Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Memoirs of Little Aicha: Summer Camp in Algeria

Going to children Summer Camp or Colonie de Vacances was a rite of passage for Algerian children, a way to taste freedom, and explore new places, away from the overprotective eyes of parents.

Like many children, I was unlucky enough to be posted to one of these. At the age of 7, my dad decided it was time for me to follow the family tradition and be let free to go to the amazing place that is camp. Of course, the previous years I had always envied my sisters who used to come back looking very dark, I mean very tanned, and who would tell endless stories about their time there and how great it was. 

So in preparation for the big day, my dad would take me to his company’s doctor who used to run multiple tests to make sure it was safe enough for the camp to let me in! Four times, four different camps, one story…

The big day is here,  my sister and I would be up early enough to beat the sunrise, my mum would have prepared our luggage, which would consist of ancient bags containing our worst clothing, so that it would not get stolen. My mum always made sure however that a tooth brush was included, for in summer camp you had to have a toothbrush. My dad would accompany me and my sister who was two years my senior and was a feisty fighter, so no worries about getting bullied, I who had always looked younger because of my small stature, was an easy prey for kids at school and I expected it would be the same in summer camp which had at least 300 kids (i.e.my child mind estimation).

When it was my first time, I could not be happier; but, when dad dropped us at the bus station and I saw all the other kids, I could feel my heart pounding off my chest, fear took  over, and the excitement disappeared. Kids I did not know; they did not look friendly, and they were all older and bigger than me was a sight that made me tremble, there was no going back though; dad had already paid the fees. When it was time to leave, dad would kiss us on the cheeks and wish us a happy holiday and then go to work.

The coach rented by my dad’s company was always old; it had a horrible smell like old motor vehicles did in those days. You would be lucky to find a new taxi or a bus in Algeria in the eighties. We used to be round 30 (always a child’s estimate), accompanied by a few adults whom we would later call moniteur for male and monitrice for female. The journey was never dull; as soon as the bus starts moving, singing would start and the moniteur who would have a derbouka would make the atmosphere very jovial. Two or three hours later, we would reach our destination (a coastal town in Algeria). This is the condition for any summer camp; it had to be in a coastal town, and a few hundred meters away from the beach.

My first day in the camp was full of confusion, all these people from different corners of the country, speaking dialects that sounded foreign to me. Some of them looked very different to us, they were black; it was the first time I  met someone Algerian who looked so different to us, I later learnt that they were from Tougourt a town in the south East of the country. After having lunch, it was time to divide us into groups of 11 just like a football squad; sometimes it was 12, if there were left-overs. The aim was to put people from different towns in one group, a way of getting people to know one other. Girls were put in separate groups to boys, which was great relief because as a child, I never liked  boys just like any female. By the end of the distribution! I realized that would be sharing a tent with another 21 girls, we were two groups per tent. The tents were big enough for 24 beds, including those of the monitrices. Being with twenty one girls whom I had never met in my life  was enough to bring tears pouring down ; I started to cry and demanded that my sister would be in the same tent as me. One moniteur could not stand it, and he decided to go hunting for my sister, tent by tent,  in that rather big camp. The search had nearly ended when we headed back to my tent and we realized that there was a tent about 50 cm away from mine, my sister was there and they decided to put her in the same tent as me.

The beds were older than time itself, made of metal boards. The mattresses had stains everywhere, and smelled horrible, but the sheets were thankfully clean. The routine starts the second day and it was the day all the kids suddenly realize that mum and dad are not there and it is custom that we all decide to cry our eyes out and then be comforted by either seniors who enjoyed being there or moniteurs who did make life enjoyable and were all comedians.  

7 o’clock, we all wake up and make our beds, then we would walk in a line, one behind the other…Everyday, down we marched in a line like ants, to the restaurant, led by the shortest youngest girl in the group. Before entering the restaurant it was custom to salute the flag and sing, not just the national anthem but all sorts of nationalist songs and other meaningless songs. If there was one thing we learnt in camps it was singing, and sing we did. After the choiring, we finally head to the restaurant which was made of concrete flooring and sugar canes for walls and roofing, it was very nice, especially in comparison to the rest of the camp. Breakfast was always a bowl of milk with chocolate. It was supposed to be hot chocolate, but was rarely hot, occasionally warm, and mostly tepid; and piece of bread, which is quarter of a baguette cut in the middle and butter and jam for a filling.

By the time breakfast is finished, it is around 8:00; we head back to our tents, change into our swimwear and wear flip-flops and head to the beach, in a line but this time walking in twos. The beach was usually a few minutes’ walk away from the camp, we would pass by restaurants and see some tourists mostly French Algerians. Once at the beach, we also sing all sorts of songs, one of which mocks socialism; (Algeria was ruled by a socialist party, and was very influenced by Russian and Chinese thinkers-the country was on the brink of collapse but little did we know at the time). There was also a song about the agricultural revolution of Houari Boumediene. After all the singing we are finally left to go and swim. Security was very tight and we were never allowed  to go beyond a line which was a few meters into the sea. This meant that we never swam but just splashed water. We spent at least three to four hours, until lunch time. Come mid-day we would be led back to the camp where we are washed and then dressed and readied for lunch.

Outside the restaurant, we sing, and sing until lunch is finally served. The food varied but it was mostly soups and sea food. I had never eaten fish, except for sardines, before going to summer camp. I did not even know the names of the fish we were served there. Fish for most Algerians who do not live in coastal towns means sardines. It was the only fish that we saw or ate in my town which was a two-hour drive away from the sea, it is now one hour after the construction of the highway, but fish is still scarce.

When lunch finished, it was time for siesta, a very long punishment, from 2 pm to 4 or 5 pm. We were not allowed to chat, laugh or play, we had to sleep and if we did not, there was another form of punishment. Once we decided to defy the system and our punishment was the cleaning the whole camp. It was harsh. Add to that the naming and shaming by the director of the camp who would always bring his family to camp and put his kids in a separate tent.

Following the siesta, it would be time to go to the forest. Funnily enough, there was always some sort of woody area near the camp. The best was in Jijel. During our time there, it is singing again in preparation for the evening galas. I don’t know if it was part of national strategy in the eighties, but there was so much of it. By the amount of that tebrah we did in camps, I am quite surprised we do not have a Pavarotti, or a Charlotte church. Well, it is not like the singing we did was to train us to be proper singers; it was to fill the rather long hours of summer…

Two weeks, sometimes three was the length of our stay in the camp.  They seemed like a life time for me. I missed my parents, my hometown and my street; I missed the freedom of playing outside. During this time, we would get one or two visits by our parents. Only those who lived nearby had their parents come to visit them. Luckily I was one of them. I had a lot of pride when my dad used to come and visit me and my sister. My sister never cared much, I, on the other hand, felt that a visit from dad meant that I was important, by what logic? I don’t know. When my name would be called out, to go and see dad, I would stand up and take a long walk of pride, sometimes I would get applauded! My dad never missed an opportunity to show us that he loved us as kids. His visits meant a lot to me. I would talk about them for the few days that followed and would show off the stuffs he bought me which were chocolates or biscuits.

Two weeks later, a few shades darker, a bag of dirty clothes heavier and a ton of memories richer;  it is time to head back home. The mother would be waiting with a bar of soap ready to disinfect us at arrival.


  1. Replies
    1. Glad someone finds it funny. There are many aspects of Algerian childhood that are unique and deserve to be chronicled. I wish we had writers dedicating their talent to this.