Youth Week: Meetings, mud bowls and madness

Youth Week Mud Bowl

"A week of landmark memories and treasured events."

It’s quite possible that growing up and attending the “Youth Week” camps put on by YFC South Africa is a defining and shaping reason for my gravitation towards a ministry in camping as an adult.  What a fantastic thing to be a part of as a wide-eyed kid – an annual inspiration of games, fellowship and input.

Youth Week would draw 600-800 teenagers from around Southern Africa, and planning would start almost as soon as the previous year’s event was finished.  With regional competition so much a part of the program, each region would come as a collective and cohesive group, ready to do friendly battle with the other regions for the entire week.  Integral to the sense of cohesion was the planning that went into the regional T-Shirt and mascot – it being so important that a region would turn up to opening night resplendent in their livery and also to serve as a defining uniform for the duration of the camp.

As a proud member of YFC Matabeleland, one of my favourite shirts were the bright yellow number (probably 1982 or 1983) that made YFC Matland stick out like a sore thumb wherever they went that year.  But my all time favourite was the shirt worn to Youth Week 1985 – a green and white hooped shirt that paid homage to the national shirt of the Rhodesian and Zimbabwean rugby side. It was very easy to wear that one with pride.

Skylarking on opening night

Special mention to other regions would have to go to one worn by the “Reef” contingent out of Johannesburg, a bright red shirt with “Good grief it’s the Reef” scrawled across the front, baseball style.  Quite a few of those were in hot demand for shirt swaps at the end of that event.

First night of Youth Week was always a highlight, 600 arced up teens accumulating into the giant A-frame “hall”, each contingent staking out their geographic area to haunt for the rest of the week (Matland usually took the front right when facing the stage, with arch-rivals East Cape directly behind us to make that side of the Hall the rowdiest.)  This was the evening for each contingent to strut their stuff, make their boasts, unveil their T-shirts and mascots and poke fun at everyone else.

Chompkin at Youth Week, Cyara

Chompkin and the 1982 Matabeleland Womens' Volleyball Team

Matland’s most successful mascot was Chompkin of 1981.  Shamelessly hijacked off TV adverts for a brand of potato crisps, Chompkin was a Pac-man look-a-like before Pac-man was famous.  Standing 4 feet high he was an elaborate construction of welded metal with a bright red felt cover stretched over its dome shape, completed by some great big felt eyes and an idiot grin.  At nine years of age I was appointed the keeper of Chompkin, but unfortunately he was too large for our caravan, so he had to “sleep” on the stoep.

This was a gifted opportunity for the heinous tribe of East Cape who hi-jacked Chompkin late on evening, much to my distress.  The following evening I was put on main stage and tearfully pleaded with 600 people to “give me back my Chompkin”.  It was not enough to save him from a cruel death – the following evening as sports results were being called out, Compkin’s skin whizzed up to the rafters of the tall A-frame roof directly above the East Cape contingent, strung up from the neck in an elaborate noose.  I fled the building howling, Chompkin came home soon after that.

Keeping 600 people entertained for a full seven days might sound like a tall order.  Not at Youth Week.  For a start, once it moved from tents at Hartebeesport Dam to nearby Cyara, it was held in a sprawling and breathtaking campus.  Three sites, each with their own pool made for lots of whirlpools and sunburn.

Youth Week, Cyara

Morning Meeting in the A-Frame. Dave Smethurst (front right) gets ready to speak.

The days were a giddy whirl of activities too.  The days started with a hearty breakfast quickly followed by the morning’s “meeting”.  Spiritual input was a critical part of the camp program.  The Meeting would be kicked off by a large number of gifted musicians, often the YFC touring band at the time, New Song, or Trevor Sampson.  Then it would be over to the speaker, generally high-profile, sometimes flown in from the States, or if not then drawn from the deep talent pool of South African communicators.  (Dave Smethurst was a favourite).  The speaker faced the daunting task of presenting up to 12 talks over the course of the week – they had to be on their game!

Youth Week had (perhaps still has) a few golden rules for success.  One of the most important of these was the habit of imposing a period of “ten minute’s silence” at the conclusion of any session and talk.  This provided the opportunity for people to genuinely reflect on the content before the seeds sown had time to be snatched away by idle conversation or the inevitable pursuit of the opposite sex.  Invariably this habit of ten minutes silence would feature heavily in the list of change agents when people gave feedback of their Youth Week experience – it’s a surprise it’s not a common feature in Christendom really.

My sister in her cheerleading days. Youth Week mid-1970s

A huge component of Youth Week was the ultra-competitive inter-contingent sports and quiz programs.  (Quiz can wait for another blog seeing as I competed for four years!)  Sports revolved around volleyball (men, women and mixed), softball (men and women) touch rugby and soccer.  Soccer was seen as the sole domain of the East Cape, a suspicion held for many years that they were bringing ring-ins of a semi-professional team from Port Elizabeth for the express purpose of repeatedly protecting their crown as soccer champs (something that was treated with some disdain in Matland circles seeing as soccer is just a game for guys not robust enough to play rugby).

East Cape soccer always took the field resplendent on a professional soccer kit, taking on other rag tag teams in provincial t-shirts that became grubbier and grubbier as the week progressed.  One infamous year (probably 1985) Matland took the field against East Cape expecting the inevitable drubbing, only to find that with a mixture of grit, determination and foul play we held them to an unprecedented 0-0 draw.  It’s just that I remember a frozen moment where a cross was put in to me in front of goal but at full stretch I was a mere inch short of deflecting it in for what would have been an unlikely winning goal.  What glory could have been mine!  Snapping the East Cape soccer domination.

Matland was always in the Top 3 of the all-around sports program.  We may not have paid much attention to soccer but we’d hold our own in all the other sports, which were settled over some fiercely contested round-robin games before progressing to semi-finals and, on the last afternoon the Grand finals.

Youth Week, Cyara

It's all action at the softball diamond (Jimmy Ferguson Memorial Centre being built in the background)

If East Cape took soccer seriously, softball was the sacred domain of Matland (and later Zimbabwe).  Our fiercest rival was always The Reef (Johannesburg).  And there was a problem and his name was Dennis House, the doyen and founding father of Youth Week.  He took it upon himself to umpire the softball competitions, barking his opinion of pitches through a loud hailer.  Inevitably this led to accusations of bias when his Reef contingent met Matland, always the most pitched battle of the week, and often the Grand Final.  And in this we had a secret weapon of our own – Uncle George Jenkinson.  Uncle George would take up position on the grandstand mound directly behind Dennis House, surround himself with 70 Matland spectators and take it on himself to loudly hold Mr House to account!

This sometimes led to some fierce verbal sparring between House and Jenkinson, Matland and Reef.  A credit to both gentlemen that despite their white-line fever, they were also great mates and both godly men.  But their halos slipped a little when it came to softball.

Keeping the hungry horde fed was a vital component of Youth Week

Every night saw everyone gathering in the A-frame for another meeting, the quiz events, another talk from the speaker, and always preceded by a running total of the sporting results.  The most successful all-around province taking home the silver trophy and bragging rights for twelve months.  This pitched competition added a lot to the experience and jovial parochialism of the week.  Perhaps the benefits of the sports program was best displayed by the Licorice All-sorts team, a patched together contingent of all the groups from smaller areas who weren’t big enough to field a team themselves.  This collection of strangers banded together to field a competitive side and many friendships across geography were forged on the field of battle.

Which leaves me space to mention a few other highlights of the Youth Week experience.  Firstly the foo-foo slides (or flying foxes as they’d be known to Australians).  To set the scene I’ll mention the flying foxes we have here at Mapleton.  Campers are placed in a secure harness, pulled up to a platform with a secure rope system. clipped into a flying fox and their descent watched and, if need be, controlled, by two members of staff.  Very, very safe and controlled.

The mayhem of the mud bowl

The Youth Week foo-foo slides in the early 80s simply consisted of a straight iron bar hanging off a pulley on a long length of steel cable.  You simply had to hang on or you dropped the distance.  This was okay in the couple of long slides over the Magaliesburg River, the water provided for a fairly soft landing.  But there was also the main slide at the Cyara camp itself, a 100 metre monster launched off the edge of a hillside and tearing down over a ravine until the terrified camper would either touch down into the “mud bowl” or hit a sloped earthen bank on the other side running.  Terrifying (but exhilarating) stuff, this slide was generally responsible for a steady stream of business for the camp medics, some serious.  It wouldn’t have been Youth Week without several broken limbs.

Final afternoon of Youth Week, as the last of the sports Grand Finals came to an exhausting conclusion, the entire camp would head down the ravine to the annual Mud Bowl.  Fire hoses would have filled the dusty gully on the camp’s western slopes with mud, turning choking dust into a massive sea of choking black mud.  Games of mud rugby raged as the Foo-foo slide launched more and more people into the struggling cauldron.  Mud Bowl was the penultimate highlight of a magical week.

Trevor Sampson - some of the talent ministering to Youth Week

The last morning was bitter sweet.  A time where the final talk was given, challenges issued, massive life changes made.  But it was also time to say goodbye and wend our weary way home, counting down the 358 days to the next one.

I’m incredibly grateful to have grown up around Youth Week.  It was a huge event, featuring high quality speakers, a lot of leaders of integrity and provided a show-piece for a lot of talented people to minister to others.  As a child I was an early witness to the powerful change that can happen when people are taken out of their normal environment, surrounded by peers on a journey and get to reflect on great input.  It meant being an active participant in a culture of friendly competitiveness, robust people having lots of fun (with a bit of banter and ruthlessness thrown in).  And it meant there was always a week of landmark memories and treasured events to look forward to.

I miss it ….

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12 Responses to Youth Week: Meetings, mud bowls and madness

  1. MUM SAYS says:

    OH DEAR CHILD I MISS IT TOO, BUT I REJOICE IN ALL THE YOUNG PEOPLE WHO HAVE STOOD FIRM AND “KEPT ON KEEPING ON”…AND ALL THE GLORY GOES TO GOD! WHAT ABOUT A YOUTH WEEK AT MAPLETON??????

  2. Morag Roy says:

    Good idea Mom….I wonder if I could still pass as a cheerleader…The Matabele’s started the tradition of Cheerleaders…Not sure of the date but remember the outfits. Glyn Law, Shirley Sallabank, I think Bridget Atnip and myself wore black pants, our Matabele tee’s and glarey stripped socks. We had these pitiful pom poms made from crepe paper. They ran with the first inevitable storm.

    Great story Andrew…..Brings back so many memories. The photo in the article was taken at YW 1977 after my year on YOne and I remember Jos wasn’t too happy about the length of the skirt!! I sometimes wonder where I would be spiritually if it hadn’t been for the challenges and teaching received under the ministry of Youth For Christ. Jimmy Ferguson must look down sometimes and share our gratitude. One of the great YFC founding Fathers and a man I really respected.

  3. Lance Laughton says:

    Love the pic’s! Good times. I hope you have a mud bowl to match the Youth Week one over there. Do you remember throwing raw eggs between pairs to see who could throw and catch the furtherest successfully? As if the mud wasn’t bad enough. Thanks for the memories…
    L

  4. jann Hattle (Logan) says:

    Another great read bringing back a heap of amazing memories. Good times!

  5. Robynne Robertson (Honeybun) says:

    Thanks for the article Andrew! It rekindled many fond memories of Youth Week and Bulawayo Youth for Christ from the late 70’s and early 8O’s.

    I am very thankful for your parents ministry through YFC that helped, along with Bulawayo Baptist Church, to cement Biblical truths and spiritual principles in my life.

    Please pass on my appreciation and love to Hamish and Sheila. I hope they are well.

    So glad you are involved in camping ministry. Where? Australia? My brother, Bruce Honeybun,(also ex Byo YFC), lives in Portland, Victoria and I in Johannesburg.

    I have had the pleasure of being to Cyara many times since my Youth Week days for church camps, hikes, a wedding or to visit Vernon and Cathay Dinkelman, who were the owners until some years ago. But my memories of Youth Week are the fondest!

    Thanks for the memories!

    May God richly bless you – and many others through your ministry. Looking forward to more articles!

    Fond regards,

    Robynne Robertson (nee Honeybun)

    • mzilikazi says:

      Hi Robynne. Thanks for the kind comments and I’ll pass them on to Mum and Dad. I’m based in beautiful Mapleton on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Mum and Dad in nearby Caloundra, making the mist of having grandkids nearby.

  6. Martin Lord says:

    Hi Guys

    As the current YWeek chairperson for the last 8 years I thought I should just to let you know that all is still happening and that in 2013 YWeek turns 50. Visit http://www.yfc-cyara.com for the 2012 theme “Superheroes!” it should be up in a few weeks.

    2011 was “Got Milk! Need Meat?” was attended by 760 youth from Mozambique, Swaziland, Cape Town, Knysna, George, Lesotho, USA. Germany, Netherlands, Germany, Tshwane(Pretoria), KZN, Botswana and Gauteng. Sadly Zimbabwe has been unavailable for the last ten years or so however I’m holding out hope for a new champion for that district. Eastern Cape also dwindled away however we had a small delegation of about 12 this year and a new person willing to head up the region this year!
    I’ve never heard of cheerleaders however I like the idea and will raise it at the next meeting…lol!
    As for the mudbath it no longer exists, however the foofie is still up and running but all in harnesses etc. Times changes some things. Mark Harper still gives me nightmares when he speaks about how they rigged things up… He now runs the YFC Bethel camp site in Mozambique.

    Morag you may know my mother in law Lesley-Ann Wienand she and my wife Shannan often mention your name! Shannan had a prophecy at YWeek in the 80’s that she would be involved at CYARA and today we run CYARA having taken over from Clive and Cynthia 2002. Please feel free to contact us at any time for a visit we will gladly host you all!!!!

    Martin Lord (yfchekpoort@ccsa.org.za)

  7. Hi Andrew.
    I really enjoyed reading your 2 youth week posts. Youth week has to be the absolute highlight of my teenage years.
    I was with Pretoria YFC 1982,83.84 If anybody remembers somebody playing bagpipes at those youth weeks that was me. Hey I’m in the photo cuing up for food. At the front is a guy with his back to us. Count back 3. The one with his hand on his face. Thats me.
    I have just been reliving the youth week days, as Ive recently written a blog about the music at the 1982 Youth Week. http://saxaxeman.com/2013/05/13/jonathan-butler-played-my-guitar/
    I was in musical heaven at youth week. There was a live recording of the music in 82 called Holding it together. I must have listened to the tape a thousand times. Does anybody still have a copy?
    1983 I was in the Pretoria quiz team. I’m sure I remember you. Your Dad ran the quiz. You had your own little fold up metal chair, as you were so much younger than the other contestants. (Have I got the right guy?)
    1984 my band Pats Rats played on the opening for the Pretoria presentation. Our theme was “Have you hugged a pet rock today” Stevie wonder had had the hit I just called to say I love you that year, and as we sang the song, all the Pretoria clan removed their pet rocks from their pockets, and waved them at the audience.
    The other highlight of 84 was the whole of Y.W being bussed to Sun City for a Cliff Richard concert.
    It is amazing how so many of the people who went to youth week are in ministry. I’m a tent making missionary in Spain. In 82 I met Andy who was with JHB YFC. he became my best friend. He has been a missionary with Wycliff for many years.
    Such amazing days, and such vivid memories of something so special.

    Thanks for these posts Andrew

    • mzilikazi says:

      Hey Patrick. Thanks for the kind words. They were good days indeed. That was me on my little stool because my legs wouldn’t reach the ground if I was on a normal chair with those sensor pads. One of our learned passages when I was doing quiz was 1 Kings 16-22. And now I have a son called Elijah! That Cliff Richard concert was indeed a highlight. Sun City was a spin out for a 13 year old….

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