It all started with a usual conversation on facebook between the founder of “Bridging Gaps” Juliane Hoss and an old friend, Bart Verheyden in the beginning of 2016. The two met in 2011 when they were both living in Zeerust, in the North-West province in South Africa and even though they both moved to Gauteng afterwards, they have never fully abandoned their links to this part of the country. While they were busy catching up with each other’s lives, Bart asked Juliane, if she couldn’t include some young people from Zeerust into the programme in Pretoria. “Actually, I wish to have a camp in Zeerust with young people from the community one day!”. Her answer was the start of another “Bridges Camp” that took place with 33 teenagers and 10 facilitators and supervisors in training from Pretria on a camping site just outside Zeerust between the 29thof March and the 1st of April. We would like to thank Bart, who generously sponsored the whole camp!

On the picture: The participants at the camp in Zeerust

However, many people discouraged Juliane and her idea to bring the camp to Zeerust right from the beginning:

“This community is very racist. You will never find white teenagers that wish to attend the camp!”

“People here don’t trust easily, they won’t send their children to a camp!”

“The kids in the rural areas are different. They won’t understand your activities.”

These were just some of many reactions she encountered and unfortunately, she actually had to overcome many challenges and solve problems that are related to these concerns.

“This community is very racist. You will never find white teenagers that wish to attend the camp!”

To be honest, even in Pretoria it has never been easy to get white teenagers excited to participate in a youth camp that aims to overcome prejudices and lower racism, but it turned out to be nearly impossible to achieve that in Zeerust. Whereas the principal and one teacher at the “Zeerust Laerskool” promised to send some of their white learners to the camp in the beginning, they suddenly pulled out, stating that they couldn’t find any parents that were willing to send their teenagers. Until today, we are not sure about their real reason to abandon the project because we some parents that we spoke to had never heard about our programme. While Juliane was looking for alternative ways to include white teenagers at the camp, she had to face shocking and saddening reactions from her previous colleagues who said that they will never send their children on a camp that unites teenagers from different backgrounds. She also came across a social worker in town who promised to send five children but never spoke to her again. Her attempts to invite teenagers from neighbouring towns were futile as she was told that people in the other cities were even more racist. Some parents said they were willing to send their teenagers on such a camp but will never allow their daughters to attend without a boy supervising them. Unfortunately, this lead to the cancellation of several girls after their brothers and cousins went to a Rugby Camp. Eventually, a lady was willing t support her and together they addressed some white families at their homes, presented their idea and invited the teenagers. When they had nearly given up on their wish to include teenagers from different societal groups, some parents started to show an interest and eventually four white teenagers attended the camp. This might sound like small number but it is actually a huge success considering the vast suspicion that we encountered throughout the whole preparation time.

On the picture: Anthony and his beautiful mask

“People here don’t trust easily, they won’t send their children to a camp!”

Interestingly enough, the challenges regarding the recruitment of teenagers were not limited to the white community. Many parents of black learners were very sceptical and only allowed their teenagers to attend the camp after Ponatshego, who really helped us to recruit teenagers explained every little detail about the camp. Luckily, Maryna, a passionate and committed lady that is very active in the coloured community showed an interest in the programme and invited 10 teenagers from her community that were very happy to be part of our initiative and waited from 6.30 am in the morning on the day we picked them up.

However, we realized that all our stress and effort was worth it, when we saw how much these youngsters enjoyed the camp and heard that they told other people in the community that they had an amazing time.

“The kids in the rural areas are different. They won’t understand your activities.”

To be honest, we don’t agree with this statement that made us rather sad. It sounds more like a stereotype about people who live in rural areas than a correct or helpful observation. Assuming that some teenagers will struggle more with certain duties just because they live in a more rural environment is based on the assumption that they are all the same and inferior to youngsters from the rural areas. We decided that we will first try out how the teenagers will react to our activities before we put them in a certain drawer and judge them.  We slightly shortened the programme to a four-day camp.

On the picture: Plaster Mask Production Line

Indeed, some teenagers struggled to speak English but our facilitators and supervisors in training made a huge effort to translate everything to them. And yes, the group of in Zeerust was very quiet, except for three or four amazing participants that seemed to never run out of motivation to answer our questions. However, they surprised us during the team building activities and the treasure hunt as they succeeded faster than any team before them as they managed to communicate and develop a strategy together. It was also interesting to see how engaged they were during the core activities in which we discuss our own prejudices and find was to overcome them. We have learned that it might have to adjust some exercises when we run a camp outside of Pretoria – but simply because every group is different and the teenagers might like different thing, not because they won’t be able to understand our activities because they live in a rural area.

On the picture. The teenagers are fully concetrated during the evening activity

This experience in Zeerust also taught us another very interesting lesson in relation to our facilitators and supervisors in training that came with us from Pretoria. They all told us that they faced a lot of challenges with the teenagers in Zeerust that they were not used to from the camps in Gauteng. They were quick to blame the different setup and the character of the kids for and the local youngsters started to gossip about the teenagers from Pretoria. We sensed some rivalry or jealousy between the two groups: The teenagers in Zeerust had the impression that the others looked down on them and the youngsters from Pretoria had the feeling that they were not taken serious.  This showed us that stereotypes and conflicts exist between various different groups in our society, also along the visible divide between the urban and the rural areas in South Africa. All these different forms of discrimination should form part of our programme to achieve a critical consciousness amongst our youngsters.

On the picture: Our facilitators, supervisors in training and supervisors on their way back to Pretoria

To come to a conclusion regarding the camp in Zeerust, we have really learned us not to listen to people that merely want to discourage us and our vision of overcoming prejudices and not to simply give up when we face obstacles along our path.

When we realized that the stove in the kitchen is not working at all and the alternative stoves are so slow that we won’t have supper before midnight on the first evening, we started to make a fire with the help of some of our youngsters to cook. When some of our material got missing, we decided to blame it on the monkeys that were all around us and also woke us up by jumping on our roofs every morning. When the cats entered the kitchen on mysterious ways at night to finish all our leftovers, we comforted ourselves with the fact that they haven’t managed to enter the storage room. When we couldn’t take the smell of the boys’ toilets anymore, we started to fight it with the strongest chemicals ever. And when we saw a snake, we weren’t even shocked because it was obviously not poisonous 🙂 .

On the picture: Morgane, Morongoa and Jacques cooking on fire on the first evening.

All these experiences could have damaged our week but we decided to stick together as a team and make the best out of it. This has shown us that we do not only share our great moments but also support each other in difficult situations and that is the reason why the camp in Zeerust was very special and incredibly valuable for our team of supervisors and facilitators from Pretoria. It has shown us that we are all willing to fight for our vision of expanding our project to overcome prejudice and lowering racism – and that has given us more courage and energy for future projects.

Bridges Camp Zeerust

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