Nelson Mandela Day’s 67 minutes is not only a reminder of what we should do (something charitable for someone else) but how much we could actually do. Prior to the actual day (July 18th) my mind was flooded with ideas of what and whom I should volunteer my time to. It’s amazing how much need there is in South Africa, in our very own communities. Although my options were countless I was happy when my colleague Judy suggested we assist the Orefile Primary School in Olivenhoutbosch, near Midrand (the truth is that with so many choices I was in danger of choosing nothing).
During the day, Monday to Friday, the non-fee paying school is the home to just over 800 young learners from disadvantaged communities in and around Olivenhoutbosch. The newly built school is a strong and glorious structure, standing out like some type of oasis in a struggling desert. Absenteeism is not a problem here, as lunch is provided and learners are only too happy to flock to the place that likely gives them their only and most nutritious meal of the day.
A seemingly simple question to the principal- “What do you need?” – is actually an invitation to expose a litany of education, IT and sporting deficiencies within the school. It threatened to daunt our small efforts under the Mandela Day umbrella but instead we focused on ensuring the library was functional by the old man’s birthday came around.
Books poured in; old and used; from friends, strangers and organisations like the Rotary International. One philanthropist gave R100 for every minute we plan to give for that day. It was a shopping spree that would make a social statement and for that reason, we enjoyed it all the more. Puzzles, charts, storybooks for the younger learners, novels for the older, reference books and books that open a new and wondrous page into life on this planet and beyond filled the once empty shelves of the library.
The principal and his teachers were deeply appreciative, especially as we made it clear that we intend to continue to support the library beyond Mandela Day, assist with developing a library system and help foster a culture of reading within the school (such as advocating for library sessions for every class each week).
Soon the time came for that moment that would make all the hard work worth it – as they were led in, small hands clasped firmly into other small hands, smiles were wide and eyes big and luminous as they took in the beautiful sight that was now their own library. They seemed excited at spending more time in this space, as one little girl so aptly put it – “books are my company”. There is no question that these learners’ lives are characterised by some degree of hardship and struggle, but as the grade 3s responded when asked how they were – “we are greatly blessed, highly favoured and deeply loved.” I believe them.