Pickleball in Africa: Strengthening bodies and minds (Pt. 1)

Smiling kids, the “pop” of pickleballs, a beautiful outdoor court… it was all a familiar scene until the donkey arrived.

Karyn Trader-Leigh normally plays pickleball in Virginia, but last year she traveled thousands of miles to share the game with Camp Sizanini in South Africa.

At the camp’s sprawling Magaliesburg retreat, children are given the tools needed to empower themselves. This includes classes on HIV/AIDS, life skills, theatre, art and sports—now including pickleball. These activities help the children define what they want out of life rather than letting their circumstances define them.

Karyn and campers

Karyn Trader-Leigh with kids from camp Sizanini

It’s amazing how many areas of one’s life can improve thanks to a “simple” game and some loving attention. You can use the links below to jump to a particular section of Karyn’s trip, or read it in full.

A Familiar Path to a New Cause
The Gift of Pickleball
Making the Journey
Interference on the Courts
Part of the Bigger Picture

A Familiar Path to a New Cause

Although the trip was Karyn’s first time at Camp Sizanini, she is far from a newcomer to either pickleball or travel. In fact, her background ended up making her the perfect ambassador. Karyn runs a management consulting business (KTA Global Partners) where she helps organizations develop human capital, diversity and leadership. This has led her to Hungary, Britain, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Portugal and more. Among the list is South Africa, in particular Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Global Camps Africa

How it all began

Karyn’s husband is heavily involved in her work there, focusing on economic development and Ebola mitigation issues. He has launched initiatives with the Taia Peace Foundation to increase farm yields while producing organic coffee and cocoa. As a former major general in the army, this will be his 3rd retirement career focused on public service.

To say these two are a “dynamic duo” would be an understatement.

Despite Karyn’s busy schedule, a short chat was all it took to add another good cause to her list.

Karyn had just come back from South Africa when a friend introduced her to Phil Lilienthal and Eric Sass, the CEO and Board Chair of Global Camps Africa (which runs Camp Sizanini). She loved the idea of bringing hope to kids in need, and accepted when Phil asked her to become Board Secretary, overseeing fundraising and program growth.

The Gift of Pickleball

When Karyn became a board member she wanted to see firsthand what GCA did and how they went about it.

“Since I’ve done a lot of cross-cultural work I was interested in seeing how well we, as an American and primarily Anglo-American board, connected with our African staff and campers who are from South Africa’s indigenous tribal groups: primarily Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Venda and Tsonga.”

Swimming lesson at a GCA camp

A cute camper laughing during a swimming lesson

Karyn hoped to bring something fun and fresh to the kids at Camp Sizanini, and as she was brainstorming, her favorite sport came to mind. Karyn’s first encounter with pickleball was at the rec center in Prince William County (VA), and she played there until a car accident forced her to ease up for a time.

After she recovered, Karyn jumped back in with several friends and started her current program at the Manassas Park Community Center.

“We went from 5 to 12 regular players and need more court space! We play three times a week and actively seek to introduce new people to the game. In the interest of building community, we even host a quarterly luncheon. It’s been such a great experience that I knew I wanted to bring it to South Africa if I could get equipment.”

“GCA liked the idea even though they were clueless about pickleball in the beginning, so I told my club I was going and would welcome any contributions.  I called PickleballCentral to place my order and received such an incredible reception. I spoke to John Cowley, who was amazing. He understood our mission and shared interest in supporting the global growth of the game. PBC donated additional paddles and balls, which was perfect.”

Making the Journey

As the date for camp grew closer, Karyn left a few days early to run workshops with staff and camp counselors.

“The first class was focused on diversity, inclusion and equity in the post-apartheid environment. It was interesting as [the counselors] also wanted to address intertribal conflicts. That was an incredible cultural learning experience for me. The second two-day workshop provided camp counselors with coaching skills to increase their self-awareness and help them engage with the children. After that it was time to serve as a volunteer camp counselor and pickleball teacher.”

Pickleball in Magaliesburg

Playing pickleball at the Magaliesburg retreat

But Karyn wasn’t the only pickleball fanatic at camp! Some of her new friends had visited PickleballCentral’s home in Washington.

“It turned out that there were two counselors (we call them ‘vochellis’) who had been exposed to the game.  Each year we bring vochellis to the U.S. to see how camps are run here and introduce them to our donors so they can see their investments at work. Well, two of the vochellis had interned at camps in Seattle. My understanding is that pickleball is king in Seattle, so I had a surprise when I found two people who had experienced the game and loved it!”

Interference on the Courts

As camp officially began Karyn started her pickleball clinic with trusty rule book in hand, but she was humble about her level of expertise.

“Me acting as teacher was funny as I’m not the best pickleball player… but I have plenty of enthusiasm! After the first demo we agreed to squeeze it into the program by running class and play time from 6:00 to 7:00 am each morning. A regular crew of people showed up and grew every day. More of the boys played than the girls, as it’s not so customary to see girls engaged in competitive sports.”

“There were some interesting and funny moments. On the grounds there are peacocks, goats, horses and donkeys that roam around. One particular donkey would come over when we started to play and bray at us. Guess he didn’t like us on his turf so early in the morning.”

Adaptive picklers in Africa

An example of the sandal-wearing picklers

Karyn went on to explain that some of the kids didn’t have tennis shoes, but flip-flops didn’t slow them down. Many of the kids were just as fast despite the unconventional footwear. She mentions that the most amusing moment for her was the Mystery of the Missing Net.

It turned out that some of the boys were sneaking out at night to “kidnap” the pickleball net and stash it in their bunks. Karyn would have to wake them up in the mornings to get it, so they’d have the opportunity to play first!

Part of the Bigger Picture

Amid all the fun and games at Camp Sizanini, the children’s stories are a sobering reminder of why experiences like this need to exist. Karyn explains:

“Camp is not a common experience for youth in a post-apartheid society with high poverty and the world’s worst HIV epidemic. Over 6 million people live with aids and over 360,000 children are infected. You find children who have lost their parents, suffer stigma and social isolation, or are responsible for raising their siblings in conditions we couldn’t imagine.”

Sizanini camper's home

An example of home for some of the Sizanini campers

Camp Sizanini has operated for 11 years and over 7,000 children have attended, with most in the South African programs coming from Soweto.

“The Life Skills classes are especially vital since kids learn how to protect themselves from a deadly disease while avoiding addiction, exploitation and abusive behavior. Myths about HIV/AIDS are replaced with objective knowledge and understanding.”

Several 8-day camp sessions are run during Soweto’s summer season (America’s winter). After having a camp experience the kids get to participate in year-long clubs that continue to provide support so they aren’t left without resources.

It’s saddening to hear about the difficulties South Africa’s youth face, but Sizanini has shown that a loving environment really can turn a child’s life around. The camp opens kids’ minds to possibilities they would never have imagined for themselves. In a more immediate sense, they’re also taught how to safely deal with everyday hardships.


We’ll share more about Camp Sizanini and Karyn in part 2 of Pickleball in Africa: Strengthening bodies and minds. Until then, please take a look at this inspiring video from Global Camps Africa and consider sharing your goodwill by donating to their cause.

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