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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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Books, books, books: support and flexibility

Remember our library project? Well, it’s FINALLY happening. Twenty-five thousand library books for 30 rural communities will be delivered to my primary school tomorrow. I have a headache, am a little flustered and not sure if I’m prepared. My Peace Corps Battlefields crew, my school and the David Rattray Foundation has got my back for unloading these boxes off the truck. I called out for help, everyone responded, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the support.

But better yet, we received support from an American couple that I never had met prior to last week – Claude and Barbara Mayfield – from Atlanta, Georgia. I mentioned this in a post from September about our books being packed and shipped, but they found our project online and got in contact with me. They are Books for Africa volunteers and are running a BFA project in Zimbabwe – the Zambezi Schoolbook Project.

They had a business out here in South Africa, traveled back in forth between America and South Africa and are well-versed with Africa. They go where they can help, which brought them all the way to my area – Rorke’s Drift, South Africa.

The Mayfields flew into Durban a few weeks ago and were staying at a hotel right by the Durban port awaiting the arrival of Sophie – our beloved cargo ship that decided to take her sweet time. We expected Sophie would reach Durban around 22 October, but that didn’t happen due to engindifficulty. She stopped in Walvis Bay, Namibia, had to get fixed up, then kept chuggin’ along down to Durban.

The plan was to have all the PCVs involved in this project come to my site once the books were delivered, sort the books into the specific orders with the Mayfields. Then, the Mayfields planned to take two orders of books to the Mpumalanga province to my Peace Corps friends George and Lilly. This would have significantly helped with delivery of the books, and it was so generous of them to offer to do.

Unfortunately, the books didn’t make it here in time for that to happen; as with anything coined with the title “Peace Corps”, flexibility is the key. I canceled book sorting all together and my team of support in the Battlefields improvised for the Mayfields’ visit. They still came out to the Battlefields, had refreshments with the Peace Corps Volunteers, had lunch with Ben (CEO of David Rattray Foundation), and toured all of our schools with Jonelle (a PCV who extended for her 5th year in South Africa at DRF!) and Diana, a PCV from my cohort who lives in Northern KwaZulu-Natal.

The group at Rorke's Drift Hotel (photo cred: Claude Mayfield)

The Battlefields PCVs and the Mayfields at Rorke’s Drift Hotel (photo cred: Claude and Barbara Mayfield)

The Mayfields and Diana wanted to see how our libraries ran on the ground. The Battlefields PCVs — me, Monica, Will, Katie and Laura – all have functioning libraries with a similar organizational system. The system we have adopted from previous PCVs is pretty easy to figure out and implement, which is essential for rural African schools where many of the kids and educators have never used a library before. (Side note: Monica won an award from the district for the best library in the province! So amazing!) The Mayfields can use our material and ideas for their Zimbabwe project and future BFA projects; Diana can adopt it for her school once she gets the books from our project. (Big thank you to Jonelle for driving everyone around to the schools and giving a tour.)

Claude, Jonelle, Diana and I discussing the plan for once the books arrive. We will sort the books in the hall behind me at my school

Claude, Jonelle, Diana and I discussing the plan for once the books arrive. We will sort the books in the hall behind me at my school (photo cred: Claude and Barbara Mayfield)

The Mayfields are now off to Zimbabwe to meet with rotary and discuss logistics of their BFA Zimbabwe project. One of our Peace Corps South Africa supervisors is a RPCV from Zambia, so we were able to set the Mayfields up with Peace Corps Zambia to possibly assist in bringing a container of books there if Zimbabwe doesn’t work out. Ironically, the supervisor at Peace Corps Zambia has worked with their fellow BFA volunteer/friend on a BFA project in Botswana – it’s a small world, yet again.

Although things haven’t gone that smoothly (and fingers are crossed they do tomorrow), everyone involved in this project has been extremely helpful and flexible; I appreciate it so, so much! The Mayfields, PCVs and DRF still got something out of this past week’s visit, all had a great time, and it was refreshing to meet Americans who are so invested in helping educate our world.

The Mayfields’ grandchildren actually donated many of their books from their personal libraries for our project, and they also packed many of the books they collected from their Zimbabwe project from book drives from local schools and organizations in America. The Mayfields showed me pictures of their grandchildren going through their home library and holding up some of the books – the books that my grade 5 learners will be holding so soon! We plan to get some of my grade 5s connected with them. I will take pictures of my grade 5s and their grandchildren’s final book destination.

I’ve said this plenty of times during my service journey, and I’ll say it again – you’re never alone. There’s always a solid support system of people working for a common purpose worldwide, and a lot of the work PCVs do in the village would not be possible without it. We can’t forget I’m smack dab in the homeland of Ubuntu – because MY humanity is tied to YOUR humanity.

Feeling grateful! But also – is it December vacation yet? I’m pretty burnt out. Ah, soon enough…

Updates to come on the books within the next week.

Check out the Mayfields’ blog and more pictures from their visit here: http://cbmayfield.wordpress.com/

For more information on the Mayfields’ Books for Africa presence in Africa, here’s their Website for the Zambezi Schoolbook Project. Inspired? Support them!

Yours in service,

Small heartLiz