In Africa, AIDS education amid crayons and soccer

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

On a recent sweltering day as South Africa's summer holidays draw to a close, Camp Sizanani buzzes with activity. In the Magaliesberg mountains outside Johannesburg, boys splash in the swimming pool, practicing their kicks, while soccer balls whizz across a rutted field. About 20 heads are bent over crayons and paper in the arts and crafts room, not far from the kitchen where lunch is cooking.

Here in South Africa, as well as in Zimbabwe and Malawi, aid organizations are bringing American-style summer camps to AIDS-affected children, hoping to replicate here the success of camps for troubled or sick children in the United States.

Despite the beautiful open spaces of this country, summer camps are not part of the culture here, especially for township children who spend most school holidays playing unsupervised while their parents work to survive.

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Most of the nearly 100 campers are boys from townships near Johannesburg. Each was chosen to participate because a family member is diagnosed as HIV-positive; a few are diagnosed as HIV-positive themselves, and all are poor.

"We're just taking part to see where it can take us," says Thabanga Mpanza, an aloof 15-year-old, as he watches a soccer game from the sidelines with a twisted ankle. "Because most of our friends are committing themselves into crime and doing things that they are not supposed to be doing - so we just wanted to get off the streets."

Sizanani, which means "help each" other in Zulu, is a project between HIVSA, a nonprofit associated with the Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital in Soweto, and WorldCamps, an organization founded by American Philip Lilienthal whose family has run a summer camp in Maine for decades. This month's camp was the first of six planned in South Africa this year for girls and boys. Each camp will be followed up by weekend activities run by HIVSA.

The idea, says Mr. Lilienthal, is to mix fun and games with AIDS awareness, cooperation, and a lot of love - something that has been absent from many of these children's lives.

"The biggest thing is just to have the counselors available for affection and for attention," says Lilienthal, a former lawyer and Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia. "The emotional needs are so obvious."

Some of the counselors are former Peace Corps volunteers or Americans who have worked in summer camps before, while others are young South Africans involved in AIDS work and counseling.

Lawrence Ndou, a 29-year-old AIDS counselor from Soweto, teaches daily life-skills classes to campers, focusing on issues like AIDS prevention and respect. Most of the messages are ones the boys have heard before - and ones Mr. Ndou has been preaching for years.

But to his surprise and shock, the messages weren't getting through.

"Believe you me, most kids here at this camp, they have engaged in sex and it was a shocking discovery for me that most of them have engaged in unprotected sex," he says. "I was kind of, basically, horrified."

So Ndou set out to debunk myths the boys pick up from friends. The campers, who range in age from 10 to 16, said they believed the lubrication on condoms contained worms that came out in the sun or in water, and that government-issued condoms contained holes. Armed with boxes of condoms, he challenged the boys to conduct their own experiments. No worms or holes to be found.

"It's not like school," says Thabanga. "I learned things about AIDS that I didn't know before."

The problem with too many AIDS programs, say camp organizers, is that too often the messages are thrown at young people by people they have no reason to trust. But after just over a week of eating, living, and playing together, the counselors say they've built strong bonds with the boys.

"Nobody wants to go home. They want to stay here for at least another week," says Katlego Skosana, a dread-locked young counselor from Soweto. "They said to me, 'When we first came here we never thought we'd get so much love from strangers, but it's true that we got love and we felt special.' I was in tears knowing that I've touched some of the kids here." The experience has led Mr. Skosana, who just finished a business degree, to rethink his career and become a teacher.

By the last day of camp, even the tough older boys are sad to go. During final room meetings, a few cry and all sit quietly and respectfully while their friends discuss what they have learned. For the campers, many of whom are returning to difficult lives in the hard world of South Africa's townships and squatter camps, Sizanani is a place where they can just be kids.

"My mom forced me to come," says 15-year-old Fanuel Bhengu, as he waits to go back into the soccer game. "Now I see that it is beautiful. Camp is fun."

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