wishing for a light at the end of the tunnel

August 4th

Attorney called us this morning around 9am; we have an interview with one of the high school teachers. Meeting with the educators from N’wanati High has been one of our many goals during our time in Makuleke, and we knew it would not be an easy task. Many do not wish to speak with us regarding their school, are busy, or are simply uninterested. We knew that. However, a few are eager to speak. This would be our second interview.

Vulamni Maluleke teaches English to grade 11 learners. Her responses came from the heart. The three of us sat there eager to listen. Nadalie taking notes, Attorney listening, preparing to ask more if need be, while I was the one leading the discussion, recording it all on my phone. One of the first questions I asked her was if she enjoyed teaching. I usually save this for last, but something told me to bring it up first. Her answer was complicated. She loves her job; she wants the best for these learners, yet she finds it discouraging at the same time. Again I am overwhelmed with emotions. I’m frustrated, saddened, and unsure if there is any sort of solution for all of this. Is there even a way we can help? God I hope so. At one point of the interview I had to turn away. I was on the verge of tears. Vulamni told us the struggles she faces in the classroom. The lack of chairs, desks, and chalkboards, disrespectful students sometimes being the majority of class, and the fear she has when trying to take the stronger hand. She is afraid of her students at times. Some are on drugs and have no problem threatening her when she attempts to enforce the classroom rules.

Nevertheless, she knows she has students that have the drive. They are eager. They have potential. They take the initiative to go to the staff room to ask their teachers about assignments they don’t understand. They come find their educators and request them to class when they do not show. This tells me there is hope. But it is still so unfair.

I wish I had something more positive to share, but at this moment I can’t feel it. I’m sitting now outside of my hut, behind our tree trunk and wire built fence, watching two of my boys, three of their friends, and two year old Laty playing with the football in front of me. And I see love. I see compassion. I see hope. They are smiling. Happily playing with one another. Yet these struggles of education still loom. And I don’t know if there is a solution. These are great children with incredible potential. It’s just so hard to watch them, knowing the system that is supposed to help them reach that potential is failing them. I want to fix it. Everyone should want to fix it. And the change is going to have to come from within, but how?

I want Tuki to stop lying, to stop coming up with excuses. I want him to go to school. I want him to succeed, we all do. He is so clever, so full of inspiration not only for me but for his three nephews.

I wish Nesta, a seventeen-year-old girl, did not have to be constantly doing choirs. Working as a second mom for her family. She’s incredibly intelligent and I know she will persevere. She has the support from Sharing to Learn, from her family, from her friends, but needs it from her school. She is excelling without it. However, it shouldn’t be that way.

I want Kuhlula to know he is loved. He is learning though. I wish him a bright future and want him to know so many people care about him, despite his birth mother always telling him otherwise.

The youth of Makuleke, the youth of eager learners, know something more about life than people in the Western world may ever know. They know the grim circumstances of their education. How the government is failing them. How their education system is failing them. And that is where the ultimate unfairness lies. There are educators that do care and I want more than anything for them to come together, emanate their mission to these children, bringing out their full potential, showing them that they posses the strength and giving the faith they need to progress.

There always is a silver lining, there has to be. And in this case I think Sharing to Learn shows that it is possible. But its time for the next step. It wont be easy, but I truly believe that by sharing our stories, learning from one another, and getting more support from others, we can help create the change that is needed.


Makahlule musing

Mornings in Makuleke are usually spent sitting on the edge of the hut, drinking instant coffee, listening to Mother Nature’s music of the new day. It’s just as serene as you would imagine, surrounding yourself with the sweet sounds of life. However, this morning was a bit different for me. I am scheduled to have interviews with a few teachers in Makahlule, the neighboring village, around half past seven, thus instead of being a spectator, I will be participating in the morning routine of the village. The small roads are full of yellow and blue school uniforms, signs that eager learners are en route to get to school on time. Winter is ending, but the fresh air can still send chills through your body, as the warmth of the African sun slowly seeps into your skin. Children run, greeting their friends in the road, ready for another day to begin. I walk with the eldest of my three little boys, Kuhlula, giving him a few Rand so he can purchase a new notebook for school. Standing at the tar road, you can see straight down both sides. Educators during their morning commute, convies picking up those who are heading into town, and truckbed’s full of students, taking the learners to N’wantani High School. It’s the only tar road in Makuleke and the busyness of it demonstrates just that. I stand there, taking it all in, noticing my surroundings and where I am at that moment. I exchange a few greetings in Tsonga with some passerby’s and wish children a good day at school. I am still singled out for being one of the two ‘mulungu’s’ (white person) in the village, but I just smile and wave. An educator from Makuleke stops to pick me up and takes me with her to her school.

I absolutely love interviewing and talking with the teachers in this village. Whether I am at Joas Phahlela, Makuleke Primary, or Makahlule, I feel welcomed. They greet me with such great smiles, expressing how much it means to them to have me there, and share with me the impact Sharing to Learn has had. They are not dependent on Denise or her program, but truly are grateful for all that it has done. I came by Makahlule Primary yesterday to drop off some surveys for a few teachers, as well as ask the principal, Simon, to write a letter about how the library has impacted the school. He was eager to see me and invited me to interview other educators tomorrow morning around 8:00. That’s where I am now. This morning he showed me to a room and provided me with my own little office. I made myself at home. Before I knew it, two women came in to speak with me. When meeting with anyone in this village for the most part, there is almost always some sort of rift in communication. Not intentionally of course, but it is something that happens when you have people working together from completely different cultures. Point here is I was supposed to meet with two educators separately, preferably ones that did not fill out the survey I had dropped of. I would interview them individually for about 20 minutes, trying to get as much organic information as I could. Instead, I had two teachers come in simultaneously with the survey they had filled out. Not bad just a little different than what I was expecting. You learn to go with the flow in these types of situations, knowing there is nothing you can do but smile and be happy they are there. The interview went on for about thirty minutes. The teachers expanded on what they had written; sharing with me everything from the struggles they face to the influence of the government to why they continue teaching. It’s all so inspiring, yet can be frustrating at the same time. Things that seem so simple to us like receiving textbooks from the government as well as furniture for the classrooms are struggles they face each day. Yet they continue to teach. They won’t give up on their students. Some are discouraged, but it doesn’t stop them from teaching. When asked why they enjoy teaching the responses differ. However, there is one reply that seems to resonate from them all: the desire to provide opportunity.

I’m not sure what I can do with all the information I am obtaining during these interviews. Nadalie is hoping to write grants that would generate more money to Sharing to Learn, which is most definitely needed. But it gets tough, knowing that most of the change we want to see has to come from within. From the government, from the educators demanding it, even from the students. Something that money cannot do. However, we can do other things, such as providing Internet at these schools and books for the libraries Denise has already built. That will always have an impact. I love learning about all of this though. Nothing is a waste of time here. For me, sharing these stories is the first step in creating the change. Learning from one another what we can do to make a difference.  

i love how grateful the people in Makuleke are. it’s one of the reasons i came back. any little thing i do, i feel the love and appreciation radiating from all around.

one of the people i was most excited to see is Joyce, a primary school teacher at Joas Phahlela that I worked closely with in April. school started this morning actually, and i was planning on surprising her then. while walking to the sunset last night, a car drove past us on the only paved road that cuts through Makuleke. it quickly came to a hult, flipped a u-turn, and pulled over on the rocky earth close to us. it was Joyce. i could see her smile all the way from the car. it was like i was in a movie. i could hear her screaming out of joy as we ran towards one another ending in the kind of embrace you never want to end. she had no idea i was back, or that i had even made the decision to come back. thinking back on it, Joyce heavily influenced me on my return to this incredible village. as we stood there, reflecting smiles off one another, you could feel the joy and love emulating off of us. before we parted, she couldn’t stop mentioning how grateful she was. standing there in her Sunday’s best, black dress and blue wedged heels, I knew i was back for a reason, and this one angel, in a village of many, is one of the strongest. i feel at home and ready to have an impact.

Day 119

It is with great sadness that I write these words.  This morning I awoke to the news that our dear friend and colleague, Benes, librarian extraordinaire and project coordinator for Sharing to Learn in Makuleke village, passed away from a stroke at the young age of 41.  He leaves behind his lovely wife Linneth, his son Junior, age 6, and his newborn baby boy - just three days old.  

Benes was a shining light in my life, always smiling, sharing his joy, always eager and willing to help.  He was also a light in the lives of everyone that he came across.  My own life is better and richer because I have had the great fortune of having him for a friend.  To be without him is to feel loss.  The children of Makuleke village will also most certainly feel his loss.  Benes believed in opportunity, he believed in hard work, he believed in making dreams come true for himself, and most especially for others.  He and his colleague and best friend Attorney were two of the only people within the village that spent every single day working with and for the children of their community because they believe deeply in creating opportunities for them.  Benes and Attorney are Sharing to Learn; they are my own heroes, without the two of them, our humble little organization would never have grown to what it is today.  They have taught me what it means to believe in a dream, how to work towards it, and how personal sacrifice leads to a beautiful reward for many.” - Denise Ortiz of Sharing to Learn

Two weeks ago I was standing by this man in the beautiful Makuleke village, organizing books in the library and collecting information about the local artisans with him and his dear friend Attorney. Benes (left) and Attorney (right) are the 2 librarians that work for Sharing to Learn on site, taking care of everything while Denise is in the states. I first learned of Benes’ passing from my dear friend Tuki who messaged telling me he was a little broken hearted for Benes passed away and he wanted to let me know…

My thoughts and prayers are going out to all those in Makuleke. Benes was an incredible man who was very passionate about his work with Sharing to Learn. His laugh was probably my favorite thing about him. Tuki and I were just talking about it the other day actually. It was one of the deepest, most contagious laughs you have ever heard. And oh so genuine. You knew he heart was truly smiling when he would let out a deep chuckle. Benes, wamina munghana, you will be greatly missed.

STL has set up a fund for his beloved children: Junior and Blessing, which will help the family with food and other essentials.  If you are interested, please consider sharing with his family.  You can make a donation on-line via PayPal (mention Benes in the note).  STL will collect the money and transfer it into an account for his family.  Please share this with friends and family, or anyone that might be inspired by Benes and his legacy or wish to show some support during this time of sadness.  STL is also collecting any notes or letters that can be shared with his family in the village.

R.I.P. Benes Makuleke (1971-2013)

Tuesday April 9, 2013

And today the work begins! Today the kids are back in school after a two week break for Easter. And since the kids are back, the teachers are back, thus I am able to begin my work at the schools.  I have been talking with both Denise and Jeleni about a technology training course for the teachers at the three primary schools. We are hoping to have one hour for four days where teachers from the 3 schools come to Joas Phahlela Primary school where I can work with them on basic web browsing, creating email accounts, attaching files to emails, and different websites that can be used as teaching resources.

I went to Joas Phahlela around 9:30 to meet with Jeleni and the principal about having the course at the school. She seemed very excited about it and thought it would be very beneficial for the teachers. Jeleni and I then drove to the 2 other schools and provided them both with a written and oral invitation. The principal at Makuleke Primary was also very excited about this. He was so welcoming and greeted me with open arms, just the Makuleke way! Our last stop was Makahlule Primary School, which is a bit of a drive. Its in the next village over, but Denise works very closely with this school and has opened a Sharing to Learn library over there as well.  It is also where Jeleni lives! He told me that he used to teach at this school but they had to cut some teachers and he happened to be one of them. Fortunately he was able to work at Joas Phahlela and he is really enjoying it. He said its nice to get out of his village since he has spent his entire life there! I think I would agree. I get that way even working at Nordstrom at home. Love it, but its kind of strange working in the place you grew up. Obviously our situations are totally different but I kind of get where he is coming from.

Right when we pulled into the school, I heard the children in the classroom. They were all yelling, actually they were chanting ‘mulungu’. Crazy. I usually correct them and say noooooo not mulungu, AMANDA! But they were all in class and I was not quite sure how to handle the whole situation. Needless to say that caught Simon’s attention and he was able to greet us right at the entrance. Simon is the principal of Makahlule Primary. I met him last summer with Denise and the USD group when we went for a tour of his school. Simon was excited about the program, but a bit hesitant due to the location. He was actually really worried about transport, but also made it a point that if the teachers want to go they will figure out a way. Thinking positive! We can’t go to everyone and since the Internet is working at Joas Phahlela, it will be a better environment. Plus its extremely convenient for me!

I’m really excited for this program. I think it will be extremely beneficial and the teachers who do come will gain a lot from it. I spent the rest of the day in the computer room at Joas Phahlela (oh and I can properly pronounce the name now, just took me awhile to get comfortable with the ‘hl’ sound again).  It’s been hard for me to keep updated with my blog. I don’t know why I mean it should be easy, but for some reason it’s a lot harder than I thought. I’m getting better at writing everyday which is helpful and actually organizing my pictures for the photo of the day. But still it’s time consuming. I just hope you are all enjoying it! I got home around 3 o’clock and I was exhausted! Hung out for a bit, organizing my stuff and figuring out how to organize my time for tomorrow. I have to be at school at 1 for the training at 1:30, but will spend my morning at the library helping Attorney and Benes with the ‘who our readers are’ database. It gets difficult without total access to the Internet. I keep telling myself I don’t need it, but then I want to post on my blog or send an email or post an update or just talk to my family or friends. I have data on my phone so I can check that every so often, but I’m just reminding myself I really don’t need it… Except today when I was talking to Jeleni he told me he doesn’t know how I function without Internet at times. He thinks people always need it which made me laugh. I told him I use data on my phone when I really need it but he explained to me that he doesn’t think he could go a day without it. Not something you assume to hear from a man who lives in a village far away from Western society. Kind of ironic.  Fortunately I think I can function without it (I say that as I’m waiting for Tuki to wake up so I can go get airtime with him… pathetic.) My excuse- I am the on-site person for ‘Sharing to Learn’ and need to update the Facebook on what’s going on (I’m actually trying to get better at doing that since Denise is always on top of it!)

So now I am sitting here with 8 children to my right all playing a game on my iPad as I’m catching up on this post. They love it, the iPad that is. Everyday I hear, “Amanda, game iPad, please?” They are so fascinated by it and I have no problem letting them play. The sun is getting ready to set and the cows just passed by me, heading back home for the evening. Three chickens and about 10 chicks are running around, looking for food and almost all the children (except the ones on my iPad) are home for dinner.

Day 99: Principal Simon of Makahlule Primary School and Teacher Jeleni of Joas Phahlela Primary School discuss the free technology training sessions that will be provided by Sharing to Learn over the course of 4 days. We are inviting teachers from the 3 primary schools to come to Joas Phahlela to help them with basic web browsing, using online teaching resources, setting up email accounts and any other questions they may have, hoping for the teachers to feel more comfortable using the Internet!

Monday April 8th

Spent the day at the library today. At 10 o’clock I walked over with Kuhlula, Surprise, Tshuxi, Lonic, and Tuki preparing for a day of work and play.  It’s awesome to see how excited the kids are to go to the library. Yesterday when I asked if they wanted to go with me, their eyes lit up like they have been waiting all weekend to go.  I had prepared to walk by myself, making sure I was ready to greet people with a nice “Munjani” and reply “Nicona” and if anything else happens just to smile. I practiced with Tuki last night to make sure I was ready :) I’ve been out and about and have said it, but still get nervous when I’m alone. But I’ve realized it doesn’t really matter. They are going to laugh and smile at me no matter what so its better just to try and be happy doing it! SO although I was ready for a trip on my own I had amazing company with the boys. Everyone still thinks I’m Denise which cracks me up. I try to explain I’m Amanda but sometimes when the kids are too far I just go with it. Hopefully they aren’t too depressed when they find out Denise isn’t here and its some crazy girl named Amanda. But we’ll figure that one out when the time comes. I love walking around. I like the looks I get from everyone. Some of the babies are scared of me I think. Actually no let me correct that. One is definitely scared of me. Tuki said its because I’m white and he doesn’t know what or who or whatever white people are. I don’t know. Its kind of cute in a really weird way, but I feel bad at the same time. He comes over sometimes and has to be just about 2 years old. The first day I met him I picked him up and he was fine. Once I realized there was something in his pants though that didn’t feel too great on my hip, I put him down, and ever since that moment when I come around him, he cries. So I just keep my distance.

Anyways, I enjoy walking around Makuleke. I just smile and everyone is so friendly. I even had someone reply to my Tsonga greeting in English, which completely threw me off guard. Still loving it. We were the first to get to the library but it wasn’t long after that more children joined us. They really do love this place. I talked to Tuki about the community center and how great it would be to have it. I think it would be great. Especially since so many kids love the library, I know they would benefit from having a place they could all hang out.

While at the library, I spent the day working on the “Who Our Readers Are” database, talking with the equalizers, compiling the equalizers surveys on the computer, organizing my photos from the time here, typing up my notes and reflections, and of course playing with Tshuxi and Surprise. We were sitting outside for a while and got attacked by ants. They are absolutely horrendous and probably have the ability to kill a person. The pastor from the church came by and wanted to speak to me outside for a couple minutes and took me in the middle of the ant farm. She was wearing closed toe shoes, but I on the other hand, was in flip-flops and a maxi skirt being eaten alive while she stood there all calm trying to tell me about the church she’s trying to build and how I could help. But unfortunately all I could think about were the ants crawling up my legs and biting me feet. To sum up our conversation, I told her I could try to contact friends who belong to church groups at home who want to help build a church overseas. She’s an incredible lady, I just don’t know if I’m the right person for her to talk to, but of course I will try my best. Okay so bad to the ants. The pastor realizes I’ve been hitting my legs and jumping up and down for the last 2 minutes and I tell her that the ants are biting me. Doesn’t even faze her. I’m standing here dying, being eaten alive and she’s just chilling. We finish our conversation and I run over to where Percy is standing (one of my friends who is also an equalizer), who is just laughing at me while I’m trying to have her help get these freaking ants off of me. I swear they are everywhere. She pulls up my skirt and sees that I have probably around 100 around the bottom of my skirt and they are not wanting to come off, like actually stuck.  Were now standing there dying of laughter, picking off ants from my skirt while at the same time stomping around trying not to get more on us. Needless to say it was quite the scene and definitely a funny site.  end ant rant :)

            I’ve really enjoyed working on these equalizer surveys and the ‘who our readers are’ project. It gives me the chance to really get to know these students and have an idea of what they are interested in and also what they want in life. They are all so great.  I was also really surprised and excited at the same time to see how many of the students in there are using the library not just for reading, but compiling research for school projects. Percy, for example, was using the iPad to Google the ‘impact global warming had on the floods of January 2013’- all in English I will add. I know they are working in English in school, but I did not know that they were doing projects to this degree in it! Another girl, Vusi, was in the back room with Attorney working on her application to University in Pretoria. I was so proud of her! It really does show the impact this library has had on the students and people of the village and it’s awesome to see it in action.

At 4 o’clock, I had a Skype call with Denise, which was absolutely wonderful and so much fun. Denise rocks. I don’t know if you all know this but she’s my soul sister and is totally awesome. I have never met anyone more similar to me (so maybe its weird to talk about how awesome she is since it may be like I’ll just talk about myself) but even though we are so similar she is still awesome and I hope one day I can be half the incredible woman she is. We spent an hour talking on Skype and about 40 minutes of that was us laughing the entire time, catching up, and sharing my experiences with her.

            After the Skype call, Tuki, Vukosi and I went to the dam to watch the sunset. It was beautiful yet again. The dam has filled up completely since the last time I was here since there was a huge flood in January. Such a different site, but the sunset is still just as beautiful. When we got home I finally decided to take a shower. Its more of a pain to wash my hair here since the water pressure is low, but after talking to Denise we both realized I’m disgusting and need to wash my hair J Not really necessary to share but hey why not. Anyways, so I showered and made dinner. Since tomorrow is the first day back at school, the children all were exhausted and went to bed early. Some of the other equalizers came over too. They honestly just want to hang out, sit, and talk. But its so easy hanging out with them. We are always so peaceful and I am learning not to always have a million things to say. After they left, Tuki and I are sat and watched for shooting stars before going to bed. We are making it routine to watch the stars before we go to bed and told each other we cannot go to bed until we see at least one or our conversation is finished. Tonight didn’t take long. We saw one within 10 minutes :)

Saturday April 6th

I woke up this morning around 8:30, trying to get myself to do a little yoga before I start the day. I was a little successful but seeing the children outside made me a bit eager to get my day going. The second I got up and opened the door, I was welcomed by the 3 boys who showered me with gifts. I had 10 new drawings from them, which they were all so proud of. They are just adorable and I love getting these gifts from them. For the next hour, we read the English books Denise has in her hut. I was attempting to get some work done but its nearly impossible when you have the most adorable children (now 7 of them) sitting around you trying to show off their reading skills. Kuhlula wrote me a story last night and I read it to the children twice they liked it so much. I’m really impressed with his writing skills. Since the past year, he has improved so much! His writing has progressed, both his handwriting and the language he uses is awesome and I’m really proud of him. So now it’s about 11:15am and I’ve spent my morning reading and hanging out with the little ones and I couldn’t be happier :) 


It’s honestly the little things in life that really can help you find happiness. I’ve been stuck with this idea that I have a wanderlust, which is totally true, but right now at this moment I couldn’t think of any place I’d rather be. Life is so simple right now. I’m working with incredible people at an awesome non profit doing on site work for them. I’m standing outside my hut in a beautiful day watching Tuki and his friends play soccer with one of the footballs I brought while behind me in the hut Khulhla listens to music on my iPad and Surprise, Tshuxi, and two other children are drawing pictures for me. 

I just finished typing up one of the equalizers surveys that I handed out yesterday and his responses are inspiring. They are the beginning of a change here in Makuleke and I can’t wait to see how it progresses over the years. 


I’m an on the go kind of person, who will argue that sitting around is a waste of time and you always need to explore, finding something exciting each day. But as I’m standing here not moving a muscle, I’m embracing the moment unlike ever before.