August 22, 2010

"It is no longer a container. It is a library."

YES, the books finally arrived!!

The container was opened on the Monday of our third and final week. As box after box was opened, the principal and teachers were in awe of the quality of the books. We learned that not only are books very expensive in South Africa, there are few as well written and illustrated as these beautiful books.

Members of the community soon surrounded the container, helping move the 600 boxes of books and a dozen book cases into a storage area while work is done ot convert the container into a library. Fourth graders soon began eagerly helping.

Teachers swept and mopped. Wooden shelves created in South Africa were installed along the side into the supports donated by Highwood Enterprises in the U.S. Windows and doors were put in. “This is no longer a container, it’s a library,” declared Principal Thambo.

The faculty deeply appreciated the many hours that went into collecting, labeling, and sorting the books. We created a photo
album showing the many, many people involved in putting the library together. “You have worked very hard,” teachers said over and over.

Sara and Larry trained the teachers and their students on the classroom-based check out system, where each child attaches the card with his or her name from the back of their book onto a yarn line in the room using a clothes peg.

And on Tuesday, the students in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades took home a book! The excitement was palpable. This was an extraordinary event for this township where few families own a book.

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.

All the plans for professional development for the final three days were torn up. The teachers and principal were conflicted, as were we. They wanted the continue to work with us, but had to support this critical strike. While we support the educators, we hated to miss these days in school. Out of our 15 days, we worked with the teachers only 10 days.

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

While school libraries are rare in the area, the Sundays River Valley Municipality is home to a growing municipal library system, thanks to the leadership of dedicated librarian Isabelle Goosen. Seeing children from townships walk several miles along dangerous roads to get to the main municipal library, Isabelle was determined to create access to books in the townships.

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 lib
raries 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.

The Community Comes Together to Label Books

This library is already affecting Nomathamsanqa township in ways that go beyond reading. Several members of the Women’s Institute accepted Eileen’s offer to come to the school to help with the project after she spoke there. They joined mothers and grandmothers from the township. The township families had come a few day’s earlier for a workshop on the library, talking about ways of enjoying the books with their children, even if they don’t read English (e.g., sitting together and talking about the pictures).

On August 18, women from both groups and of many different backgrounds – some from the township and some from the white-owned orange groves and B&B’s – sat together to label books that were not finished when they left the U.S. By all accounts, it was a significant day for the entire region.

As with the volunteer labeling sessions in the U.S., the volunteers in
South Africa loved working with the books and getting to know each other. Together the S.A. volunteers labeled 500 books. As they left the school, the Women’s Institute volunteers said, “Please let us know how we can help again.” Thus starts a wonderful partnership.

It is at this meeting that Sara is given her Xhosa name -- Thandeka, "one who is loved."

“You are revolutionaries”

On Thursday morning, many of the teachers gathered at a nearby B&B to bid farewell to “The Kugler Family,” now down to our original team of Eileen, Larry, and Sara. These striking teachers did not need to be there, and yet they came, some from an hour away, because they could not imagine our leaving without their sincere thanks. We did not meet at school to prevent an appearance that the teachers were "working."

And there is nothing like an event thrown by these amazing teachers…. their singing, their dancing, and of course their speeches. We had tears in our eyes throughout.

“We have called you our friends. And we have called you our family. We have run out of words to describe you,” said a teacher. “We cannot thank you enough for what you have done.”

Principal Thambo, always eloquent and inspiring, said, “You are revolutionaries. A revolutionary effects change. A revolutionary makes the impossible possible. A revolutionary transforms the environment.” From Mr. Thambo, certainly a revolutionary himself, this was the highest praise.

As we spoke, we noted how the teachers have inspired us over the years. “I came the first year for the learners,” Sara said, “but I didn’t realize that I would be coming for the teachers, too.” Eileen again spoke of all those who contributed to the library shipment. “This is more than a shipment of books. This is a shipment of love from so many children, so many families, so many volunteers in the U.S.” Larry closed out our comments with the inspirational song “Eyes on the Prize.” The song strikes the same themes that others touched on: hope, perseverance, overcoming obstacles. The chorus states,
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

As we finish our third year, we know this is a life-long commitment. Our circle of friends there continues to expand, getting to know people like the incredible Muffy Miller who has created a quality preschool in the midst of the poorest area in the region. We are imbedded in the township and the broader community. We truly feel at home on both sides of the globe.

We are now back in the U.S., catching up on sleep and trying to put this moving trip into perspective. We were so glad to have not only Sara, but Cecily and Alex as part of "The Kugler Family" this year. Every member made a distinct contribution.

More reflections for the future in the next blog entry.

1 comment:

pbutters said...

I'm so excited to see and hear your books arrived safely! Great news! So enjoyed meeting you at 5th Avenue Beach House and chatting about your great work in S. Africa. So inspiring! Take care and be well!
Tami Butters, Mpls, MN