, with log cabin facades, were fairly centrally located with the dining hall being the focal point.

We gathered in the large grassy area separating the dining hall from the river for Aerobics and blasted Rhianna while we got our blood flowing. I spent an absurdly large period of time choreographing a fun routine in the days leading up to the camp and it seemed to be on par with their ability which can be chalked up to luck more than anything else.

After breakfast, Angie facilitated a session on Women’s Health: Nutrition and Body Image and talked a lot about beauty being something inside of each woman and related women’s health to your mind, body and your environment.

Next up was Nozipo’s (Leah’s counterpart) session on Stress and Relaxation. She started with a great energizer and a series of songs. After she defined the terms she would be discussing she led all 100 girls in a relaxation exercise. One of the Nondweni girls ran out of the room crying in the middle of the session. When I went to see what was wrong she said that during the stress-relieving activity she was asked to close her eyes and focus on a calming place. She thought of her home but was immediately reminded of the sexual abuse she regularly endures from her stepdad. She went on to say that she told her mom about it and that she doesn’t believe her. She also hoped that this week would be a time she could escape from her problems and was so sad that she was reminded of her struggles. I hope that I was able to provide some source of comfort and tried not to think about dropping her off at that house in a few days time.

After lunch, Greg, the Camp Director, led the GLOW Olympics. Each village competed against each other in a series of events, the first of which was a low ropes course. Here, a participant from each team dove under a set of tires, jumped over and dropped under five wooden hurdles, leapt across a mud pit Tarzan-style with the help of a rope, scaled an 8 foot high wall with the help of her teammates, climbed up and down an 8 foot high net, clambered along a balance beam, scrambled up and down a teeter totter, Army crawled under a large net and lastly, hopped from wooden stump to wooden stump till you reached the finish line. The last participants were the leaders and I’m proud to admit that though I finished covered in mud and sweat with no shortage of cuts and bruises and frankly, barely breathing, I was victorious!! I had five Nondweni girls on either side of me the entire time helping me and who basically threw me over the 8 foot wall. The other ten Nondweni girls were blue in the face from cheering and jumping up and down, many of whom had scratchy voices by the end of the afternoon, myself included. Not only did I win the leaders’ race but the Nondweni girls won the event! I can’t remember ever screaming so loud, chanting our impromptu Nondweni song with all my girls huddled around me.

The next event was a sequence of relay races. Each team lined up in a row with two representatives from each village facing their team. Four balls were given to each team and each girl had a chance to throw one into the crate on the side with the two girls facing them. Each basket counted as a point and Nondweni continued their domination by winning once again. The two girls raised the stakes by holding the crate above their heads. This obstacle was no match for Nondweni and we won three in a row. The last relay race event of a similar nature was won by another village under highly contested circumstances. : ) All the girls were on their feet yelling and cheering the entire time. The Camp Director was so impressed by their enthusiasm and sportsmanship that he awarded monetary prizes to each team. Since we had won the Olympics we earned the biggest prize. When this was announced and the initial screams had died down, my team started a traditional song to show their excitement. The other villages joined in singing other traditional songs and we all were competing as to who would be the loudest. Then many villages, including mine, started dancing to the songs they were singing at full volume. Nobody was letting up and it was quite awhile before any of the leaders had the heart to end the team spirit.

GLOW Olympics, in all its glory, ran way over its allotted time slot so the following session was all but eliminated and was replaced by a session that we missed yesterday due to our tardiness. Trudell framed the bridge model perfectly along the backdrop of life skills and the choices you make in life. The leaders then shared tips about self-esteem and the girls participated by talking about when they feel confident. Here are some examples: “I tell myself I’m beautiful and I don’t listen to other people,” “If anyone throws a stone at you use it as a stepping stone,” “Believe in yourself.”

The girls were anxious to get out of their mud soaked clothes but were asked to hurry back from the showers to collect their prizes from the snack shop. I should have known that chips and pop would elicit a complete free-for-all with girls climbing on top of each other to get their choice drink and chip flavors.
We scheduled a 45 minute long break where the river was open to swimming with the acquisition of a life vest. Now swimming is a generous term for the reality of the situation was that the girls were wading in six inches of water…with life jackets on just in case. I did not encounter one young woman who had swam before and they were grinning from ear to ear. It was late in the afternoon and since the sun had gone down it was quite cold for a dip in the chilly water. Their shivering, goose-bumped skin didn’t stop the rampant denials from the few dozen girls in the water that they were cold. It was like pulling teeth trying to get them out for dinner.

When everyone had washed up after the meal, we sat down for a relaxing workshop on how to journal and journal decorating. They were taught how to draw self-portraits and drew theirs on the front cover of their new journal. Many of them drew theirs several times, erasing it time and again so that it was perfect. Quite a few decorated the background as well and one of them wrote her name and ‘A GLOW girl’ underneath as a sort of tagline. It was nice to have some free time to listen to good music and write creatively. The idea of writing has a stress reliever, a joy or a comfort was a new concept and many girls connected with this new outlet instantly.

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