Now that these two years are coming to an end, I’ve recently had an unexpected revelation: Explaining one’s Peace Corps service to someone outside of Peace Corps – in a few words – might as well be more challenging than the Peace Corps itself. There are so many different aspects of our two years that make up our Peace Corps service as a whole, but takes practice to summarize into a one liner. As I flail and try to enter the real world back in America, I’ve done a lot of introspective thinking about what exactly my job has been here. What’s my one liner?
The implementation gap. That’s it. This term derives from City Year (of course), but I really relate it to my Peace Corps service as well. Addressing the implementation gap refers to giving needy schools extra support – these schools are not designed or equipped for the demands that face them often in high poverty areas.
Inferred from my two years in South Africa, I believe that the school system is not designed properly for rural educators and students. There are a few ways that can alleviate this, and most importantly from the Peace Corps side: extra support.
Although rural schools are small, the challenges educators face are far more time consuming than they would in a more developed area 40 kms down the road. This particularly has to do with the demanding curriculum that switches to all English in grade four, which the kids struggle to complete. Completing the curriculum on-time rarely happens, and there is little – if any – time to stay on one topic the learners are struggling with. My colleagues make kids come to school during holidays or weekends to catch up on the curriculum or go over things they don’t understand.
My educators also act as parental figures for a lot of these kids who are orphans or are being raised by gogo (grandma). They know the background story of the kids and make sure they are being cared for. I have seen the result of their care – in particular, one grade 8 girl who has a challenging home life, but was also raised at school. She is top of her class and the most respectful and caring young girl I have met here.
There are 15 educators on my staff that teach full-time. Their periods off are spent grading papers. Outside of that, they have little time to attend to individual students or any project that does not relate to their primary teaching job. Stay after school you think? That generally isn’t possible either. Some learners walk up to an hour to get to school, and educators travel up to an hour.
All of my colleagues work really hard, and care about their jobs and these kids, but there’s only so much they can do. That’s where the Peace Corps comes in!
As you know, the Masotsheni Primary School library has been a trial and error process for about two years. I came here, saw there was ample space for a library, but realized that my staff just didn’t know how to approach getting a large donation of books.
Simply, that I am computer literate, have an understanding of how to work with nonprofits and administratively organize such projects through email/Internet/technology, and have all the time in the world to focus on a large project was that extra support this little rural school needed.
My principal told an adorable story at our library opening ceremony about her first attempt at a library. When she first was accepted to become a David Rattray Foundation school, Ben came to check out our school and see the library. He told her the library was not a library, but a storeroom, and he would not give the school books until the room looked better. My ma’am then set out to organize the books as a library in the best way she could over the weekends. Unfortunately, she never had enough time to set up a system other than putting books on the fiction and non-fiction shelves. I’m not quite sure what happened after that, except I arrived to site a few months later and saw a perfect opportunity for a project.
Since the library has been done, my staff and learners have done everything they could to fulfil their part of the bargain. The library is functioning, being treated with respect, and the kids are eager to use it (and sit on the new carpet!) My principal oversees the library as much as she can, brings classes in, checks up on the classes when I’m with them to hammer down the law, and does orientation for them in Zulu and English just in case they don’t follow me.
I have two grade 7 library leaders, Nokulunga and Snenjabulo, who look over the checkout book every day and ensure the books are returned, reshelve them, and help younger learners checkout and find books. They do this ALL without me EVER telling them to do it – I simply gave them an orientation of how to do things; they are both incredible learners and I’m really enjoying closing my service with the pleasure of watching these kids take such pride in their school.
My Peace Corps service ended up being how I had pictured it – aiding people to accomplish a goal they already wanted and were trying to reach before I arrived. I alone cannot change the world, but I can help others who want change. I was just one helping hand that brought the missing pieces to the puzzle. Our school now has one more resource for continued extra support in English that over the years will hopefully help alleviate the language and literacy barriers rural children face. Now that the time consuming part of the project is over, from here on out it’s up to my school to keep it going.
I’m confident that I’m leaving South Africa knowing that this library will be ran correctly for years to come, because everyone involved wanted this project to happen just as much as I did. And there’s that. What did I do in the Peace Corps? I helped close the implementation gap.
♥Yours in service,