The Round Square African Regional Conference
Over the week-long mid-term break, Reneilwe, Michael, Aidan, Kristen, Mihaela, and I all attended the Round Square African Regional Conference at Tiger Kloof School in Vryberg! After hours of road trip games, KFC, and getting terribly lost, we were the last school to arrive at the conference (along with another school from Ghana). We quickly signed in and received our baraza bandanas, which assigned us to our different baraza groups (discussion/activity groups) by color. I wrapped my sky-blue bandana around my forehead as I searched for my group. In the back corner of a huge tent where people were buzzing around and busy setting up a braai, I found my baraza group just as busy trying to succeed with their name-game. As soon as I joined in, I failed miserably (being confused about how to play the game and not knowing a single person’s name). But everyone was upbeat and willing to teach me how to play, not to mention very patient when I couldn’t remember their names for the hundredth time. The night ended with a lot of laughs about the awkward moments, not realizing that there were plenty more to come. All of the students were separated into rooms where they didn’t know anyone. I shared a room with four other girls, coming from schools in Cape Town, Ghana, and one girl from the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (yes, it’s a Round Square school!). We all went to bed quickly and quietly, knowing that we had a very full day ahead of us.
The students walked out of their rooms, greeted by a sun barely waking up over the low trees. We walked over to the dining hall, had a quick breakfast, and split into two groups for the day. My group began the day at the lower field where a mass of children from local schools were anxiously waiting to have a field day with us! All of the students, the conference attendees and local children, were divided into four color groups. I proudly wiped yellow war-paint under my eyes and shouted our mighty mighty yellow battle cry, stomping my feet and pumping my fists like some odd sort of ape. So the games began! We cycled through the classic field games–egg on a spoon, bobbing for apples, the water-balloon toss, and potato sack race–until we finally ended at the worst game of all. We stood in a yellow cluster, all facing outwards, and squeezed together as we were encircled again and again by a tight, thin rope. When the game masters had finished, they told us and the neighboring blue cluster to begin walking forward; it was a race to the end of the field and back, as a group. The beginning of the race was okay because I was in the front, but as it went on the cluster started rotating, and I was soon stuck in the back. I was stepped on, elbowed, and eventually dragged by the group to the finish line. While the people leading in the front celebrated our victory, I confided with the others who had to suffer the wrath of the back of the cluster. We all began to walk to the finale of games (the tug-of-rope) when I suddenly felt extremely dizzy and unbalanced. Thank goodness Michael was there to catch me as I collapsed to the ground and blacked out. I woke up with a multitude of heads floating over my face and was taken to the nurse so I could rest. I was completely fine; heat exhaustion and dehydration had just gotten the best of me. When I returned to lunch later that day, I was greeted by people making sure I was okay. They were happy to hear that I was completely fine.
After lunch, our half of the students loaded up into vans and were driven down the road to meet children from the townships near Tiger Kloof. When we arrived, a line of little boys and girls stared in excitement and wonder as we got out of the vans and walked toward them. The conference attendees stood by the children and were divided into groups of four or five to visit a specific child’s family. I stood by our new little friend, James, along with Reneilwe and some of our new friends from conference; Casper, Edu, and Kaye. We followed James through the maze of recycled homes until reaching his home, but we were surprised not to see any adults there. We were greeted by a young girl doing laundry in a bucket almost her size, methodically scrubbing clothes and hanging them up to dry. When our adult leader asked the kids where their parents were (in their language), the kids spent a few minutes talking and waving their hands around their heads, pointing in different directions around the township. Our leader then translated for us and told us the story of how both of the children’s parents had abandoned them, the father moving to one side of the township with another woman and the mother to the opposite side with another man. These two kids had an older brother who took care of them; he had dropped out of school in the seventh grade in order to go find a job and feed himself and his siblings. We all stood in shock, not knowing quite what to do. We gave the kids a bag of food that we had thought parents were going to prepare for them, and soon had to leave for the bus again. In the bus we all talked about how this wasn’t right, how these kids needed a parent and how the oldest boy had been forced to grow up way too quickly. We talked and talked about the injustice, the inequity, the corruption of “the system” as a whole, but looking back, none of us said what we were going to do to change it. We voiced our opinions loud and clear, but then sat on the bus and waited for somebody else to fix it. By the end of the conference, that all would all have changed.
Monday morning, my roommates and I beat the sun for early rising once again, as we took turns taking showers with a shower head that only ever sprayed a little bit of water. It was nearly impossible to wash my mountain of hair, but we walked to breakfast all cleaned up and wondering about the day ahead of us. On the schedule we had received, it read “Eight Kilometer walk” for Monday morning. We were all confused about why and where they were going to have us walk eight kilometers. After breakfast, we loaded up into vans and drove for a good fifteen minutes, reaching our final destination; the middle of nowhere. The only thing we could see was a little farm house and some cattle grazing in the field. As it turned out, this farm house was our destination. There we would meet three children who walk eight kilometers to school and eight kilometers home every single day. We were going to join them on their walk this morning. The three children led us, walking quickly with their little heads bobbing back and forth–and the entirety of the conference followed like an extremely disproportionate tail. It was hot and sticky and dusty. We were all very sweaty, but no one complained. We all realized that this is what these children do in order to just get to school, not to mention the fact that they have to get back home every day. So we followed the kids, stunned and amazed by their motivation to learn. After not so long, we reached Devondale School, where scores of kids were waiting to meet us. They got in a circle and began singing songs and dancing and laughing; they were full of an incredible amount of energy and joy. We followed them where they ran and listened to their beautiful voices as they sang for us and they led us to a small staged area, complete with a single tree to give us some hot-sticky shade. To my surprise, the kids and staff at Devondale had prepared an entire welcoming and thank you ceremony for the conference. We sat and watched the singers, dancers and speakers, all giving us performances from deep within their hearts. It was clear that all of the children who performed had worked hard in order to show us their best. By the end of the ceremony, we were all excited to give the children the backpacks that we had brought for them—and they seemed even more excited to get them! I left the school feeling happy that I was able to help these children a little bit, but at the same time I felt a little bit empty inside. I wanted to do more, but I didn’t know what I could do or how I could do it. I thought about the children who walked so far to get to school and wondered if bicycles could help them, or if I could donate books to the school library, or maybe even raise money to get these kids some air conditioning because it was extremely hot even on this day in the late fall. But the problem seemed too big, and I wondered how people started change. What could people do not to just cover up a problem, but to make it disappear completely? Throughout the conference I continued to wonder who I could talk to so I could help these kids, but in just a day or so this response would change as well.
After a long, tiring, and emotionally exhausting day, all of the conference attendees were excited for the conference talent show that night! We filed into two rows that stretched around the perimeter of the dining hall, open to a large rectangular space in the middle that was ready to be filled with some teenage talent. There was an array of performances; a girl who did some traditional dancing from India, indie rock songs played on the guitar, a skit about a princess saved from the evil dragon, and even some sweet African drumming. Ironically, representing Stanford Lake College was Mihaela and I, both singing our countries’ national anthems. Mihaela sang the sweet and somber tune of the Bulgarian national anthem, and everyone was mesmerized by the language and the melody they had never heard before. After a round of applause for her, I stepped up and began singing the U.S. anthem. Now, I had sung the anthem before in front of many more people than were at the conference, but this performance was just as, if not more, terrifying than that. Singing directly in front of people who are looking at you from all sides, staring, and knowing that everyone is listening to every note that comes out of your mouth… but I sang anyways. To my utter amazement, by the end of the song everyone was cheering, and there was even a group of kids shouting “U.S.A! U.S.A!” I laughed in a mixture of relief and surprise at everyone’s excitement about the anthem, and after the last few performances and a quick poker game my roommates and I walked and laughed all the way to our room. It was amazing, in just two nights we were all so comfortable with each other. We shared food and stories before going to bed for the night, and each minute we bonded more and more.
Our schedule read “The Tiger Kloof Challenge” for our final morning at the conference. None of us had a clue what that meant. We were told only that we were going to get dirty and sweaty, and therefor to dress appropriately for outdoor activity. So armed with bandanas and water bottles, us teenagers met at the lower field only to be guided down a narrow dirt path, framed by prickly bushes on either side. We jostled down stone stairs, passed a moss infested lake, and traveled through a hallway of trees until finally reaching our new meeting spot; a set of monkey bars. This was the first of ten challenges that our baraza groups were to complete. We had fifteen minutes to complete each challenge and gain as many points as possible, in hopes that we would be the baraza group with the most points (and win a bag of sweeties!). We began swinging down the line of bars, everybody cheering for one another until blisters grew on our hands. At the end of those fifteen minutes, we ran to “the wall”, where we had to help each other climb over (flailing limbs and all) as many times as possible. And the morning continued like that; pulling ropes, balancing platforms, jumping carpet squares, and blindfolding ourselves, but the most eventful challenge was the “tire pole”. Looming about ten feet in the air, a wooden pole stood ringed by an old tire sitting in the dirt. Our task was to get the tire off of the pole, without touching the tire to the pole, as many times as possible. So we began slowly lifting the tire up; boys got onto each others shoulders, reaching as high as they could to get to the top but they couldn’t quite reach it. Their solution was to throw the tire off to the pole, but unfortunately I had just stepped away from the pole because I couldn’t be of any help reaching the tire. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground with a large tire mark rolling from my shoulder to my forehead. I opened my eyes just to see yet another multitude of heads swirling over my face, everyone asking if I was okay or if I needed any help. Funny enough, I actually felt fine. I sat down for a few minutes, brushed the dirt off of my back, and went right back to work trying to get that tire off the pole. I figured that the easiest thing to do would be to get on the tallest member of our groups shoulders, so I called Timothy (or as we ironically called him, Little Timmy) over and helped the others get the tire off of the very top of the pole a few times. I must say, going into this conference I never thought that I would’ve come out of it saying that I had gotten hit in the head with a tire!
After the Tiger Kloof Challenge, there was a closing baraza session where we talked about what we were taking away from this conference. There was a lot of good conversation about things that we can do with our schools to help our communities, or projects we can go on to make a difference, or an organization we can raise money for with bake sales and car washes and all those good things. But, the most important point was this; we don’t need anyone else in order to be able to make a change. We don’t need our schools as middle men. Rather we hold within ourselves the power to create change. Hard work and commitment over time will equal either success or failure, but even that is better than waiting for others to do what we are called to do ourselves. As we all walked out of that meeting, we committed to each other that we were going to be the generation to make the change, and we were going to start with being the change ourselves.