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


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Archive: Joanna Meyer-Glitzenstein

Posted at 7:22 PM ET, 07/ 1/2007

Dance Lessons

After our first township tour in Richmond yesterday, our guide announced to the children around us that there would be a disco in town around 7 p.m. The little boys ran up to us shouting, "Are you coming, are you coming? Will you dance with me?"

Of course we couldn't wait to make friends and learn about the music and dances of South Africa. However, some of us were nervous about our abilities. I, for one, am not a dancer. I rarely dance in public without a lot of encouragement. I convinced myself that as long as I stayed in the middle of the room, no one would notice how badly I moved. (This proved false later in the night.) Other players, such as Kenia, had been ready to dance since we stepped off the bus earlier that day.


Kenia Rubio, right, learns some new dance moves at a "disco" on Saturday (Alice Keeney for the Washington Post)

As we pulled up to the community center in our Grassroot Soccer Van, we were greeted by friends we had made earlier that day -- mostly boys between the ages of six and nine. We walked into the building and music was already blaring. As soon as we arrived, we were handed bowls of soup and buttered bread. We learned that the free dinner would be served to all of the guests. We were delighted to hear this and hoped that all of the children we had met earlier would come to dance with us.

After about an hour, word had gotten out and there were nearly 200 kids. To my surprise, many of them remembered me and began to dance with me. The younger boys were too polite to comment on my inability to dance, but when a group of older kids pulled me into their circle, they did not let it slide.

I kept saying "I can't dance. It just won't work. Please, don't make me show you!" Very calmly they replied, "Everyone can dance, look, he is only five." They pointed to a boy who was about one third of my size. He looked bashfully up at me, turned around, and then continued to moonwalk, breakdance and pop'n lock in the span of 30 seconds. One girl, about 16, and a boy, about 15, took it upon themselves to teach me some of their moves. After about 30 minutes of staring at my feet and counting out loud, I began to move pretty well.

Some players, such as Natalie, Anna, Brooke and Rachel had no problem jumping right in with the best dancers. Even players such as Lisa and Allie lost their inhibitions and acted as if they were the most charismatic people on the team, which they are not known for.


Lizzy Hecht, left, teaches local children how to make s'mores. (Alice Keeney for the Washington Post)

Later in the night, some of us set up a campfire and introduced the children to s'mores (a sandwich of graham crackers, chocolate bars and toasted marshmallows). Many of the South African girls did not quite understand the concept of keeping the marshmallows from burning, ending in countless "gooey torches," as Allie put it. Some children claimed to like the s'mores, though they may have just been practicing good manners. Many girls said, "They are funny," which I didn't quite know how to respond to. "Thank you", I replied awkwardly. The conversation ended in laughter and they returned to the party -- without asking for seconds

Posted by Laura Sessions Stepp | Permalink | Comments (0)
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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 06/30/2007

Skilled in Life

Rachel Starnes limbos during a game of Pressure Limbo, which illustrates the increasing pressure to have sex. (Alice Keeney for the Washington Post)

We had our first encounter with homeless children, or "street children" as they are commonly called, on the way to our first health class at a school in Kwazakhele, an old Port Elizabeth township.

As our bus stopped at a red light, I looked out the window to my left and we saw what looked like a typical group of rowdy kids. Looking more closely I noticed the bags from which they were inhaling something. Until this point, I had only seen the negative sides of South Africa from far away, vague images behind concrete walls. This was much more personal.

Our chaperones had told us about street children and substance abuse but watching it happening -- and not being able to do anything about it -- evoked an entirely different emotion from just hearing about it. Of course, every one of us wished we could jump out of the car and explain the hazards of drugs, as well as comfort these kids. But all we could do was sigh and hope that the work we are doing here is preventing this from becoming a reality for the kids who would attend our sessions.

As we stepped out of the van, we heard children chanting and screaming. It almost looked like recess. At the sight of our van a woman, Courtney, an American, ran over enthusiastically. She introduced herself and mentioned that she was familiar with every high school that we had written on our sweatshirts. Whitman, Gonzaga, St. Andrews, Holy Cross, she knew them all. It was comforting to meet someone from home. We walked casually through a gate into the playground of the school, and as we turned a corner, we were met by approximately 100 smiling faces.

We were told we would be participating in two life skills activities: Risk Field and Pressure Limbo, which teach important life skills such as avoiding peer pressure, saying no to drugs, and not participating in unprotected sex. While these seem like serious topics that couldn't be mentioned in a game, everyone left with a new way to look at these issues, as well as a new game to bring home. All of the kids were excited to be playing the games and didn't think twice about welcoming us into the group.

Before coming to South Africa, we attended meetings to learn about the country. After reading statistics about the infection rate, I half expected to see a country completely torn apart by HIV/AIDS. Economically this may be the case, but after taking time to talk with people I realized that whether infected or not infected, they continue to live as if they have everything they could ever need.

Everywhere you go, South Africa is exploding with life. Even in the most depleted townships there are children singing, dancing, laughing and of course, playing soccer.

Posted by Laura Sessions Stepp | Permalink | Comments (1)
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