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Month 16: expect the unexpected and never doubt

I always prepare for the unexpected. I always have a back-up plan. I enter a project blindly, usually with few expectations. I try to never doubt, but it’s not always possible.

In the Peace Corps bubble, I’m not pessimistic; I’m just being realistic. Peace Corps Volunteers in South Africa – at least from discussions I’ve had with my friends – lower their expectations after sometime in-country. We are all masters of improvising in unstructured situations.

I’ll admit that when I first say or think about, “expect the unexpected” has a negative overtone.  This month of my service showed me that there is absolutely no reason that I should associate this phrase with apathy. It should and can be associated with gratitude, idealism, support, positive relationships and teamwork.

Organizing the Books for Africa project hasn’t been too fun, but I always kept the end result in mind: thousands of kids would have access to quality library books. I expected once the books arrived to South Africa it would be a nightmare – maybe I’d pull my hair out so much I’d have to shave my head again. I was nervous that the books would be stored at my school until God knows when because I couldn’t arrange transport for them to be delivered to other locations. I thought I’d run out of money in my budget to get these books to where they need to go. I expected that the PCVs who are part of this project and leaving the country in January would not get their books beforehand.

After writing all of my fears down, it does sound negative. I expected the worst with a cloud of doubt hanging over my head, but I got what I did not expect: the best.

Pretty much everything associated with the project has gone as I originally planned. Every PCV leaving the country in a few months got their shipment of books. I am still working on getting a few more boxes to some Volunteers in my cohort in a different province, but will have my Peace Corps program director assist me next time she is here in a few months. We aren’t leaving the country anytime soon, so I had a list of priority deliveries to do and knocked ‘em out.

I got in contact with the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education a few months before our container arrived in South Africa to arrange transport to other areas of KZN. After they visited my school, they dispatched a vehicle within two business days to pick up the books and truck them six hours away to Manguzi. The drivers were supposed to pick up the books on Wednesday morning, but promptly showed up at my school early on Tuesday night. No worries at all; I’ll take it! My principal phoned me on the night and her and Simpiwe, our security guard, met me at the gate as soon as the DOE arrived to pack the boxes. My principal left her house mid-dinner preparation to lend a helping hand. Simpiwe has carried probably 400/560 of the boxes for me back and forth between trucks and storage rooms.

My school is my backbone. All the grade 7 boy learners have lugged so many boxes for me without being asked; they deserve a bunch of sweets and soda! My staff cooked delicious chicken every day for Katrina, Michael and I during our box sorting week. My teachers are eager to help me get the library books on the shelves. My principal has been there every step of the way – answering every phone call that relates to me, directing every school that came by to pick up books, organizing learners to help me and the list goes on. I did expect my school to be behind me the whole way, but all they’ve done for me and this project reminds me why every minute of my time is worth it here.

All the book orders – except three and a few lagging boxes I need to get to supplement the orders I shipped off to Mpumalanga — left my school and made it to their final destinations within a week and a half. A week and a half! I was expecting a month. Two months. Three months. Maybe forever. Nope – a week and a half!

I had to ship about 60 boxes of books to other areas of South Africa and a distant province (Limpopo). I envisioned this costing me about 18,000 Rand (1,800 USD) in my budget of 24,000 Rand allocated from the David Rattray Foundation for delivery. Nope – it cost 8,631.54 Rand (863 USD). That’s it! I know it’s still a lot of money, but these boxes were heavy and headed to far off lands. I still have to get two more deliveries to Limpopo, but they are going to schools that have recently been replaced with a SA 28 (the education class following mine that will close service in September 2015). Thus, I was also going to try to have Peace Corps eventually assist with these boxes. Now that I know I can get the boxes there under budget through a shipping service, they may be leaving my school soon now too!

Books for Africa recently reached out to Peace Corps South Africa to receive another container of primary books for free through a grant from a Nigerian foundation. We have to uphold some rules – like throw a book recipient ceremony – to receive the container, but it’s all doable. The KZN Department of Education officials I have been working with are very interested and enthusiastic about receiving this container. If we go forward with this project, more PCV communities in KZN will benefit and more schools too! I’m already overworked, but this is too good of a deal to let go. The books, books, books would kick back up again in January after vacation. More to come, as per usual!

As of this month, 29 (almost) communities have 700+ quality library books to educate rural children for years to come.

And it’s never been truer –

NEVER DOUBT that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

My group of thoughtful, committed citizens range from Peace Corps Volunteers, to my South African counterparts, community members, learners, the Department of Education, the Books for Africa staff, Americans who donated to our help cover our shipping costs, and every family and library in America that donated the books that are now in the hands of my little kiddos.

Always expect the unexpected, and NEVER DOUBT (NEVER DOUBT – NEVER EVA DOUBTTTT!) A month I’ll never forget.

Yours in service,

Small heartLiz

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Liz, what a great story and a good one to read early in the morning! I’ve lived in a number of developing countries for years. My husband started out as a PC Volunteer in Kenya, where we were married (I was/am Dutch so not a PCV). He loved his PCV experience and is now a agri-business development guy. It takes a lot of not doubting and keeping on being optimistic and not becoming cynical. Congrats on your success with the book project!

    November 23, 2013
    • Thank you for your kind words and reading! As challenging as PCV work is, it is true – you must always keep the end result in mind and be optimistic. Usala kahle (stay well)

      November 24, 2013

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