In early July, while most U.S. teenagers were working on their tans or preparing for massive 4th of July hot-dog consumption, I boarded a plane to South Africa with three 500-pound suitcases full of books. My destination: Mfuleni Township just outside of Cape Town. My goal: to start a library.
This was not my first trip to South Africa. I had traveled to Cape Town with my family in Spring 2008 with Global Buddies, a project of UCLA (http://www.globalbuddies.net/home). The program teamed 10 Americans, ages 7-17, with 20 South African youth living in Mfuleni Township. A township is a shantytown of sorts, a relic of Apartheid, the segregationist regime that reigned in South Africa until the 1990s. Global Buddies builds global citizenship in youth around the world, creating connections that allow children to appreciate and respect the similarities, as well as the differences, in their lives and cultures.
Together my South African friends and I toured the sights of Cape Town, including a cable car trip up Table Mountain and a swim with African penguins at Boulders Beach. I was inspired by the enthusiasm my new friends had for their studies and learning. Each thing we learned they would eat up, like a delicious meal, craving any scrap of knowledge they could find. Throughout this experience I couldn’t help but think of all that we in the U.S. have and take for granted. I thought of the top-notch education that every American citizen is entitled to, the shelves and shelves of books available for anyone with a public library card, and the disinterest with which most teenagers treat these incredible gifts. For two weeks my South African counterparts taught me their games, brought me into their homes, and shared with me their vibrant songs. I wanted to give them something in return, something that had opened my mind far before I ever set foot in another country. I wanted to give them books.
And so my task began. I spent hours raising money, collecting donations and compiling book lists. I had a yard sale, put on a benefit concert and sent e-mails to booksellers on various continents. In the end, I amassed nearly 300 books.
The experience of going back to South Africa was incredible. I had been nervous about pulling my project together, but once I was there, it all fell into place. One afternoon I was sitting in the room where the library would be, when a young girl named Abigail asked me to read her a story. The book she chose was not one of the new books, which were not unpacked yet, but a tattered copy of The Emperor’s New Clothes. I read her several fairy tales that day; as I would finish one she was ready with another. Abigail and I made this our afternoon tradition. I would read to her, and she would follow along with her finger, finding the words for herself. Seeing Abigail engage with the few books she had made all my effort worthwhile. Being there with her as she discovered the world of books was the most meaningful gift I have received.
I have learned that I can make a difference, no matter how small. If one child picks up a book from the Global Buddies library and learns something new, then I will have made an impact in the world. As Nelson Mandela said in his inauguration speech “Your playing small does not serve the world.” I have learned in my travels to be as big as the vast world will let me.
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