Wednesday, June 22, 2016

...just books.

"Reading gives us some place to go when we have to stay where we are." - Mason Cooley

We’re done! 1 Teacher’s desk, 3 murals, 3 student-designed tables, 12 textbook benches, 15 categories, 1,866 books plus a few. A few hundred that it is. That's the short version of what has been put into St. Paul's Primary School’s library in the last several months. The project of revitalizing an old library at the school started last year in the blistering heat of November with an application to Books For Africa, and ended on a cold June day today. The Library Club at the school has been working tirelessly each available Wednesday since February, eager to see and aid in the library's evolvement. Admittedly though, rather than help us clean or organize the last couple of meetings, most students prefer to flip through some of the children's books we received from Darien’s Book Aid or stand and gawk at the Tom and Jerry mural on the wall (it turns out Curious George only recently made it to Swaziland, in our shipment of books), but that's the real reason we brought the books and painted the mural in the first place. In this case, less help and a little chaos has actually been welcome in the process! 

For the last month, it seems we’ve been racing against the clock to get the murals touched up, tables and benches built, old books reorganized, and new books catalogued before leaving for vacation. Yesterday was a milestone as we labeled the 1,866th book we received from Books For Africa, but I'm not sure I can truly describe the amount of effort and cooperation that went in to making the library what it is today. I know there are several people to thank including the organizations that sent us books but I’d like to take a little time to thank the three people who have been an unimaginable help in finishing this project. 

First, our head teacher, Ms. Mayisa, has been a tremendous leader and collaborator in the project. Early on, she saw the potential of a revitalized library space and helped us find a counterpart, put forth and fulfill the obligations of our application, and she has given us tremendous not only leeway but also encouragement to adapt the space as we have seen fit. 

Second, our volunteer librarian, Phindile Nhlengetwa has been a phenomenal counterpart. She immediately volunteered to be the librarian after Ms. Mayisa explained what we were trying to do. She hasn't faltered in her support or role in the project since then, even when a librarian training was initially scheduled for Easter weekend, she was committed. She engaged students to join the library club and then became an active member of the club, something that doesn't always happen here. When the books arrived at the school, she helped Grace unbox them and sort them for three hours on a Friday afternoon in her free time. Even when we wound up receiving a couple of boxes of textbooks she wasn't upset or angry she simply stated, “Don't they know how to recycle?” She encourages students to pick up and read the books that interest them but she also doesn't turn a blind eye to a teaching moment when a student mishandles a book. She will be an incredible librarian.

Third, my co-worker and wife, Grace. We’ve joked with many people throughout this project that Grace is the creative one and I am the creator, but she has been infinitely more helpful than being the inspired designer of our benches, tables, and murals. First let me say that in the eyes of Peace Corps this is my project not ours. It more closely associated with my youth development framework than Grace’s community health, and so I am the “lead” volunteer on the project. Such a thing couldn't be further from the truth. In the past week alone Grace has put more hours into the library than many people put into their own work making 10 times what PCV’s make. She has catalogued and organized over 2,500 books all the while assisting me in the construction of benches and tables and the painting of murals. She's endured headaches, monumental amounts of dust, 7 day work weeks, near 12 hour days, and a grumpy co-worker on many occasions to make our project the inviting and open library it is today. There were moments I'd look up from painting and wonder how a single person could transform a wall of chaos (remember the “plus a few”, I was referring to a wall of textbooks teetering on the thousands) into one of order. Not to mention an order easily and clearly understand by non-native English speakers. Everyone of the jobs I did, Grace was there to make it easier. From stacking and organizing textbooks to be drilled to organizing books to be labeled alphabetically ahead of time. She even packed my lunch a few days. 

So in the end, thank you. Thank you to Books For Africa, thank you to  all of you who donated to Peace Corps BFA, thank you to BFA Swaziland, thank you to Darien’s Book Aid,  thank you to the staff of St. Paul's, and thank you to the Dlamini family.

Sure I played my part painting, building, applying labels, but as I stepped back today and looked at months of hard work from so many people believing in a common good, I couldn't help but be humbled in a way I haven't been in a long time. St. Paul's library is filled with books for kids of all ages now but more importantly, it's filled with the pride and joy that comes from seeing a project like this finish and radiates to all those who enter. 

Siyabonga kakhulu.

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