Who doesn’t love summer camp? Some of my happiest childhood memories involve sleeping bags on creaking bunks, swimming in the lake, five days of freedom from parental admonitions to use soap, and spoiling my appetite with all the candy my $5 would buy at the snack shack.
Side note: my Mom was really mad about the soap thing. I do not recommend it as a course of action.
But what about summer camp in other countries? Do they do it? What does it look like?
I can’t speak for every country. In fact, I can’t even speak for every country in Africa. But I can say that a lot of African churches run kids camps and a few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to visit one run by the national Togo Assemblies of God Children’s Ministries Department.
Do you want to take a look? Please say yes!
We arrived at the camp on a Friday morning. The camp had already been in progress since Monday, and was scheduled to finish on Sunday. That is a long camp!
That wasn’t the only impressive thing. As we pulled up, there were kids everywhere. I mean everywhere.– even on top of the fact that we were the speakers for the morning chapel and most of the kids were already in the chapel waiting for us.
In fact, a later query revealed that there were about 3,000 kids at this camp.
In 25 years of children’s ministry, I have never been to a camp with that many kids before. Immediately this begged all kinds of questions.
Was this a camp for the entire country?
No! This was just a camp for the Lomé region- the capital city of Togo. The other regions would host their camps on other dates in other locations.
Of the 65 or so churches in the region, 50 had sent children. Do the math– that means that each church sent an average of 60 children. And although I neglected to ask the age range of the campers, it appeared to me that there were children as young as 6 or 7, all the way up to young teenagers.
How could they possibly keep track of the whereabouts and safety of all of these children?
The more questions I asked, the more I realized the camp was operating on a very decentralized structure. In essence, each church was responsible for their own children. It’s different than the way our camps function, but it works.
How were they feeding and housing all of these children?
Each church was given a dormitory or a large room in which to house their children. For the most part, children slept on mats on the floor, which sounds like harsh conditions to an American, but is probably not too far from many of these children’s daily realities. By sleeping them on the floor, they can fit a lot more children in much less space.
There was no central cafeteria for feeding the children. Instead, each church was responsible to send enough food to feed all their children for the entire week, and enough volunteers to cook it, serve the children, and clean up afterwards. After the morning chapel was over, we had lunch with one of the administrators and as we walked through the campground, we could see clusters of children eating around outdoor cook-fires and grills, multiplied by 50 churches.
As with housing, this may seem harsh to those of us who remember the particular rules of the summer camp cafeteria, but most kitchens here are outdoors, even in the capital, and children are accustomed to eating this way.
How do they have a chapel big enough for 3,000 kids?
They don’t. I’ve tried to include photos that show you how crowded it was under the open-air chapel, but none of them do it justice. Children sat on mats on the dirt floor, packed so tightly that I couldn’t move out among them to get photos. Older children sat outside in plastic chairs set up around three sides.
Phil spoke by himself on this particular morning and despite the fact that he had super-sized all of his props, I’m still certain that only a small portion of the children could actually see his visuals.
What kinds of activities were there?
Just like an American camp, the primary focus of this camp was Jesus. Chapel started at 8 AM and ran until noon, incorporating praise and worship music, prayer, presentations of skits and choreographed dance by different church groups, a message and an altar time.
We didn’t stay for the evening service, but we were told that the evening would be similar, although probably not quite as long.
Four hours would be a very long chapel for an American camp, but like all the other differences in the way this camp was run, it reflects their reality. Church services regularly last this long. Children are accustomed to waiting and sitting through long events that don’t even target them. To attend a service that is entirely targeted at them isn’t boring. It’s exciting and it doesn’t happen very often for many of them.
In the afternoons, they offered various organized activities. That particular day, there were soccer tournaments for both girls and boys, with the winners to be announced in the evening service. On other days, they had Bible Quiz tournaments, dance and music classes, or the churches could organize their own activities.
As far as I know, there was no swimming, which, to me, seems like an integral part of summer camp. (“But Mom! I didn’t need soap! I swam in the lake every day!”) But again, that is my own cultural experience and not a necessary part of camp.
How much does it cost for children to attend? Can they afford it?
It doesn’t cost any child anything. How cool is that? Nobody is excluded- children from Togo’s elite classes can attend alongside children from the poorest of the poor.
The use of the facility is donated. The woman who owns it as an investment property donates its free use for the week of camp. Expenses such as electricity and water are covered by the National Children’s Ministries Department, and with each church feeding and transporting their children, all other costs are deferred back to the churches. It’s a brilliant way to include all children!
In the 16 years we have been involved in children’s ministries in Africa, we have heard a lot of cool stories about kids camps and their results, but oddly enough, this was the first time we’d had a chance to visit one. We hope you enjoyed taking a look with us!
If you are interested in visiting other events in Togo via blog posts, be sure to check out the other stories in the “Come With Us” Series below!
Come with us to Children’s Church!
Come with us to Church: Sunday morning in Lome, Togo