And then, in this trip of peaks and valleys, the bottom seemed to fall out. A national teachers’ strike, which had been looming the entire trip, was officially called for Wednesday. Initially teachers were to report and then leave at 10 am. This would have allowed all the books to be checked back in. However, after the learners left with their books, national union leadership decided that teachers should not report at all. This was not a one-day action, but a long-term strike until a new contract could be negotiated.
Our biggest concern was whether the books that had just gone home with the students would make their way back to school. There had only been one training in each class, with no opportunity to reinforce the procedures. The students were coming in the next morning, despite the strike because the food prepared by community mothers for their snack (a nutritious starch and beans) had already started to cook. But in a nation where strikes are taken seriously, and those who break ranks face intimidation and potential violence, we worried there would be only two other adults present the next day, the two educators who were part of another union.
Larry, Eileen and Sara planned to be at school to collect the books brought back. We worried about trying to collect books in the chaos of 900 students and few adults. And we wondered how many books would be returned…50 percent? less?
We arrived at the school as students poured in. Even if parents heard about the strike through the media, few kept their children at home. We were in a minor panic about what to do, and then we watched some of the teachers walk in. The teachers hugged us and smiled broadly, “We could not leave you alone today,” they said. We had tears in our eyes. The teachers and the principal helped lead the morning singing and prayers in the court yard. The principal, an active union member, had called the union manager and expressed the special circumstances of the new library .
Then, the next amazing event. The principal asked the children to hold up their books and it was a sea of waving books. We began collecting books from each class. EVERY CHILD HAD RETURNED THE BOOK! We were stunned. Clearly, these children loved and valued these books. Given a sacred responsibility to return these books so others could use them – and so they could take out a new one – they rose to the occasion. There was great disappointment when they learned they could not take one home the next day, but we are hopeful this enthusiasm for books will continue after the strike.
And then the children were sent home with a note about the indefinite strike. It was difficult for us to watch the children being sent home without prior notice, but we were assured that the children would be cared for by relatives and neighbors in the township.
We stayed on at the school, working on the library, showing a few teachers some of the classroom resources included in the shipment and discussing further strategies for using the books in the classroom.
Then Mr. Thambo made clear his vision for the library. “You have helped me reach my dream. Reading is the foundation of wisdom. We will have competitions for our children to read. This will become a library for the entire community. We will open it on Friday afternoons so families can take out books and read along with their children. Young men who have graduated Grade 12 and cannot find work will read instead of standing on street corners. Crime will drop. This will change our entire community.”
The library at A.V. Bukani is the first in a primary school in the entire region surrounding Addo Elephant Park. Even more striking is a statistic we heard -- of all the predominantly black government-run schools, only one percent have libraries! The sheer number and quality of the books in Bukani’s library makes this achievement, the result of many dedicated volunteers in the U.S., even more dramatic.
"You have no idea the impact of this donation" - Our books to benefit students throughout region
Working with volunteers from the townships and supported by local businesses and non-profit groups, the library system added several mobile locations which evolved into satellite libraries. One of these is in the high school in our township of Nomathamsanqa. As soon as phone lines are restored to the township, the high school library will include several high-speed Internet lines, free to the community. In addition to small collections in satellite libraries, the libraries share some books that rotate among them. There is also a mobile library that visits schools not served by other libraries.
Last year Eileen met Isabelle and this year she was given a tour of the libraries in this municipal system. In addition to the small township libraries, Eileen saw the library at the municipality seat of Kirkwook, with students of different races all crowding around the Internet links.
We donated some of the collected books to the municipality, largely from boxes that are above the reading level of our primary students. Half of those donated will be at the high school which our students attend, and the remainder will circulate among other libraries throughout the region. Isabelle was overwhelmed with the quality of the books. “You have no idea the impact of this donation,” she said.