Posted by admin on 01.11.2008 at 12:39 am
This is part of a series covering BWB Co-Founder Xavier’s recent trip to Africa.
*November 12, 2007
Rain is soaking the red dirt roads and we are exhausted as we head to the fifth and final school of the day, Nomevu High School. We are running late because of a long presentation at Mafunda HS, but the students at Nomevu are waiting for us, even though many have quite a walk home ahead of them. Alone on a grassy hill, this school has just one building. There’s only room for the 8th and 9th graders, so they’ll have to drop out by 10th grade.
Teachers greet us at Nomevu High School.
Thankfully, ECAG-USA, an non-profit building classrooms in this area and that organized our Africa trip (see their website or read the previous post), has placed this school as #1 on the waiting list for more classrooms, so that the students can graduate.
The process for a school to get new classrooms is that the school’s home community puts up a $1000 payment per classroom, and then, through fundraising and donations, ECAG sponsors the additional $11,000. The classrooms have a standard design, so the materials are accountable to the last brick and can house around 50 students comfortably. They are built with electrical wiring, but adding power is an extra for the school to pay. What happens if ECAG doesn’t build? That’s it; no new classrooms. The kids don’t graduate, or in some cases, have no school at all. Many students in this area still learn under a tree, but on a rainy day like this, it’s a day off. Cool! say the American kids, but think of how often it can rain in a season here! And, no desks, no library.. hardly a good learning environment.
I have mentioned that all primary students are fed a meal each day at school. What we learned today is that the government doesn’t sponsor high school students, so that means these kids at Nomevu had been waiting for us, without eating all day. Our hearts are breaking for these humble, appreciative students. Sorry this post might be a downer, but after we’d fallen in love with so many kids all day it was really hitting us, how hard life can be here. On the way here, on the radio, the newscaster announced that HIV/AIDS is the #1 killer of children in South Africa. How were these kids today so full of life? I had to wonder if they thought our visit meant that we would be able to solve their problems, or if it was, you know, just a lot of fun. I certainly had a wonderful day, but still I felt a bit guilty.
The end of a long day, Nomevu HS.
Like at every school, the students had songs and dances ready for us, including the native costumes for the girls. I don’t feel comfortable posting video of the girls to BWB because they are topless, but I did think they were so beautiful. My favorite choral performance of the day, however, was this one:
Let it shine in Zululand video. (youtube)
The teachers provided a snack for us of sandwiches and chicken in the other classroom. Knowing the kids hadn’t eaten, and since we’d had snacks all day, nobody made a move for the spread. Some of the ladies in our group whispered we had to take something to not be rude, so begrudgingly, we did. More guilt… Anyway, we unloaded the sandwiches and drinks we had in the vans. With that and all the leftovers from the snack, there was enough for a small meal for each student, and we felt better knowing they had eaten.
What a day! We are overwhelmed but ready to help these students graduate. If you’ve been following this blog, you remember that at the end of this day, after Nomevu HS, we went to visit the student Nomkhosi’s family.
Xavier and Erin, bottom left, and the ECAG and Books for Africa group, enjoy the show.
Posted by admin on 01.10.2008 at 1:38 pm
This is part of a series covering Xavier’s recent trip to Africa.
*November 12, 2007
If you’ve noticed it’s been Nov. 12th for a few posts, you are not crazy and I am not mistaken; as I mentioned earlier, we went to five schools and visited a student’s home all in the same day! There is so much to cover that I had to break it up into several posts.
After Thembalisizwe Primary, we headed to Emasundwini Primary school. We’re not cruising around a town to get there; we drive on small country roads, through hills dotted with clusters of straw-roofed huts (don’t forget the zebras by the roadside). At the school, are six buildings, green and white this time. This is another Books for Africa school and we visited the new library.
Additionally, some of the group, including Xavier, taught the students a small lesson using a world map (“Can you tell me where South Africa is?”). The teachers surprised us with finger sandwiches, which we ate tentatively (would we get sick?).
[I have to note, looking back, that nobody did get sick from the food. I was expecting to, since my world travel experiences have taught me that when one travels, one spends a day not eating if you know what I mean.]
I think Xavier needed to work off his sandwich, so he challenged some kids to a footrace. Note how he thought the finish line was a bit earlier than the kids.
Xavier races kids 3.mov (2.18 MB)
Next up was Gqokinsimbi High School, a very special one to our leader, Henry Bromelkamp. He has personally sponsored a classroom here through ECAG-USA. He started this organization after visiting the area and learning about the original organization, Eshowe Community Action Group, whose purpose is to build classrooms in the rural area around the town of Eshowe. Henry founded the US arm so that American donors could give money more easily and be able to write off donations at tax-time. This all begs the question, Why doesn’t the South Africa government build classrooms in Zululand? Exactly. The government, possibly via some lingering racist sentiment (this authors opinion), doesn’t build here, but if ECAG does, the government will provide teachers and daily meals for primary students.
About the school name: I think the letter q stands for a click sound. Awesome!
I like this video because it shows that high school kids are truly the same everywhere.
video of Xavier talking to a cute girl at Gqokinsimbi HS. (youtube)
Barb Ryan, Xavier and Henry teach some maps at Mafunda HS.
Later on was Mafunda High School, with slogans “We Live For Tomorrow” and “Conquer the World Through Education” displayed near the entrance. Here again, our group taught classroom lessons, this time using photos of Minnesota (where most of the group hails from), showing seasons and such. Not one student answered affirmatively to the question, “Has anyone seen snow before?” None of us thought a description alone can really convey what snow is like, but the students did enjoy seeing pictures of snowmen and discussing what makes our countries similar and different.
Here again, we were treated to food and drink and a very detailed PowerPoint of the school’s goals through 2010. These included the idea that the “doors would never shut” because the school would create an adult ed. program in the evenings, and sponsor community meeting space.
Here are some guys with beautiful voices and sweet moves. The ululations you hear are typical of how girls sing while guys dance here.
video of boys performing at Mafunda HS. (youtube)
Posted by admin on 01.06.2008 at 10:11 pm
This is part of a series covering BWB Co-Founder Xavier’s recent trip to Africa.
*November 12, 2007
Library in Thembalisizwe Primary School.
We started our day of school visits at a very fortunate school, Thembalisizwe (“Hope of the Nation”) Primary. We passed by zebras on the drive down rust dirt roads bordered by emerald green fields. I say fortunate because this school has benefited from the generosity of many organizations. It has a water reticulation system and latrines from a Wisconson Rotary Club, classrooms built by the Eshowe Community Action Group (ECAG) and a library from BWB. The buildings are pink and yellow and surrounded by manicured walks and ornamental bushes planted by students.
We are hosted by Jethro, dressed in a pin-striped suit with yellow shirt and gold tie. He is the principal and a born orator who has recently been to the USA and knows what wealth we have in our country. After we saw the school he appealed to us, “Some of you may be touched, and donate.” He lays out his vision for the school: more computers, internet, a dining hall with a proper kitchen, more classrooms. Currently, two volunteer women prepare food over fires in a shed-like structure; each primary student is fed one meal a day at school.
We wandered the campus for a few minutes, listening to the learners singing in their classrooms as they do each morning and then headed to a multi-use room for a presentation by the student body.
Xavier, Jethro and Melanie (ECAG South Africa director) watch students perform.
This was such a treat! Students of all ages sang, danced and recited poetry and speeches for us. We heard our national anthem and joined in for South Africa’s, heard gospel songs in Zulu language, and one seemingly written for our group. The lyrics included these lines:
America, America! America you’re so beautiful.
Some of us are the orphans, some of us are so needy (2x).
America, America! America you’re so beautiful.
We love you, hey! We need you, hey! Can you help us, we’re so needy!
We were a little uncomfortable to hear that one. It was strange to be somewhere for the purpose of helping, when the need is known, but to hear the kids sing about it. Xavier and I discussed how in the US it is bad form to appeal in that way. More cultural lessons: the 5th and 6th grade girls left the room in school uniforms and returned in costume, which was a miniskirt, a string of beads and a cardboard shield. Our group had to overcome a bit of shock to see these young girls dancing and singing, quite well in fact, but wearing nothing above the waist. I thought it was cool to see this total other sort of body acceptance, as compared to the US.
According to the program director, the school is “not like a pond, but like a running river,” never stagnant. When she thanked the Books for Africa board members of our group, she said the learners “have acquired certain skills, such as investigation. Our learners can investigate to find information. Our learners are different than previous; they have learned new skills from their library.” (YAY!)
Video of the library (youtube)
Students wave goodbye at Thembalisizwe Primary School, Zululand, South Africa.
Posted by admin on 01.03.2008 at 1:01 am
This is part of a series covering BWB founder Xavier’s recent trip to Africa.
*November 11, 2007.
For Xavier and me, starting off the day with a game of “dive for the Frisbee” in the Indian Ocean is just about perfect. The only thing wrong with this particular morning was that I forgot to take off my non-waterproof watch before jumping in the waves- d’oh!
Kites over beach on the Indian Ocean. Durban, South Africa.
Our first school visit was here in Durban, at Christianenburg Primary School, which has a library with about 10,000 donated books (from a container split by 25 area schools). There are 1305 students aged 5-15, called ‘learners’ here in South Africa, and the student-teacher ratio is almost 50:1. There are 28 classrooms and 34 teachers here. The buildings and layout are representative of all schools here; long buildings painted the school colors with flowering bushes. The principal, Nomsa Shandu, deputy principal Bonga Mkize and librarian Thandi Putini were willing to accommodate our visit on a Sunday afternoon.
School staff Shandu, Putini and Mkeze.
The library is beautifully organized and has a sign that said, “My Golden Rules: Order at All Times is the Motto of This Room”. The books are neatly placed and include two small shelves in Zulu language; the thousands of others are in English. The learners can’t check out the books but are given time to visit the library to read. Shandu, who has been here 20 years, spoke at length about the learners. She told us that the students have difficulties with the school fees, which are 150 Rand per year (under $25), but that coming to school is worth it for the free daily government-provided meal for each primary student.
We had a wonderful visit! The system works- the books are in the school, available each day for the kids. Tomorrow is an even bigger day for us; we have five schools and classes will be in session. I’m not expecting it to be easy to meet all the kids, now knowing that many of them only eat once a day, that many will be AIDS orphans. It’s quite a different thing to know some stats about a place and to know personally the names and faces that are behind them, but I am happy thinking of the commited and caring teachers we met today.
Christianenburg Primary School.
Mural at Christianenburg Primary School, Durban, South Africa.
Posted by admin on 12.29.2007 at 7:37 pm
This is part of a series covering BWB Co-Founder Xavier’s trip to Africa.
*November 10, 2007
Since we only arrived a few days ago to South Africa, we are still in the switch-time zone, get–the-lay-of-the-land phase. Yesterday our group split into three, and my group, including Xavier and fearless leader Henry, went on a drive down toward the Cape of Good Hope. The roads were washed out, so we only got as far as Hout Bay, which is where the British set up camp back in the day (Cape Town was first Dutch), and is also cool because they didn’t really enforce apartheid. I hear Hout Bay even issued its own passports, such was the local pride, which new property owners can still obtain. We made it to Chapman’s Peak, overlooking the bay, and watched Right whales spouting in the waters below. One even waved to us with his big tail! I felt like I was really at the end of the Earth there, where these green hills dropped right into the sea, near the confluence of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and at the end of a continent so far from my home.
Hout Bay and Chapman’s Peak, South Africa.
Our tour guide Loki, a friend of Xavier’s, is a biologist interested in human-elephant interaction. After observing the troubles between farmers and elephant herds, he started a company called Elephant Pepper that educates farmers in high-incident areas and assists them to grow chilies (which elephants don’t like) along with their subsistance crops and to use the same chilies to make sauces to sell. (The Baobab Gold is perfection; tangy, perfect amount of heat, actually contains baobab…)
I get the impression that there are many support roles here that are filled by non-South Africans, such as in education. This is not a bad thing, of course. I think if all the best information and resources went where they were needed the world would be a better place, and South Africa is such a great candidate for these resources. It has the infrastructure to receive them, plenty of educated English-speaking folks and cultural connections to most parts of the world.
Today was a travel day. We flew to Durban on the southeast coast, a stopover on our way to the KwaZulu-Natal region, or Zululand. Cape Town was a good introductory city for our group: beautiful, historic, but still a bit removed from the real poverty of Zululand. Plus, we got to go hiking up Table Mountain this morning and get some ocean views, a real treat!
Xavier remembers his life path to this moment on the Table Mountain hike.
The Durban airport countdown until the next time I will be in South Africa… World Cup 2010!
Posted by admin on 12.28.2007 at 9:43 pm
As Xavier noted earlier, we didn’t have the technology to live-post to the blog during the Africa trip, so here it is, time-delay included for your reading pleasure.
Cape Town, South Africa
*November 7, 2007
Happy birthday to me! I have the greatest birthday gift today: my flight to Cape Town, South Africa! It’s going to be 11 hours from London to Johannesburg and another 2 to Cape Town, but only one-hour time change. I will be joining Xavier, co-founder of Better World Books and Books for Africa (BfA) board member, and other people involved with BfA and a classroom-building organization, ECAG-USA (more on that later). Some of the group’s goals for the trip include finding out more about the book delivery and distribution process on the Africa side, and also more about the needs and opportunities for education in the neediest regions of the country. I don’t know anyone else on the trip, but they are Minnesotans, so they must be friendly, right? Another birthday ‘gift’ – it’s almost summertime in South Africa! I can’t wait for the warm African sunshine after the month I have just spent in blustery, cloud-covered central Europe.
We are in South Africa until the 20th, and then we are in Malawi, a small country to the north, until the 29th. We will be seeing many schools that have received book shipments and classroom donations, and potential recipient schools. I have a feeling we will learn so much…
*November 8, 2007
Unfortunately I arrived this afternoon from my overnight travel, so I missed the morning boat trip around Robben Island just off Cape Town’s V&A Harbor, where Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner for 27 years under the country’s apartheid regime.
The drive to Cape Town from the airport encapsulates what I expect to see in this country. There is beautiful natural scenery, with ocean view and rolling green hills (South Africa is the world’s 3rd most bio-diverse country, with over 20,000 plant species), and rich and poor communities awkwardly side-by-side. Just a few minutes after leaving the airport, black squatter camps surround the highway; tin-roofed shacks with many-colored scrap walls lean on each other amidst dirt pathways and women carrying the day’s wash. My driver said the new government, like many recently, promised jobs to lift these people out of poverty, but thus far to no visible result. Just a couple of miles beyond, I could see the University Cape Town, founded 1829 and still with nearly 50% white enrollment in a country that is 80% black, perched grandly up on the side of Devil’s Peak. While there is no longer apartheid, the advantage is still to the white folks here, it seems.
Cape Town itself is nestled in the lowlands of the oceanfront mountains, much like Rio de Janeiro. High rises are grouped near the Atlantic Ocean’s edge and lead up to private homes painted in rainbow colors up the hillsides. It was in one of these neighborhoods, called Bo-Kaap, where we had a fantastic, family-style Malay dinner.
The restaurant name, Bo-Kaap Kombois, essentially means the neighborhood kitchen. According to the owner, the local people historically held all family meetings, group decision-making and quality time in the kitchen, and so he wanted his restaurant to reflect the welcoming, homey atmosphere and the local cuisine. He enthusiastically told us about each dish and the sauces (think ginger, curry, tamarind and chilies), how the white landowners brought in workers from Malaysia, India, China and from the surrounding area, and how the lingua franca Afrikaans and the cuisine came out of this immigrant melting pot that is Bo-Kaap. He also spoke very highly of the generosity of the local residents (he claims we can walk into someone’s home and use the bathroom, and we will not leave without a cup of tea and having been asked about our mother), the strong sense of community and the prevalence of the Islamic faith here. Xavier and I had a laugh at the thought of the walk-in-to-your-neighbor’s bathroom thing… I think we may try that back in San Francisco!
The view from the restaurant’s wall-sized windows was stunning; we were up on the edge of a bowl-shaped valley that poured down to the waterfront, and could see the red, pink and yellow houses of Bo-Kaap and a very curious sight—the little putting green in the empty lot below. Four boys, each with a 5-iron were hitting a golf ball up this strip of (how did that get there?) ratty astro-turf surrounded by unkempt lawn, one even wearing an Argyle sweater. I guess this was golfing Africa-style.
What a great first day! I am excited for the villages and the schools, but some transition time in lovely Cape Town will start us off right. I’m still not over the “am I really here?’ feeling. This city is just so, well, European and modern that it is hard to fit it with my idea of Africa. But maybe that is the point: each place I will see here will stand alone and will have much to it that I don’t expect. How wonderful!
Xavier digs in to the Malay cuisine with Erin on his left; the owner smiles over the satisfied customers.
Posted by Xavier on 12.17.2007 at 5:15 pm
“Xavier, you need to come, it’s going to be incredible.” Henry’s a convincing guy, a skill that’s clearly served him well in building a successful software company, and he had a willing prospect on his hands. “Come visit my friends in Malawi, tour the schools I’ve helped build in Zululand, South Africa, and we’ll check on all kinds of Books For Africa recipients.” I suggested that we visit Better World Books Zambia (more on that later) as well. Henry countered that if we were doing that, it would be a shame to not see Victoria Falls. Sold.
I know Henry through my work on the Board of Books For Africa. It’s a collection of truly dedicated and passionate professionals who come together on their nights and weekends to help end the book famine in Africa. Henry’s a traveler after my own heart, preferring backpackers’ hostels to any hotel that brags about its star rating. He invited a number of his friends and business associates along on the trip, and over the weeks, they quickly became new friends. Although I normally abhor group travel, it made a lot of sense for this trip. The logistics of all the school visits and book recipient visits would have been daunting if we had not banded together. Another unexpected benefit was that I got to drive a rental 6-speed Mercedes mini-van on the left side of the road all over South Africa. Fun! I hate cars for the damage they do to the environment and culture… but I love to drive, especially in unfavorable circumstances. Consider it a guilty pleasure.
I blocked off what was easily my longest stretch away from the office since we founded Better World Books five years ago. The whole month of November I would be largely offline, with the exception of a few phone calls and email checks. A trip like this would have been inconceivable a few years ago, but thanks to the incredible team we’ve built at Better World, I didn’t sweat it in the least. I knew the ops would keep humming under Kreece’s leadership, BetterWorld.com would keep getting better thanks to Dale, Geoff, and Justin, and on and on. I think everybody was glad to not have to humor any of my crazy ideas for a whole month.
Speaking of crazy ideas, I had high hopes of being able to live-blog this trip from a OLPC, the $199 laptop designed specifically for the developing world. Sadly, the OLPC people didn’t have pre-release laptops available, and at any rate, Africa’s low Internet connectivity wouldn’t have permitted much blogging other than a few quick posts. So, loyal readers, you get the next best thing. Think of this as a time-delayed live-blog. We’ll be blogging with videos and photos and get as close as we can to bringing you along on the trip.
Also speaking of crazy ideas – we’ll be launching a customer loyalty system for Better World in 2008. Rather than give away blenders, coffee mugs, and similar rubbish, we thought that a few loyal customers should come to Africa with us to visit the literacy projects in person. After all, it’s customers that make this whole thing possible. Why should Better World employees have all the fun? This idea deserved a beta test. My friend and longtime Better World customer Erin Fleming agreed to join me and help document the trip. She’s typical of our customers – well read, globally minded, socially conscious, (and cheap!). Her perspective will really bring the trip to life for you.
Keep tuning in over the next month as Erin and I travel Zambia, South Africa and Malawi.
To whet your appetite, I’ve attached a few Youtube videos. These are from Erin and I hitchhiking in Malawi. Don’t worry – our traveling companions took a lot of convincing to leave us by the side of the road in Malawi.
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