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US-Style Summer Camp Helps Combat Spread of AIDS in S. Africa - 2004-01-16

Non-governmental organizations have started an American-style summer camp in South Africa to help combat the spread of AIDS and provide emotional support to children whose families have been affected by the disease.

Camp Sizanani looks a lot like a traditional American summer camp - something not found in South Africa. There are dormitories and sports fields, theater classes and swimming lessons. It's in the rural setting of the Magaliesberg Mountains. But the almost 100 campers, all boys from local townships, are attending the week-long session for more than fun.

Most of the boys here, although not all of them know it, come from families where at least one person is infected with HIV. Some of the campers are infected themselves.

In between the arts and crafts classes and the nighttime talent shows, camp counselors are teaching the boys about AIDS in a personal, frank way, and helping them prepare for the havoc the disease is wreaking on their families and communities.

AIDS issues are tackled head on. Counselor Lawrence Ndou, himself a young man from Soweto, says most of the boys have already heard the information about HIV and AIDS, but don't believe it.

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

Mr. Ndou says he tries to debunk many of the boys' myths, like a commonly held one that the lubrication on condoms contains worms. He opens packs of condoms and challenges them to find the worms.

While the boys say the AIDS classes are interesting, for most, like Thabanga Mpanza, 15, the best part of camp is simply the chance to relax.

"We are here to have fun," he says. "This is the first time in South Africa that they have this camp and we're just taking part to see where it can take us, because most of our friends are committing themselves to crime and doing things that they are not supposed to be doing, so we just wanted to get off the streets."

Camp director Philip Lilianthal says that while the AIDS classes are important and the sports are fun, the camp provides something seemingly very simple that these children don't always get at home - personal attention.

"For example, initially we were going to switch tables every meal and have all the counselors get to know all the kids, and the kids were so emotionally attached to the counselors right away that they didn't want them to switch," he explains. "I think the emotional needs are so obviously, and they respond so beautiful to the attention that we're giving them, that it was just beyond our expectations that way."

This was the first of six planned one-week sessions during school holidays this year, and organizers hope the idea will spread to other parts of South Africa, and to other countries in the region. The camp will be followed up clubs the boys can attend on the weekends.

Camp Sizanani is run by an American non-governmental organization, World Camps, in cooperation with a program at Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital in Soweto.

HIV/AIDS counselor Michelle Schorn, who represents the hospital in the camp's management, says the change in the campers in just one week was impressive.

"As they drove in here, they weren't friendly with each other, they would like give each other a push," she says. "The difference now, you'll see, they hold hands and walk together. [If] someone falls down when they play soccer, two or three guys go and help them up. That difference is so visible, it's incredible."

As camp drew to an end this week, most of the boys were sad to leave. But still, seeing a microphone, they burst into song.

Although it was about much more, most of the boys simply said camp had been lots of fun.