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Practice camp

March 6, 2013

A lot of my energy this term has been spent planning a Scout camp for six new troops that my fellow volunteers and I have founded. The motivation is to get out Scouts promoted to Pathfinder, the first rank in South African Scouting after basic membership, and hopefully their momentum will continue once we’re gone. The camp is 5 days and 4 nights, but the Pathfinder rank actually requires 5 nights of camping, so in preparation, I’ve asked everyone to camp a night before arrival. Nothing fancy, just a night of sleeping outside.

Although South Africa is notorious for its high crime rate thanks to its high economic disparity, my village is pretty safe because everyone’s poor here. So during our planning meetings at the primary school, I had no reservations about suggesting we camp on the soccer field.

“No, we won’t do it,” one of my patrol leaders objected. “There are ghosts there.”

The obvious solution, the one I should have thought of first, was to camp at the school where we were meeting. They have water and toilets and shelter in case of rain (this last one is important because we don’t have tents), and they were kind enough to lend us space for these meetings, so I didn’t see any harm in a camp Friday night. So I informed the teachers of my plan, borrowed the gate key from one, and waited for Friday night.

At 7:00 in the fading twilight, I unlocked the gate and we walked across the school to the concrete assembly area. Thanks to the flakiness that South Africans are famous for, I only had two adults helping me: the grade 12 who runs the meetings, and my host uncle, who lends us his credibility. Together we had to control 15 learners, which thanks to African Time, became 40 before the night was over.

Now, the Scout Motto is “Be Prepared”, and sometimes I fail spectacularly at that because I didn’t have much of a plan. Normally things go smoothly because with the regimented Patrol system, everyone knows their own role, but we had a bunch of new Scouts (the circumstances leading up to that is another story) who would have to adopt temporary patrols for this camp. I asked everyone to set their bags down and come into an unused room so we can make a plan, but the room was filthy and kind of scary at night, so instead I had one of the nice classrooms unlocked so we could use that. Almost predictably, then the power went out.

There was talk of mutiny, but the stopped quickly. Maybe they realized we didn’t really need electricity with a gibbous moon out, and that the power was out at home as well. As I was trying to wing it and get everyone settled in, I was called to the gate by my grade 12 counterpart to sort out a problem. “Some boys are trying to get in,” he told me. “I don’t know if they’ve been coming to the meetings for new Scouts, but I know them and I don’t think they belong here.”

At the gate were three boys of varying height, looking like a band of miscreants from a cartoon show. I knew the middle height boy. He was repeating grade 6, and last year he had consummately refused to do any work I assigned him, not in a bad-natured way, but with a determined laziness that is rare even in South Africa. “I don’t know your friends, and I don’t think you’ve been coming to meetings,” I told him. “I’ll check my attendance records, but if you know you’re not on there, you might as well leave now.”

Going back to my Scouts, I tried to get them in order, but it was dark and there we hadn’t had an opening or flag ceremony because it was dark. I didn’t really know how to get them quiet. None of the clever classroom management techniques we learned in training ever worked for me.

“Hey, be quiet… Everyone, please pay attention… Troop, troop alert!” Even the new Scouts were trained to respond to these pseudo-military commands. I put them at ease, selected two temporary patrol leaders for the new scouts, and we portioned out the areas where the patrols would sleep. At the end of this orientation, I was called back again for a more serious problem. Someone had taken the lock from the gate and wouldn’t give it back. As safe as I considered the village, the primary school is right across from a bar, whose patrons hadn’t left just because the power was out. This was a problem.

I went out past a different group of gate-crashers to see the guy. He looked as if he had been drinking. “Don’t you memorize me, he asked?”

“Of course I memorize you,” I lied. Everyone remembers me because I’m the only white guy in a 50-mile radius, and everyone expects me to remember them too. “Why did you take our lock.”

His story was that he was a member of the School Governance Board, and he didn’t know about this camp, and thought he’d make himself feel important by exposing kids to danger (not his words). I started talking nonstop in order to get the lock back. The principal entrusted me with the key (he didn’t, as I wanted to tell him but he wasn’t there Thursday or Friday), and no, I’m not saying I don’t trust you but I need the lock or else it looks like I can’t be trusted with it.

I finally wore him down and locked the gate back, and went back grumbling to the camp.

The next thing we did as a camp was play capture the flag on the netball field, which is a good game for night because we saw some impressive feats of stealth. I met a couple of parents over the course of the night. One wanted to see what her child was doing and I thanked her for finally showing an interest. Another wanted to take her child home because she didn’t have permission. I didn’t bother with permission forms because none of the parents had shown any interest before this point.

To finish the night, we simulated a campfire. Although I didn’t want to start a fire at school, we sat in a circle and I explained that this is where we sing songs and cook s’mores and share a good time in general. I started them singing Kumbaya. “But sir,” one of my patrol leaders said, “we’re not allowed to sing when there’s a funeral.” This is a rule I had heard before but never cared about because there’s a funeral practically every Saturday morning.

At this point the power had come back on, and my host uncle was standing aside with two SGB members, talking and trying to convince them to stop bothering us. Leaving a patrol leader to lead a silly chant or something, I went over to see what was going on. “Yes, we won’t bother you,” the newly arrived and more sober SGB member said. “You can have your camp.”

After that it was time to get everyone to bed. Most had brought blankets to spread on the concrete. I was surprised to learn the didn’t know what pillows are.

Getting them to sleep was the most challenging part. The advantages of not having tents are it’s cheap and it’s nice to see the stars, and the disadvantages are you can hear everything, and you get covered with dew. Both of those kept us awake for a long time. My grade 12 found a stick to smack anyone talking, and before long I joined him, except I couldn’t find a stick, just a board from a broken desk.

In the morning we packed our bags, I parceled out some bread and peanut butter, we were gone before 7, and I managed to catch the 8:00 bus for shopping and stuff. Here’s to hoping our camp this break is a little more restful.

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