My Africa Experience

A letter from Rosalyn Sayer '07

I recently spent 2 1/2 weeks volunteering at Camp Sizanani, a camp for children affected by HIV/AIDS in South Africa.

The word "sizanani" means "help each other" in Zulu (one of the 11 official languages in South Africa!), and that is what the camp is all about.

I think that is also what the youth of South Africa are all about. Everyone helps each other. Their life situations are overwhelmed with disease, poverty, abuse, death — and yet they don't give up. They realize the situation they are in and also realize that unless they help each other, help most likely won't come.

So, they wake up every morning and put their own needs aside to help their neighbors, their parents, their siblings, and the people of South Africa. The campers were no different. The kids were like one giant family of 150 brothers and sisters. They were constantly sacrificing of themselves to bring comfort to their newfound brothers and sisters, and together, they became a mighty force, willing and able to change South Africa.

Like most of the camps I am involved with, Camp Sizanani has a purpose beyond fun and games. Sizanani had a strong educational focus, and every activity was carefully planned to teach the campers something about themselves and living a healthy lifestyle.

The activities also inspired the campers to create change in their homes, communities and their country. It was an incredible feeling to know I was a part of changing South Africa!

The campers were carefully selected from among millions of eligible children. Some of them were infected with HIV and were learning how to keep themselves healthy. Even campers who didn't have HIV were identified as a high-risk population, and the education at camp was designed to help keep them HIV free.

While at camp every camper had the opportunity to test for HIV infection. HIV/AIDS is not a statistic for these children; it is a harsh reality. Every camper had a relative or friend who was infected or had died from AIDS. Their lives were affected by HIV/AIDS even before they were born; they didn't even have a chance to escape from it.

And it's not just HIV/AIDS that affects these campers. One of my most powerful memories from camp was a conversation that took place during our bunk night. Our cabin was spending the evening getting to know each other better and braiding hair.

The conversation quickly turned into each camper sharing her "story" with the others. Most of my campers told us that they do not live with their parents because they are dead. The majority of my campers were either abused or neglected in their current living situations by family members who were given the "burden" of caring for them. They shared stories of murdered siblings, sexual abuse, disease and starvation. And through it all, they supported each other.

It was that night that I realized how meaningful camp was to these kids. I had thought camp was about allowing them an opportunity to have fun and to educate them about HIV/AIDS. Camp was much more than that. Camp Sizanani provided a family to the campers who had none, and a caring family to those who only knew one of abuse. Camp meant three meals a day for children who may not even get one meal at home. Camp provided housing, bedding, clothing, running water, and electricity to those who went without on a daily basis. And, camp provided love to those who had never experienced it.

I would be lying if I told you that my time in South Africa was filled with heartwarming and inspirational moments such as these. To be honest, the whole experience was really hard, and the heartwarming moments were few and far between. Most of the time, I struggled with understanding my purpose for being there and doubted the contribution I was making.

I disagreed with many of the logistical aspects of camp and found it difficult to sit back and watch when I desperately wanted to lead. As an international volunteer, my role was to provide support only when asked and to defer to the South African staff at all times. I had to learn new ways of being a leader, new ways of connecting with my campers, and new ways of sharing myself with others.

I think part of me was expecting to go to South Africa and bring about some magnificent change. What I found instead is that there is so much need in South Africa, and my efforts only made a tiny dent. I'm not letting that discourage me, though. It inspires me to continue serving others and supporting organizations that bring about change.

Overall, volunteering at Camp Sizanani was an incredible experience. I learned a lot and challenged myself to look at things from new perspectives. I will never forget the relationships I developed, the lessons I learned, or the love I received from my South African family.

Rosalyn Sayer is Camper Recruiter and Community Relations Assistant at The Painted Turtle, a camp for children with chronic and life-threatening medical conditions. She is a dedicated volunteer at other camps for children with special needs and serious life situations throughout the world. This fall, she began a master's program in nonprofit management at California Sate University, Northridge. Rosalyn also serves as a class representative for the Class of 2007.