Tuesday, March 15, 2016

the real voyage of discovery

I’ve been meaning to post about camp for two months now, but since we are having a follow-up retreat this weekend, now seems like the right time to reflect more on that experience.

Soon after we arrived here, Iggy recruited Thomas and me as counsellors for an interfaith camp he helps run. I was really excited to be a part of it since I’m interested in interfaith dialogue, though I had no idea what to expect. There were a few training and planning meetings throughout November and December to get to know the other facilitators and learn more about the camp. I really enjoyed getting to know the rest of camp staff and instantly felt safe and comfortable with them. In fact the first weekend we met was my birthday, and they got me a cake and sang to me in all of their languages - English, isiXhosa, and Afrikaans. We put a lot of thought and time into planning sessions and activities, but we also had a lot of fun together in the process.

Staff and campers at Mizpah
GOAL (Giving Opportunities to Aspiring Leaders) Camp is sponsored by the GOAL Trust and focuses on developing a new generation of leaders across backgrounds, cultures, and religions. This year’s camp took place in January at Mizpah Youth Camp in beautiful Grabouw - about an hour from Cape Town. 

I loved the t-shirt quote we chose for camp this year (okay I suggested it) by Marcel Proust: "The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." That's really a good summary of what GOAL Camp does for these kids. It opens their eyes and expands their worldview (also illustrated by this year's theme: A Whole New World).

My co-facilitator Nyaki and I with our PK crew -
Zulpha, Irfaan, and Sisipho
We were divided into dialogue groups which met once or twice each day to discuss things a bit more in depth in a safe space. These are also the groups we were in for competitions, team-building, and cleaning after meals. Each team was given a color for bead bracelets, and ours was light blue which one of our members explains represents peace. Some names were thrown around; someone said “peacekeepers” which was immediately turned down because of its implications (like in Hunger Games). Ultimately the team agreed on Peace Killers. I know this sounds a little odd, but they understood that often you have to lose your sense of peace and comfort in order to grow, that we sometimes must challenge the status quo, that we must never achieve peace without justice. We called ourselves PK for short, and they refused to tell anyone what it meant until the talent show (we did a “performance art” piece involving the painting and eventual ripping of a piece sign, followed by a beautiful explanation of their choice in name). I loved getting to know this group and am so grateful that they trusted us enough to share themselves. I still wear my bracelet everyday.

Each day of camp had a theme: Identity, Perspectives, Human Rights and Faith, Responsible Citizenship, and Leadership. While I won’t go into detail about every day or activity, I’ll share some that stand out for me and seemed to impact the participants as well.


We played our own version of this Privilege Walk that was a bit more contextualized for these South African students. Instead of taking a step forward or backward, they picked up a paperclip each time they could answer “true” for a statement. The activity was done in silence, and we debriefed in our dialogue groups afterward.

Discussing the difference between dialogue and debate
Iggy and I were in charge of Paper Bags, an activity designed to help the students confront stereotypes and biases. We placed paper bags around a room with a name or word, and participants were instructed to silently write the first word or phrase that came to mind and place it in the corresponding bag. The people and ideas included South African political figures like President Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema, issues like teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS, identities like sexual orientation and Muslim, international figures like Caitlyn Jenner and Donald Trump, and many others. The next day we wrote all the responses onto posters and had the participants again silently walk around the room reading, this time writing their reactions in their journals. We had some great conversations sparked by this activity, as well as powerful emotions. Some remarked that they were surprised at what they had written down, saying that often the first thing that came to mind wasn't necessarily what they believed, illustrating the influence the media and others have on our minds.

Leading participants in forming a social contract
During our planning sessions before camp, I learned that every year previously there had been a “gender night” which was essentially a “gendered activity night.” Girls painted their nails; guys built a fire. I’m not quite clear on the specifics, but you get the idea. It felt like at worst a perpetuation of terrible stereotypes and at best a missed opportunity. Luckily, most of the staff agreed and all were amenable to change. Ruth and Thomas planned an amazing discussion that allowed campers to address the ways in which we are all hurt by sexism. A few of them were visibly changed by it, and at the very least, we were able to start the conversation.

We also played the Help Game, a frustrating game in which participants are blindfolded in the dark and led to a rope forming a circle. They are instructed to 1) keep both hands on the rope, 2) find the exit, and 3) to ask for help at any time. What they don't realize (and what some realize sooner than others) is that asking for help is the exit. Probably the most intense activity, however, is Star Power - a game in which participants are divided into three groups forming a hierarchy most obviously reminiscent of Apartheid but also mirroring the everyday and pervasive inequalities to which we grow accustomed and apathetic.

While the heavy stuff was important, we also did what you’d expect at a summer camp. We had song sessions, crafts, team-building games, bonfires, capture the flag, swimming, hiking, and a talent show. We taught the campers to play Cups, and we broke several plastic cups in the process (leading to the eventual ban of the cup game). We offered activity time, and I got to guide a group of teenagers through an intro to yoga!

The gorgeous nearby rock pools

We wrapped up every night with cabin time, sharing highs and lows for each day and just chatting with each other. I had three amazing young women in my cabin, and I loved getting to know them and hearing their thoughts. Each of them impressed me in some way. One reminded me a lot of myself, and I appreciated her open heart and willingness to be vulnerable with me. One began the week whispering each time she spoke - which wasn’t often - and I got to watch her find her voice and express herself. And one challenged the camp with her willingness to offer a different perspective, pushing others to think more deeply.

Staff meetings happened every night around 10:30pm and every morning at 6:30am, meaning we got very little sleep. Senior staff made sure we were rested and functioning though, encouraging us to take naps if we weren’t leading an activity at the time. When a stomach bug went around, everyone picked up the slack for each other. It was one of the most supportive working communities I’ve experienced.

Even though I served in a facilitative role, I learned just as much as the campers from this process. I was introduced to new ideas, gained intentional listening skills, developed leadership and teamwork abilities, and learned more about Islam. I was so inspired by this week, and I believe more than ever in the importance of this type of work.

One of the best parts of camp was being a part of the staff family. The senior staff and other facilitators were supportive, loving, thoughtful, and fun. We’ve shared laughter and deep chats, and they are some of the people I feel closest to in this country. I'm incredibly grateful for their continued friendship.

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