Improving a Pre-School in South Africa
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Improving a Pre-School in South Africa

Regional associates learn about the local Rastafarian community—and themselves

At Grand Circle Corporation, giving back is so deeply woven into the corporate culture, it is even a component of the training program for OAT Trip Leaders and Grand Circle Program Directors. So, when the leaders of the regional office in Cape Town, South Africa, had a training program coming up for their Highlights of South Africa Program Directors, they began looking for a community service project that could be incorporated into it.

For ideas, they turned to the local Knysna Educational Trust, an NGO supporting disadvantaged schools in the area. Knysna—a scenic coastal resort town along the picturesque Garden Route region in the Western Cape of South Africa—is where the training was being held, and the Trust pointed Grand Circle regional staff in the direction of a local Rastafarian community there whose pre-school required a lot of support and attention.

The school serves 45 children, some from outside the community, and is staffed by one principal and one teacher, supported by two volunteers. The school tries to provide the children with two meals a day.

The regional team set four goals for their service event there:

  • To make sure all electrical wiring was properly installed and tacked into place (electrical wires ran loose throughout the building)
  • To paint the bare-wood classroom walls
  • To put up wooden beams so that a ceiling could later be installed by the Rastafarian community
  • To provide a community meal

Bolstered by the promise of support from the community, the Grand Circle team kicked off the event in January of 2012. The two office staff (Program Services Manager Ian Wallace and Program Services Coordinator Cathrine Myburgh) and seven Program Directors were greeted by a community elder, who introduced them to life in the community. They were then handed over to Sister Nancy, the school principal, who got them started on their projects, then disappeared into the kitchen and started cooking what turned out to be what Ian describes as "the best meal many of us had eaten in a long time—and Rastafarians are strictly vegetarian."

Throughout the rest of the day, the members of the community went about their routines, but whenever they happened by the Grand Circle team, they pitched in on whatever project they happened to be doing.

At noon, the elder who had first greeted them returned to introduce them to a man he described as the "chief of our community." "We were at a loss as to how to properly address the chief!" Ian recalls.

The chief, however, quickly put them at ease, saying, "I do not seek any fanfare. In our way of life, we wait to see how visitors treat the least among us, particularly the children. If you show respect and love to them, then our elders will introduce themselves to you. The most elevated people in our community are only as important as the least among us." "These were incredibly pertinent and thought-provoking words," says Ian.

The chief then gave the Grand Circle team the Rasta salute with the words "One Love" and disappeared back into the tabernacle. Some of the volunteers never even knew he was there.

Ian was pleased by how much the volunteers accomplished that day, and he credits the Program Directors with the skills they brought to their tasks. Steve Sara, for example, re-did all the electrical wiring, and "the rest of us had to scramble to keep up with him, handing him drillbits, tacks, extensions, and whatever else he needed," according to Ian.

John Finch, Jason Mair, and Chris McWilliams did what Ian describes as "a sterling job" with the painting, giving the room an undercoat and two coats of paint all on the same day.

And Cathy Myburgh and Thabi Moji went into town to buy supplies—predominantly food for the community feast. Although they initially intended to shop at a grocery store, when they got to town they decided instead to buy the produce from the community market stocked by the subsistence farmers who came from the community they were serving on the day. Although that part of town was considered unsafe, they discovered instead that most of the vendors were Rastafarians, who are completely opposed to any form of violence. Not only that, but a number of people recognized them as volunteers and were very grateful to them for their support of the school and their stalls.

Overall, the team was buoyed by the spirit of the day—even though the temperature inside the school topped 100°F. "We had a great deal of fun interacting with the curious children," Ian says. (He later discovered that the reason for their curiosity was that they seldom come into contact with people who do not have dreadlocks!) "The adults taught us a lot about ourselves, their history, and our own history. We achieved the goals we set out for ourselves and left knowing that this little community was better off, as were we."

Featured in our February 2012 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.