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“Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for eternity." (Translated) - Nelson Mandela

“Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for eternity.” – Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is the perfect example of the intangibility of success and triumph. Although Mandela told CNN in an interview for his 90th birthday that he regretted nothing in his life, there is no doubt that his road to freedom and the South African Presidency was not without its stumbling points. Why else would one of his most quotable declarations be “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall”? But nevertheless, he taught us to strive to be better in every way.

Mandela wasn’t always the man we will remember going forward from today. In the early years of the struggle, he co-founded the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) and traveled the continent amassing a following and funds for an armed struggle against apartheid. For this, he was jailed – labeled a terrorist for so long he remained on the Untied States terrorist watch list until the age of 89, until he was removed in 2008.

It is for this reason that Mandela’s triumph over apartheid is such an inspiration. He became a beacon of forgiveness, faith and humility when no one would have blamed him for being anything but bitter and angry. Taking pause and evaluating the struggle while imprisoned on Robben Island, Mandela later abandoned the idea of an armed struggle and instead began preaching respect, tolerance and love. “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love,” he said, and an overwhelming number of people around the world and even his enemies in South Africa sat up and took notice.

Instead of facilitating an armed resistance, which many believed would spiral the country into civil war, in his later years Mandela opted to fight apartheid with a halo. His years in prison were the crucible that created President Nelson Mandela – the optimist that believed he could work alongside his enemies to bring an end to apartheid and avoid a South African civil war.

Mandela

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” – Nelson Mandela

Mandela took the helm of a sinking ship. There’s no doubt his ‘Rainbow Nation’ fell short of his albeit high expectations. Mandela wasn’t perfect – he avoided a civil war, implemented the famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission and did oversee a five-year term of stability. However, later ANC leadership has left much wanting when it comes to Mandela’s vision for the country. The current ANC government is plagued by controversy, underachievement and corruption. Rumours swirled years ago that Mandela no longer even voted for the party. But still the ANC has held power since 1994. In political science we call this phenomenon the ‘Mandela Factor’ – no one will vote against the ANC while he still lives and embodies the struggle for freedom.

But despite your politics, skin colour, birthplace or hometown, Mandela is not remembered as a politician, but a man. A man we thought (or perhaps hoped) would live forever and give us hope that South Africa could become that perfect Rainbow Nation. I like to believe it still can.

Statue of Mandela along with South Africa's three Nobel Prize laureates in Cape Town.

Statue of Mandela along with South Africa’s three Nobel Prize laureates in Cape Town.

My favourite Madiba quote goes like this: ‘There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.’ This is my personal choice of his many messages: that we can improve ourselves as individuals and this will change the world. We don’t all have to be Mandela – surely these shoes are too big to fill. We don’t all have to move mountains. If we all strive to be better people, whether because of a faith in God, or in the greater good for humanity, or both.

Nelson Mandela taught us about faith, forgiveness, acceptance, strength and perseverance. In an imperfect world and an unprecedented situation, he was a beacon of calm, dignity and poise. His message was not for us to make the world a better place, but to work to make ourselves better people, and this is something we need to take with us moving forward.

President Obama said in his beautiful eulogy-like speech of a man that inspired his journey towards becoming the first black president of his country, we are likely to never see another individual like Mandela again. For this reason, his message of how we can create a better South Africa and a better world is a message we can’t afford to ignore.

Hamba kahle Tata Nelson Mandela – Go well, Father Nelson Mandela

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The container arriving in June 2011. To keep the future library secure it was placed beside the Induna's office.

The container arriving in June 2011. To keep the future library secure it was placed beside the Induna’s office.

One of the biggest evolutions that occurred during my time with African Impact – St Lucia was the delivery, unpacking, decoration and overall transformation of a big orange container into a full-blown library.

Late in June, 2011 a large shipping container filled with donations arrived at the Induna’s office in Khula, sent by two former volunteers from the UK.

After getting stuck for hours and having to rip out some of the fencing to execute the container’s delivery, African Impact staff stood staring into the giant abyss of donations, and I’ll admit I felt somewhat overwhelmed.

“What the hell were we going to do with all of this stuff?” I thought. Computers, desks, adult chairs, preschool chairs, chalkboards, books, toys, shovels and pitchforks – the list went on and on. One time, I even found half a can of paint in there somewhere!

Luckily we had a manifest given to us with all the items, but it was quickly discovered that there was plenty more in the container than the list divulged – which meant going through and counting every last item to register it with our charity, The Happy Africa Foundation.

In the end, it took us well into the following year to get all of the donations out to community members and organizations that we thought would use them best. Michelle evaluated a number of churches, clinics, schools and crèches and made a list of where items should be placed.

Each time we organised the container it would be done in groups - some outside and some inside. Didn't help that this part was done in some of the hottest summer weather!

Organising the container was done in groups – some outside and some inside. Didn’t help that this part was done in some of the hottest summer weather!

Organizing

However, before anything could be delivered we first had to tackle the fact that to get anything out of the container we either had to scale giant piles of desks and chairs or empty half the container every time to see what was inside. This meant a few months of organizing and counting.

This task was overwhelmingly the most daunting. Even the volunteers looked at me like I was loony when I explained to them that our afternoon activity was going to be ‘to try to touch the back of the container.’

But when we did, it was a joyous occasion that warranted a round of applause.

Using the Induna's truck to deliver tables to churches and clinics.

Using the Induna’s truck to deliver tables to churches and clinics.

Deliveries

Once we could see what was actually inside the container, and were able to assess the needs of the community, deliveries started being made.

Whether it involved using the Induna’s truck or just travelling around the community in our Toyota Condors, crèches, churches, community leaders, clinics and schools all slowly began receiving their donations from what was then a very infamous container.

As staff, we spent a number of weekends heading out into the community to deliver spades and pitchforks to community churches with gardens.

The completed library.

The completed library.

Setting up

Every once in a while small miracles happen, and in January 2012 as we started to prepare to organize the container as a library, a volunteer named Liz arrived who had been a librarian. Incredible luck!

She was truly instrumental in helping decide the layout of the library and with implementing a colour-coding system for the books. Zululand’s summer heat was upon us at this point, and working in a metal container felt more like a sauna. Nevertheless, within the next three months we had transformed the shipping container into a library – hardly anyone could believe how fantastic it looked.

All the trimmings

What’s a library without some sparkle!? Books didn’t just get shelved, but a mural was painted on the outside of the container and poems on the inside along with various educational posters.

Volunteers created bookends and shelves and worked hard to polish up the container both inside and out. The end result was a beautiful, tidy and impressively professional-looking library for the Khula kids.

Monique, the mastermind behind the success of Reading Club.

Monique, the mastermind behind the success of Reading Club.

Reading Club

I must mention what an incredible job Volunteer Coordinator Monique did with this project. My involvement with the container faded when it became a library. In 2012 our coordinators did a stellar job at building the popularity of Reading Club, but Monique took it to a whole other level.

She created certificates and reading club cards and instituted an incredible amount of order and process to Reading Club that I could never have done. She’s truly the mastermind behind the success of the project.

Final days

How fitting that my last afternoon on project was spent at that very container.

At the time, over 300 kids (and counting) had registered for the club, average attendance was around 60. The club involved learners reading with volunteers and being rewarded with a certificate system as they read a certain amount of books at their level.

To ensure the sustainability of the program, those who “graduate” are able to read alongside younger learners and help them sign off books on their reading cards as they climb the ladder towards the bronze, silver and gold certificates.

As I watched the certificate ceremony on my last day of projects in St Lucia, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed – I could almost feel something positive happening, something bigger than just an after school program. The kids don’t attend Reading Club to be fed, to get a handout or treats. They come because Reading Club empowers them, helps them learn – and let’s face it learning feels good.

Reading Club in full swing.

Reading Club in full swing.

Reading Club enhances the kid’s classroom learning, keeps them out of trouble after school, empowers young girls (and boys for that matter), teaches the kids to share, work together and even help one another.

The club is not what it seems on the outside. It is a complex machine of development goals driven not by the volunteers but by the kids who attend, and who will be the future of their community and country.

Long may it prosper.

What it's all about - happy volunteers and readers getting certificates.

What it’s all about – happy volunteers and readers getting certificates.

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Writing a new chapter

I arrived in St Lucia for the first time in the evening of a rainy dark April 30th in 2008. Senzo, a local Zulu employee and police officer, picked Sam Lavin and I up, and drove us to Oppi Rotse, the volunteer house at the time. After a well-fought battle with what we thought was a bat (turns out, large moth) I spent my first night in South Africa with thoughts of a game drive the next morning filling my head. It seems like just yesterday.

Sam and I, who shared a room together for nearly two months in May/June 2008, would both go on to be Volunteer Coordinators and later Project Managers with African Impact.

Sam and I, who shared a room together for nearly two months in 2008, would both go on to be Volunteer Coordinators and Project Managers with African Impact.

Since that day, my life became completely consumed by the place I welcomed into my heart five years ago. It ruined more than one of my relationships, annoyed my friends and family and even made me sick of hearing myself say “This one time in South Africa…”

At school I couldn’t help but think that every step I took on another continent was one I was missing helping others across the Atlantic.

So, in a word, I made the projects in St Lucia my passion – returning every year since then as a volunteer. This meant three separate stints as a volunteer: once as an education volunteer and twice on the medical project. I did my best to use the skills I had learned in the classroom to enhance my time as a volunteer, and listened and learned from my peers that were filled with more experience than I.

This place and I have gone though a great many things – break-ups, hook-ups, break-downs, personal epiphanies – and I wonder if anyone else has been so lucky to have a place that has made such an impact on their lives.

It’s with a heavy heart that I leave St Lucia and my position with African Impact at the end of August – 913 days after I dropped my entire life to take the Volunteer Coordinator position offered to me in 2011.

Me as an education volunteer in May 2008.

Me as an education volunteer in May 2008.

It’s time to start a new chapter, but for the next few posts I’ll be recounting some of the incredible, life-changing experiences I’ve had during my time in St Lucia and the communities that surround the small town. My next adventures include moving in with Chris, spending some time in Cape Town and Livingstone and continuing my work with The Happy Africa Foundation.

However, St Lucia and my time there will forever hold a special place in my heart. Between 133 days of volunteering, 913 days of working and seeing 306 volunteers through our programmes, how could it not?

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If the global crises of the past four years (food, fuel, financial) and the slow burn of climate change have called into question the way we live, then it’s likely the impact of these crises on the field of international development will be fundamental.

Check out the full article from The Guardian, here.

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I have finally finished packing my bag after a very stressful couple of days. Yesterday’s surprise party for my boyfriend went really well and my trip to South Africa has finally become a blip on my radar.

Eric (the boyfriend) keeps asking me why I don’t seem more excited. I tell him it’s because after my 12 hour flight to Dubai, I have a 10 hour layover. Then after my 8 hour flight to Johannesburg, I have a 6 hour layover before my 1.5 hour flight to Richards Bay.

Then it’s an hour drive to the house after someone picks me up at the airport hangar that is the Richards Bay airport. I think only when I reach Joburg will I really feel excited.

All of the South African Rand is back in my wallet and I’ve got those pre-departure butterflies. It’s going to be a great experience that I really hope I can share with all of you.

Maybe seeing my trip will help some of you make the decision to go abroad and volunteer!!

Next time we talk, I’ll be halfway around the world!!

-A

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