Are we going hunting?" --Rachel Starnes upon entering a game reserve where a lion park was located.

GALLERIES

Day-by-Day Photos of the Trip

Posted at 8:30 PM ET, 07/ 7/2007

The End and A Beginning

By Jessica Cates-Bristol

(Editor's Note: Jessica Cates-Bristol, who grew up in the Washington area, played soccer from the age of five through college. She was an HIV/AIDS educator in Zambia and currently works in Maryland for an agency that serves at-risk youth. This is the final blog for Worlds United. The D.C. Blast team returns to Washington Monday July 9. A wrap-up of the girls' experiences, as well as a photo gallery, are coming July 17 in the Health section of The Washington Post and at www.washingtonpost.com.)

Wow, this trip has come and gone too quickly. Here we are, getting ready to board a plane tomorrow morning, and it feels like we were just selling umbrellas in Dupont Circle and pleading for money from friends and family.

I remember feeling slightly intimidated when meeting the D.C. Blast for the first time. I wondered, "Teenage girls, what will they think of me? Will I be chill enough for them? Will I succeed as a cool chaperone?" Six months later, I chuckle to myself at those thoughts. Our daily discussions now include things like, "Whose starred underwear are these?" I guess I've passed the test

I've traveled to Africa before and each time with a different agenda, once with Grassroot Soccer as an intern for nearly a year, once for vacation, and another time for a semester in college. Each time I've come home with a rebirth of energy and motivation to keep myself in the human service field, and this will be no exception.

We have experienced most of the memorable things that many of the sub-Saharan countries offer: the big-five animals (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo), song and dance, the power of soccer, the bumpy roads, the poverty, "African time," cold showers, mystery meat, extra sweet juice, bargaining at a market, eating food with your hands, learning local phrases, and direct experiences with HIV.

Days were exhausting, whether it was running a camp or doing a township tour. Well outside their comfort zones, the girls handled themselves with grace. They came in with open minds and maturity levels and we saw them grow further; everyone from our little Tasmanian Devil, the youngest on the trip, to our self-identified "awkward" whom I've nicknamed Napoleona (from the movie "Napoleon Dynamite.")

I asked a couple of girls yesterday how they were feeling about leaving. One of them responded by saying, "I'm in a deep depression." That's about how I feel right now, on different levels. An exercise I've had the girls do several times after debriefing sessions is to answer two questions: What have you been doing well? and, How do you feel right now? Last night I told them that I was feeling privileged. I explained I felt honored to be sitting there in South Africa with them. As individuals and as a group, they have proven to be extraordinary.

The answers from most of the girls to my second question last week were,"I feel tired" and "I feel full." Last night, however, the responses were quite different. "Overwhelmed" was the prevailing feeling, and "I can't put it in words." One young lady, who later told me,"I never cry," was so choked up that she couldn't muster a sound during the session.

Discussions with friends, families, teachers and coaches in the days ahead will add to their experience. This is, in fact, only the beginning for them.

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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 07/ 7/2007

A Confidence Shared, Two Lives Changed

Laura Sessions Stepp

On Thursday, a group of girls came up to the window of our van and started knocking. One girl whom I didn't recognize held up a folded piece of paper and signaled me to come get it. She handed it over and walked away without saying anything.

I started reading it when we got back to the lodge and at first I didn't think it was anything more than a note saying hello. Then I realized it was written by a girl I didn't know who said she had been raped less than a year ago and later found out she was HIV positive.

She was an orphan, she said, who had isolated herself and needed someone to talk to. She told me that other than her counselor at Ubuntu Education Fund, I was the only person she had told. What struck me most was that she was angry with herself. She said that she had pleaded for the man to stop when she should have fought harder.

The letter was written incredibly well, and although we had talked on this trip about the possibility of having someone confess to being HIV positive, I realized how mentally unprepared I was to have it actually happen. Today, while I was peeling an orange, she came up to me and introduced herself. She asked to speak with me after the graduation party for our Grassroot Soccer/Ubuntu Camp. At 2:30 p.m. she approached me again and asked to talk. We walked over to the side of a school building and sat down.

The night before, when I was sitting on the stairs trying to absorb what I had just read, I was thinking about how I should react. Although in shock, I wasn't crying, or surprised. I was just numb. As I sat there shoveling in dry corn flakes, Jessi, our assistant coach, walked past and I realized that I needed to tell someone about this.

As I listened to my voice telling the story to Jessi, it hit me I was panicking. What was I supposed to do when she came to talk to me? What would I say? What worried me most was the thought of crying in front of her. Breaking down and becoming emotional was probably the last thing she wanted.

So back to the school: I expected the girl to start telling her story but realized she had done so in her letter and was waiting for a response. Without thinking, I started to talk. I told her she was brave, incredible and strong. She wasn't going to let this one bad thing ruin her entire life. She was going to come out even stronger than she was.

Her story was inspirational, I continued. I wanted her to know that as much as she wanted me to support her, she had just changed my life as well.

It was a kind of a curse to have this story unfold in front of me, for I realized I would never see certain things the same way again. In a matter of minutes, my outlook on the trip had completely changed. I have now had a personal experience with HIV/AIDS.

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Posted at 4:40 PM ET, 07/ 6/2007

Do You Remember My Name?

Laura Sessions Stepp
Team

Molly and Zizipho (Alice Keeney for the Washington Post)

Of all the Xhosa names I learned to semi-correctly pronounce, Zizipho was the first one I memorized. On the first day of camp, Zizipho came up to me and we started talking. She told me her name and said, "Don't forget my name!" At first we didn't quite know what to say to each other, so we kept on asking each other "Do you remember my name? What's my name?" We ate lunch together and talked about everything from school to boys.

On the second day after we had finished lunch, Zizipho grabbed my hand and started pulling me away. Because the school the camp was at her school, Ndzondelelo, she decided to give me a tour. She pointed out her classrooms and the library and computer lab of 25 computers, both of which were financed and set up by the Ubuntu Education Fund. There are about 740 children in her school. In her class, there are 54 students who all fit in to the same classroom and all have seats. As we walked around, it was clear that she takes a lot of pride in her school. Later Zizipho said, "I'm proud of my school and I love my school." She takes seven classes -- mathematics, physical science, Xhosa, English, life oration (basically health class), history, and geography. Her favorites are mathematics and physical science.

She lives in a house with four rooms, two dining rooms, and a kitchen. She shares the house with two younger brothers ages three and two, grandmothers from both sides, both her parents, her uncle and two "cousin-sisters." I found it very interesting that she calls them her cousin-sisters, but they have lived with her for three years, ever since their mother died from meningitis. Even though the house is tight on room, Zizipho does not mind. When asked if she could live anywhere, she simply said she would live in a town closer to the
beach.

She only really knows one person with AIDS, her neighbor, who was diagnosed with HIV at age 15. She found out that she had HIV from her boyfriend, who had gotten tested. Now, at age 17, it has progressed to AIDS. She has been on ARVs for a year and a half and still is pretty healthy. She still goes out and plays with other kids.
She was already educated about HIV and AIDS at school before she became infected with the virus yet did not heed the advice. Zizipho was very upset when she found out, but always treats her the same as she did before she found out about HIV. She then gave her friend advice: "Eat some vegetables, foods that's healthy." Zizipho said the girl went to Ubuntu for advice. Luckily, her family was very supportive. They were angry but accepting because "she is their child and they love their child."

Zizipho plans to go to university and wants to be a physical scientist. Despite the large amount of poverty in townships, Zizipho said that most of her neighbors and family had gone to or are planning to go to university. However, with high unemployment rates, it is unclear how much a university degree is beneficial in obtaining higher paying jobs or jobs at all. Both of Zizipho's parents went to university, but now her father is unemployed and her mother works at General Tyres. With the combined salaries of Zizipho's mother and uncle, also a worker at General Tyres, there is enough money to save up for university and always have food on the table, as well as other
expenses.

In one of our first conversations, she told me "Sexy Love" by Ne-Yo is her favorite song. After this week, I know that every time I hear that song I will think of Zizipho.

Posted by Molly Brune | Permalink | Comments (2)
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Posted at 7:21 PM ET, 07/ 5/2007

Last Day of Camp

By Natalie Hensley and Rachel Starnes

Team

Grassroot Soccer Coaches Titi, left, and Jessie Cates-Bristol, second from left, lead "Juggling My Life" on Thursday. (Alice Keeney for the Washington Post)

Lying on our bed, enjoying our usual bowls of Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes topped with piles of sugar, we are nervously awaiting our third and final soccer match.

The morning started like always with the 7:30 a.m. breakfast, which apparently the coaches assume that all 11 players are capable of getting to without the help of an alarm clock. We were missing a fellow player because thanks to the South African "winter," teammate Jo wasn't feeling her best.

At soccer/AIDS camp, run by Grassroot Soccer, we were greeted by the South African girls who have become our new friends. Together we did exercises helping us all understand how quickly HIV can spread in a short period of time. We then were able to show the South African girls a fun game of Dodgeball, so popular now in the States that it's on the big screen.

After lunch, we split into four teams named Portugal, Brazil, Germany and South Africa. We practiced skits, dances, and songs that we will do tomorrow at the graduation ceremony. Many of us got grief from our coach Ian for not having rhythm. Or maybe he was just bitter from suffering from what he calls too much QT with the DCB; (quality time with the D.C. Blast).

We ended our last full day at camp with another Grassroot activity called HIV Attacks. Four volunteers represented a human being, the immune system, HIV, and anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs). The remaining girls, representing germs, circled around the volunteers. The game's purpose was to show how HIV affects the immune system and how ARVs are necessary to slow down the virus and help the immune system regain its strength.

In the last 10 minutes of camp, we presented Grassroot Soccer with a $5,000 grant to help them continue the work that they do. Then we handed out "Goals for Girls" T-shirts to our fellow campers. Seeing the girls' delighted faces was hard, knowing that tomorrow we would have to say goodbye.

We're off now to our final match in South Africa against a famously tough women's team twice our age and experience!

Posted by Laura Sessions Stepp | Permalink | Comments (3)
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Posted at 7:45 AM ET, 07/ 5/2007

Eating Smiley

Laura Sessions Stepp

"Smiley."

I used to think of the happy Wal-Mart logo when I heard that word, but my innocence has been stripped.

Team

"Smiley." (Alice Keeney for the Washington Post)

When we first arrived here in Port Elizabeth we were told by South African girls that we had to try smiley, a delicious cookie, which we all agreed to do whole-heartedly. Then, while touring the townships with Ubuntu Education Fund, one of our sponsors, we saw our first smiley. It is not a delicious cookie. It's roasted sheep head, eyeballs and all. It's called smiley because when you kill a sheep supposedly the tongue flops out and the sheep smiles at you. Ewww.

We sat down on a wood block and watched a large woman unwrap a smoking newspaper sitting on a fire. Molly and I prepared ourselves to deliver on our promise. Out came smiley. She threw it on a dirty plate and laughed with all the spectators as Molly and I cut off pieces of the cheek while holding the jaw with the teeth intact. We popped the cheek into our mouths as our teammates made faces waiting for our reaction.

"Tastes like ribs."

Other teammates tentatively reached for the knife to try some and were pleasantly surprised. Molly and I, still curious, kept going and moved on to the tongue.

"It's more rubbery, but tastes good."

Again, our teammates followed us and found that the tongue was the best part. Alice, our photographer "triple dog dared" anyone to try the eyeball for five dollars.

Molly and I watched Banks Gwaxula, the cofounder of Ubuntu, pull the eye out of the socket and split it apart. I hesitated, then plunged the slimy light blob in my mouth.

"Interesting."

By now completely caught up in our boldness, Molly and I ate the ear. I couldn't help but make a little face. Our little crowd chuckled as we left the stand and walked out into the rest of the market.

I have serious bragging rights for the rest of my life. I ate Smiley.

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Posted at 6:14 PM ET, 07/ 4/2007

A Day for Two Flags

Laura Sessions Stepp

Every year for the past five or six years, I have watched the Fourth of July parade go down my street, had a barbecue, gone to the fireworks with my friends and all that jazz. Today, instead of celebrating American culture, I celebrated Xhosa culture.

On a tour of a market, at a place selling herbs, we were taught about an herb that chases away bad dreams and another that clears out your system. Then there was an herb that you were supposed to put under your tongue if you were ready to propose to somebody or when you walked by somebody whom you wanted to "get with." On another stop, we learned about apartheid and the history of South Africa; at another, we watched a man scrape all the meat off a cow's head.

Team

After finishing up lunch, Molly Brune, center, visits with two girls from Port Elizabeth on Wednesday. (Alice Keeney for the Washington Post)

The time we didn't spend on the tour was spent learning South African songs, games, and words. One of the girls on the New Brighton City Lads team (whom we played against earlier in the trip) started teaching us different clicks of the tongue, prompting massive poor attempts on our part, an extreme amount of laughing, and an ounce of spit out of every mouth.

Next she taught us a tongue twister. I am proud to say that I am the only one who was able to remember the sentence. The sentence, which means something along the lines of a porcupine was at the edge of a cliff and then rolled over on its back and slit its throat, has, by my counting,10 clicks in it.

Being teenage girls, it didn't take long for us to start asking about name-calling and curse words. Among other things, we are now able to say the words egg, foot, knee, brain, butt, head, and you are not right in the mind.

Originally, I thought we would be spending the Fourth of July explaining to South Africans various American traditions and songs. But then I realized that in South Africa, our culture is already everywhere -- in the music, on television, in the restaurants, in the clothes. We are the ones who need to learn about their culture, from their language to their food and rituals.

It's not like we didn't celebrate. Our coach Ian did remember to buy sparklers and we squawked the national anthem together at one point. But as our cake showing two flags demonstrated, this wasn't a day only for American pride

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Posted at 2:10 PM ET, 07/ 4/2007

Who's Holding the Disease?

Stacey Garfinkle

At the clinic today we played a game called "Find the Ball." We split into two teams and lined up facing each other. Then we squished together as much as possible, and we would pass a tennis ball to each other behind our backs. The other team would guess who had the ball behind her back (hence the name).

Team

The girl who ends up with the ball has HIV in this game of Find the Ball. (Alice Keeney for the Washington Post)


After each team went once, we switched out the plain tennis ball for one that had "HIV/AIDS" written on it. When we played the next round, we pretended that the girl holding the ball "had" the virus. It was almost impossible to tell from the front who was holding the ball, which was supposed to signify that you can't tell who has HIV/AIDS just by looking at it. It was something that I already knew, but the game's message really hit home.

It's more than likely that some of the girls at the camp have HIV, but it's so strange to think that about girls who we have just started to get to know. When I hear the statistics about HIV/AIDS, I always envision some fictional population that has the disease and not real people who I've talked to and spent time with. What was just a simple game that reiterated information that I already knew really put the whole situation into perspective and helped to make the situation more real. When it comes down to it, statistically it was most likely that one of these girls could have HIV and I wouldn't know just by looking, or for that matter, that any of the countless people we've met could be infected.

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Posted at 8:30 AM ET, 07/ 4/2007

One Versus 12

Stacey Garfinkle

Yesterday, Ian warned us that today would be a very long day. Maybe that's why I'm sitting here surprised that the day is already over. Today, after Grassroot Soccer we all went for a walk through the township looking for girls to come to the clinic we were hosting later in the afternoon. Chicka, one of the Grassroot coaches, had us juggle a ball as we walked down the middle of the street. People started coming out of their houses to watch and Siya helped us ask girls if they wanted to come play soccer later. We split up so that a few people could walk on the other side of the street. After crossing to the other side with Jo, Molly, and Siya, a group of six-year-old boys started chasing after us. They ran down the sidewalk some in dress shoes, some in sandals, and others simply barefoot. Even though they were speaking Xhosa, we could still make out the occasional word such as 'American,' or 'United States.'

After recruiting as many girls as possible, we started walking towards the field where our clinic would be. I found myself between two girls who had attended Grassroot earlier in the day. They immediately grabbed my hands and kept walking. After the usual questions, how old are you? Do you have any brothers or sisters? And am I saying this right? (My attempt to pronounce the clicks in Xhosa correctly.) I asked if they had any questions about the United States. This triggered an onslaught of, what's it like? Are there any cute guys? And is it much different from here? Before answering their questions, I asked if anyone ever told them about the U.S., or if they were always the ones being asked questions. They told me people always ask them about their lives but never talk about their own.

After the clinic I started picking up soccer balls and managed to get four into my arms. As I was walking
towards the ball bag, a boy grabbed one from me. He ran off giggling and glancing backwards, checking to see if I would chase after him. I quickly ran after him, dropping one of the balls on the way. I caught up to him and we began an intense game of tug-of-war over the ball. Once the other kids saw us playing they ran over to join in and I was jumped on, tickled, and even bitten.

These kids had a strategy for getting me to fall. First, someone would run behind me and grab one of my ankles. Then, another one would hold my hands together. Last, someone would grab my other ankle and push me from behind. Over and over they would pull me to the ground and sit on me. I kept getting up and trying to run but after taking only a few steps they would trip me and pin me to the ground again. Slowly and somewhat painfully I was making my way across the field towards the bus. I started sprinting to get away and looked back to see a pack of about 12 screaming children chasing after me. Almost there, I thought as I was within 20 feet of the bus. Just as I stopped sprinting I felt someone grab my ankles. A little girl who had looked so innocent during camp was holding my hands together. Before I knew it someone was pushing me from behind. I had just enough time to look up into the bus before slamming into the ground and being dog-piled by all the kids.

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Posted at 3:14 PM ET, 07/ 3/2007

Photo Gallery: On the Field

The girls teach heading and other skills. Off the field, they continue to take AIDS classes with girls in South Africa. (Alice Keeney for The Washington Post)

Posted by Laura Sessions Stepp | Permalink | Comments (0)
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Posted at 2:30 PM ET, 07/ 3/2007

Gifts for Home

Laura Sessions Stepp

On Monday evening we went shopping and to dinner on the boardwalk in Summerstrand, an upscale beachfront suburb of Port Elizabeth. I had mixed feelings about this; the boardwalk consisted of a string of affluent shops and restaurants, and I felt like we should be somewhere less like the U.S. -- where there wasn't a KFC, for example.

People along the boardwalk were dressed like you would expect them to be in the States, which added to the weirdness. Just like in Cape Town, I sometimes found it hard to believe that I was really in Africa.

I also felt like such a tourist going there to shop. Among the cafes and clothing stores, however, were several booth-type shops with more traditional looking items. One of the stalls had merchandise with authentication tags saying that the wares were handmade in a township.That booth offered some really interesting stuff made from recycled cans, vinyl, telephone wire and old records.

One vendor bragged about having "The Best Pancakes in the World." Other vendors sold carved wooden objects (bracelets and sculptures, for example), handmade mobiles, jewelry, and paintings.Although the environment felt kind of artificial, it was fun shopping for African goodies. We had been told that if we wandered through the townships after dark there was a chance of being mugged, so I guess this was a better alternative.

Everyone got gifts for their families and friends. Carved salad tongs were a big hit, as were earrings, carved candlesticks, masks, carved statues, woven baskets, and beaded African animals. There were tons of different restaurants of different nationalities (Chinese, Indian etc.)

We had dinner reservations for 8 p.m. at a restaurant called Buffalo Bills. Unfortunately, we finished shopping around 6:30. Having more than an hour to kill before we drove to the restaurant, we decided to have a little "snack." Everyone was very hungry, so we went to an ice cream shop, where we proceeded to over-order (between the two of them, Anna and Natalie had hot chocolate, ice cream, and a chocolate shake topped with chocolate mousse). Everyone was nice and full by the time dinner rolled around.

Apparently, Buffalo Bills was a big game restaurant, but the menu wasn't very adventurous. Most people got chicken, but a handful got the kudu steak (Kudu is an African animal that looks like an antelope. We saw one on our drive back from Richmond). Kudu tasted pretty much like steak, but a little richer and easier to cut.

After all that food, one of our tables still ordered dessert.

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