Reading Rainbow Nation: The Making of a School Library

I’ll take a break from my usual stories of fund raising and visa troubles to talk about a project that has been a long time in the making but given little attention to here on this blog: the school library.

One of the goals of the Peace Corps South Africa Schools and Community Resources Project is to help to establish and/or improve libraries at the schools where volunteers have been placed. This doesn’t mean simply getting a supply of decent books in the school (though, this is a challenge in itself). Volunteers usually face any and all of the challenges associated with starting a library from scratch: support from the school’s administration, adequate and secure room, decent shelves and furniture, and staff to oversee its organization and daily operation.

Library Door

There has been little overlap in the day-to-day work that I have done versus the volunteer who served at this school for the two years before my time here. Ryan worked mostly with kids at the high school level, and seemed to focus on math and science. I’ve been concentrating on English for kids in grades 5 through 7, putting in the bulk of my time with grade 6. He left a few months before I arrived, and though I have never met him in person and hadn’t even corresponded with him until recently, I felt like I had gotten to know him through things he’s written, photos hanging in the school’s office, and the lasting positive impression he left on the people here.

The one area I know where we do overlap is working on the library at this school. It’s hard to know exactly how much of what was available here when I started was due to his efforts, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it all came from work that he did. It seems unlikely that teachers here would have labeled books with Dewey Decimal Numbers, and there is a good chance that all of the designated library books were acquired thanks to him.

At the end of 2012 as I was just starting there, new buildings on the school grounds were getting their finishing touches and one of the classrooms was to be dedicated to housing the library. The supply of library books was being kept in the school’s office, out of sight from any child who might want to read them. The school had no book shelves except for some utility shelves where the seldom seen books were sitting. One of the first things I did as a volunteer was to help the principal draft an appeal to the department of education requesting furniture and shelves for the library, as well as furniture for setting up science and computer labs.

2012 School Buildings

At the start of the 2013 school year (in South Africa, the school years start and end with the calendar year), part of that request was fulfilled. In the classroom that was to become the school’s first fully functioning library, shelves were installed. They are very large, metal utility shelves – far from ideal for a school library, but at least a place to start. Also, at that time, Connie, one of the HODs (Head of Department) at the school, was taking a course specific to school library management and made her office within the library itself. The shelves were quickly filled with various textbooks, and the modest supply of library books available. I started planning how and when I would be able to do more for this project.

By the end of the 2013 school year, I had sent several requests to known book donors and organizations that support school libraries in Africa. Unfortunately, I had missed out on an earlier opportunity to get in on a large shipment of books from an organization called Books for Africa that was organized through some other Peace Corps Volunteers. But, I was getting some promising responses from a handful of the requests I had sent, and I made a formal plan for the remainder of my time at the school in 2014, which focused on helping in the library.

Then through a stroke of luck, Liz, a PCV in another part of KwaZulu-Natal, asked if I would be interested in another shipment of books through Books for Africa. Apparently, she had done so well with organizing the shipment earlier in 2013 that they wanted to work with her again to get more books in the hands of kids in KZN through a donation sponsored by Nigeria’s Sir Emeka Offor Foundation. With as many as 20 boxes of books coming, I started researching options for building some honest-to-goodness book shelves.

In the meantime, the 2013 school year had come to a close. Soon after, we had a confirmation date for the shipment from Books for Africa, a promise of one box of books coming directly from Darien Book Aid in the states, and Term 1 of the 2014 school year had started. But by the end of February, even though our books had arrived, I was no longer in a hurry to start on the shelves because I was devoting more time to the grade 6 class than I thought I would be. It would all have to wait until Term 2. But because of the excitement of all the boxes, we were able to recruit some kids on Saturdays to come and help unpack the books and start to organize them.

Unpacking books

I found plans online for cheap, durable, low-waste book shelves. I consulted with my dad via email to get a second opinion as to how well they would work in a school. I converted everything in the plans to metric, and put in an order of lumber for one set. My thought was, if I could build one set on my own, I would turn the plans over to the school to make subsequent sets as a school project for some of the older students.

Finally, with the start of Term 2 in April, I was able to move my desk into the library and devote the bulk of my school time there. I was cataloging, organizing, and color-coding this very generous donation of books, setting up a consistent way of checking them in and out, and figuring out how and when I could manage to build some of the shelves they would sit on. Of course, there had already been several delays with my lumber order, but this is nothing out of the ordinary in rural Africa. Finally, in mid-May the principal drove me down to the lumber shop to collect the wood and I set about constructing the shelves.

Fetching the Planks

Following the plans for building the shelves was relatively easy, even though the only power tool at my disposal was a drill. I ordered the lumber in specific sizes, but this is where the problems arose. Widths, lengths, and thicknesses were all inconsistent. The shop I ordered the lumber from seemingly wasn’t able to cut things very exact (or just had little practice doing so, as most of their orders are for the rough-framing of buildings). Additionally, the wood was still a bit damp. I knew the shelves wouldn’t come out as nicely as I originally planned, and because of many slight modifications and deviations from the plans, it no longer seems like an ideal project to hand over to kids at the school. They could still try it; they have the plans and my finished model.

Shelf Construction 1

Shelf Construction 2

Shelf Construction 3

However, the plans did give me an idea of how to modify the utility shelves to be more appropriate for books. Using wood pieces from broken desks, I was able to add over 20 more feet of shelving, with only the cost of some hardware.

Inspired Shelf Solution

Which brings us to the present – a functioning school library, stocked with all kinds of books, mostly fiction for beginning readers, but also lots of resources for teachers and one entire wall dedicated to textbooks for all the subjects offered here (which comes in handy for many kids when they don’t have their own copy of a textbook for several of their classes). As of now, the library is open to students throughout most hours of the school day, and books may be checked out to be taken home (one at a time) to grade four and above.

Using the library

Flocking to the shelves

I’m happy to see the school have this functioning resource now, but I am also concerned for its viability in the future. Though the level of excitement for the availability of books differs from kid to kid, there are many who are now coming to the library daily. These children have made themselves especially valuable to the continuation of this library as they are now able to help maintain and organize the library going forward. But, as my involvement with the school is ending soon, having enough dedicated staff for the library is a concern. I hope that teachers in the school have begun to recognize the value of the library and volunteer themselves to maintaining (and even improving) it for the kids at this school in the years to come.

Finished Library


Posted by on 26 August 2014 in Community, Teaching


Almost There

“Are you counting days?”

I was asked this question by different people at different times and in different situations over the past few weeks. I want the answer to be “yes,” but that’s not yet possible.

My host family recently hosted a small gathering of Peace Corps Volunteers in this area to say farewell. My last day at the school will be September 5. My last official day as a Peace Corps Volunteer was supposed to be September 11, but it looks like that will have to be postponed a week or so due to some scheduling conflicts with Peace Corps. Zandy’s visa interview will be on August 21, unless we can’t get the proper copy of her birth certificate in time, forcing that appointment to be postponed (again). A good cliché for this situation: I’m shooting at a bunch of moving targets.

And then there’s the daycare fundraising project. Between two fundraising events run by my family and friends in two US cities, plus direct donations, $5415 has been raised of the needed $6685 to construct the building.

Almost there.

If you haven’t already attended one of the fundraisers or donated directly, please consider donating online this week. If nothing else, keep sharing this information. Know a celebrity on Twitter? Get them to re-tweet this link: Know someone looking for a worthwhile tax-deductible charity? Drop my name.

We’re so close to funding the construction of this facility. The sooner the money is raised, the sooner they can start construction. We will all be proud to hand this project off to my local colleagues. The icing on the cake will be knowing it was funded before I had to leave the village. Help me make that happen.

A good friend in Arizona commented online earlier today how great my family and friends are. I couldn’t agree more. I couldn’t have come this far without them. They are all so eager to meet Zandy, too, and she is excited to join this great extended family I’m so lucky to be a part of.

And thank you all, now more than ever, for all of your support.

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Posted by on 11 August 2014 in Community, Engagement, Friends, Fund Raising


Meet Lettie

I sat down with Lettie – the driving force behind Vikelani Abantwana Crèche – to get her story. This is a person who sees a chance to better her community, her family, and herself, and is taking it head on.

Lettie is a woman with a vision for her community: clean surroundings, healthy residents, and proper care for children and the elderly. These may seem like the basic ideals and the top priorities for any community, but in rural KwaZulu-Natal, progress on any of these fronts can be daunting and slow.

Lettie was born in 1967 across the border in Mozambique, just north of the village where she currently resides. Part of a large family in this rural, Southern African region, she naturally grew up learning subsistence farming practices common for the region, and went to the local Mozambican school where she was taught in Portuguese.

But after grade seven, the family relocated to the village where she currently resides in South Africa. At that point, she essentially had to start her schooling over again, now learning in Zulu, English and Afrikaans, not reaching grade 12 until well into her twenties. Even after passing high school, in the 90s there weren’t many jobs available in the area. She began obtaining further training whenever possible for healthcare related certificates.

In 1996, Lettie wasn’t happy with the conditions of the local town. It was dirty and no one was doing anything to clean it up. The town had no municipal governance, so everything was under tribal authority which had no provisions for sanitation.

Wanting to make a positive difference and with hopes of preventing disease, Lettie took it upon herself to request to the tribal authority for permission to start a clean-up project. It was a approved. She used her first payment to buy “dustbins” – garbage cans – to begin cleaning the town. However, due to some local corruption and sexist attitudes, some local men wouldn’t stand by while a woman was suddenly employed and they were not. They forced themselves into the job she had created and remained until a municipality was formed in that region. At that point, her idea and work had been appropriated again and she had nothing to show for it.

Still holding on to her integrity and ambition, in 2000 Lettie began a project for building reed and grass huts for tourists wanting to have an authentic experience in rural South Africa. Soon after, she sold those huts and resumed her training in healthcare, eventually obtaining a total of 15 certificates in various healthcare related programs.

Lettie, now 47, has held the role of a Community Caregiver since 2005, originally for a local non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO), and now for the local hospital. Her duties include going to sick and elderly people’s homes to check on them, make sure they are taking medications and eating well. This role is considered to be a volunteer position, and the pay is a low, monthly stipend that she uses to help provide for her family.

Lettie and the site of Vikelani Abantwana

Her husband, Jose, also provides, but from a distance. Jose works as a barman at a restaurant in Johannesburg, nearly 400 miles (over 600 km) away and rarely sees his family. Her 13 year old daughter, Mbali, attends grade 7, and 9 year old son, Sizwe, attends grade 4 at the local school where I teach. They are both clever, high achieving students.

Lettie’s work takes her around the community, and many people know who she is. As she makes her rounds, she sees the needs of individuals and of the community at large. So, her idea for building a daycare center is not new, but has really started to become a reality in late 2013 and early 2014. She started by organizing a team of residents in the village that has become the board of directors. They named the organization Vikelani Abantwana Crèche, wrote a constitution for the organization, and then applied with the province to be a registered non-profit in KwaZulu-Natal. After she obtained the land from the tribal council, she had a local contractor draw up blueprints for a 100 square-meter building. Her next step was finding funding for construction of the building, and she came to me for help.

Naturally, people in the village are getting excited for the services Vikelani Abantwana Crèche will provide, and a list of clientele has been growing little by little as word of this new organization spreads. Lettie is currently negotiating with her church to use their building while she waits for the construction the organization’s own building. She expects she’ll have to use her stipend from her job to compensate the church until the crèche is built, but she is eager to make her dream a reality.

Lettie is delighted that so many people from across America and beyond have contributed in ways large and small to help fund this project. When I asked her what she wants the people helping in America to know, she said “I wish maybe one day that people who donate can come to see what you have done here for us in 2014. I have faith that it will be a success. Thank you for your help.”

You can read more about Vikelani Abantwana Crèche and help Lettie by donating here …

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Posted by on 10 July 2014 in Community, Friends, Fund Raising