Tue, Aug 15, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The young get their chance

Ending poverty, promoting peace and saving the planet were hot topics for young people at the Woodcraft Folk's global gathering

By John Vidal  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Adrian Mitchell, playwright, author and "alternative poet laureate," arrived last week at a place he called the New Jerusalem -- a vast campsite in Kent, southeast England, where nearly 5,000 young people were spending 12 days teaching themselves about the environment, democracy, peace, justice and how to change the world.

It was the Woodcraft Folk's five-yearly mega-gathering, organized by kids for kids, during which the Kent county showground near Maidstone was turned into a Global Village fit for democratic, or even anarchistic, angels. In one vast tent behind Mitchell, a youth parliament had been convening; in another, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone was leading a rap session; down the track, the Fairy Trade Cafe and the Politically Active Revolutionary Thinking Youth center drew custom from the 41 tented "villages" into which the teenagers and students from more than 50 countries had been billeted.

Mitchell's contribution to the event was a new play, The Fear Machine, designed for about 50 actors and a chorus of 2,000.

"They challenged me to deliver one for 5,000 people, and they listed 10 things that needed to be done to change the world," he told me. "I slept on it."

Much like the way the Woodcraft Folk themselves seem to operate, he came up with something on a grand scale. A runaway girl, a dog and a mystery tramp meet and decide to put out people's fears. So they build a monstrous "Fear Engine" that goes round the world extinguishing political and personal fears.

"It gets pretty heavy, but it has a very hopeful ending," Mitchell said.

The "Woodies," as they are known, range in age from eight to 24, and their monster camps mix the spirit of Glastonbury, the handwringing and concerns of the UN, and the passion of the playground. Thirty years ago, this youth movement, set up in 1925 as an alternative to the Scouts, was mostly strong in northern England, but these days their educational methods of encouraging youths to explore for themselves morality and world affairs has become international. The numbers of teenagers attracted to their gatherings is said to be rocketing.

The reason, said people at the camp, was the deteriorating wider political and environmental landscape, and concern for global issues.

"We too want our voices to be heard," said student Zoe Waterman. "Teenagers want to change things and to contribute. It's a lot to do with the global political dynamic. The Iraq war woke up so many people."

This year, the Woodies' camp cost nearly ?1 million (US$ 1.8 million) and the UK's Department for International Development contributed ?150,000. The British were joined by 300 Germans, a large contingent from Latin America, and others from political hotspots such as Bhutan, Western Sahara, South Africa, Palestine and Kurdistan. The collective theme was the UN's eight millennium development goals, around which they organized workshops and high-quality informed debates.

"Talking directly to political refugees, hearing stories from Africa and the Middle East, and finding out what is going on in Brazil or Venezuela makes you see the world differently," said Robert Jones, 15. "I just did not imagine anything so interesting."

But, this being the Woodies, they added extra UN goals, which they decided that the world leaders had missed out. So beyond exploring ways to eradicate world poverty, end debt, provide water and sanitation and make poverty history, they tried to instil "peace" and to demand fair trade and cooperation.

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