Diary of a digital delivery man

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At the start of 2021, the RU Community Engagement office’s Vulindlela project delivered SD cards to 520 Grade 12 students in local no-fee paying schools – all made possible by donations by Makhandans. Each tiny card was chockablock with 32 gigabytes of personalized learner support materials, aligned with each learner’s curriculum requirements.

By slotting the card into any smartphone, learners could instantly access study guides, videos, past exam questions, and even some ‘reading for pleasure’ materials.

In this series of diary entries, one of the Vulindlela volunteers, DYLAN COETZEE, takes the reader on a journey through the delivery process.

Digital empowerment comes in small packages. Photo: Dylan Coetzee

The first delivery: Ntsika 

The high-rise steel fence carefully guards the busy school grounds of Ntsika Secondary as we wait patiently for the electric gate to make its move. Onboard are 146 SD cards soon to find their new homes.

Thandie Nqowana, the ever-present Vulindlela leader, is first out of the car, followed by Tristan Cooke, a final-year Journalism student. At the same time, I gather the boxes of SD cards that we have become intimate with over the last couple of weeks.

Until now, we are yet to see the students but know their names and subjects. Each card is personalised. It has been a long haul, but the tedious hours have culminated into this moment. The time has come to match the names to faces, the names to people, the people to the future.

Our trio was greeted by a heavyset man, very neatly presented and carefully spoken. He introduced himself as Mr Soloman Johnson and ushered us through to the large staff room to tackle last-minute admin.

Once we completed the formalities, we headed towards the block of classrooms. I was unsure what to think or expect; after all, I am Zimbabwean swimming in waters I do not know yet.

Striding down the corridor, I noticed that Mr Johnson’s presence became clear as day; boisterous students quickly turned serious when spoken to. There was a great intensity about it, but one built from respect rather than fear.

The atmosphere in the first class was tangible. I’m not sure the students had a complete understanding of what was about to happen; nevertheless, everyone took their seats in anticipation.

“Molweni”, Thandie commanded as she powerfully took charge of the classroom. The students responded immediately as the explanation began. Intrigue invaded the classroom.

Each student was called up one by one to collect their very own SD card, personalised individually with as much learner support material that could fit in the 32Gb storage. The classroom began to buzz once everyone had their card. I felt the energy. Before, it had been a class list with subject choices, and now it was a person; each name was a person. Tedious hours quickly transformed into smiles and joy.

I was overwhelmed. I had not known what to expect, but seeing and even feeling other people’s joy in this way was gratifying. Gratifying for the students, gratifying for the teachers and gratifying for us as the team who put in the hours to make this possible.

A class representative walked to the front of the class and thanked us for our time and effort. This blindsided me and played a catalyst for my emotions that threatened to boil over. I never expected this. I never did this to be thanked; it was always to give people a chance they deserve. Trying my best to hold myself together, I recall thinking that we were on the right track with the project.

One class became six as we bounced around the school grounds handing SD cards to every matric student. The walk back to the staff room was married with reflection; 146 of 520 Makhanda matrics were done. The job suddenly became a lot more real, but the job was not finished.

Delivery day at Ntsika. Photo: Dylan Coetzee

The second delivery: Nombulelo

The second delivery day came quicker than the first. Nombulelo High School was next on the radar. These SD cards were loaded by Asakhe Cunsulana and Ayabonga Qhubani, two volunteers, but we were part of the delivery team. Once again, it was the trio in Thandie Nqowana, Tristan Cooke and myself.

Shortly after arriving, a teacher ushered us into the school hall. The sun glowed on the smooth concrete floor as we meandered through dots of singular chairs socially distanced. The walls are clothed by the beautiful murals of inspirational leaders in Nelson Mandela and Siya Kolisi. The hall was dead quiet.

The Nombulelo hand-over. Photo: Dylan Coetzee

We took to the table to begin organising for the handout as students started dribbling in. The noise began to build with more and more students falling between the doors. Most of the chairs had now found an owner. The buzz had built. The energy flowing like a convection current through the room stopped me in my tracks. Wow.

Thandie, ever-present and always fearless, quietened the crowd and began to explain the process. Students sat quiet, intrigued by the prospect. Then, “Luviwe Kamana”, Thandie called as students went up one by one to join the crowd. The excitement began to multiply, although mainly carried by the anticipation for the students’ waiting for their names. By now, when a student’s name was called up, they would rise with their unique flair enjoying the moment.

The satisfaction from the name calls conjures an upbeat tone mixed with laughter and curiosity. Students inspected their SD cards piecing together the information Thandie had offered in her opening.

The reaction of the students was always an unknown prospect before we started delivering. Some were relatively unphased, and some seemed beyond belief at what this could offer whilst everyone else fell in the net between them.

Our role was to provide moments of happiness that could, in turn, result in a long-term benefit. Things were still early, but the team felt good, as if we were in the right place doing the right things. I hoped so.

The delivery concluded with a group picture, and the students were quickly out to catch what remained of the first period we had chewed into. The team shared personal highlights coated with emotions of relief and joy. Our job was done for the day, but the mission remained.

Vulindlela Project coordinator Thandie Nqowana and volunteer Tristan Cooke. Photo: Dylan Coetzee

The third delivery: Mary Waters

Mary Waters High School was the next destination on our schedule. Today the trio rallied together Thandie, Tristan and myself, ready to tackle the next delivery. By now, the delivery process was comfortable. We had gone through two schools handing out a total of 227 SD cards.

We met the matric learners in the courtyard sitting in a bowl surrounded by a grandstand of walkways and classrooms. The ground was cracked to the slabs of concrete that made up the floor. An old and rusted basketball hoop stood at the end of the courtyard like a bird in a tree looking down on us. There was tension in the air instead of excitement. My comfort zone evaporated. This is what it was all about. Growth. Not only for the students but also for me.

The SD salute at Mary Waters. Photo: Dylan Coetzee

Thandie always took charge of the crowd of learners commandingly, making sure to project her voice enough to suit the acoustics of the courtyard. “MOLWENIII, can everyone hear me?” The students hushed immediate as Thandie began laying out the instructions as she had done for the last two deliveries. My comfort had grown by reminding myself that we were here on a mission. The cards were the focal point. Would they suit the students? Would the content be accessible? We planned well, and I hoped the cards would empower these students.

Inevitably the excitement grew once again piggybacked by the calling of names. Anticipation would build within the students and give way to smiles when called upon. It had become a highlight of the delivery to study the reactions of the students.

Soon all the matrics had cards. A buzz invaded the courtyard as students chatted between themselves over the mechanics of the SD cards in their hands. Finally, my acclimatised comfort zone returned to me as I took to the from of the crowd for the customary group picture. Everyone shuffled to offer their best pose as I knelt to take the shot.

Driving out of the school, I knew I had left with personal growth, but it was never about me. Instead, it was about the matric students and their constantly changing puzzles. Our trio could only hope that the SD card puzzle piece would have space for as many students as possible.

The fourth delivery: Nyaluza

The fourth delivery saw the trio reduced to the duo of Thandie and myself as Tristan could not join. Our process was well drilled by now; Thandie arrived at the gates of the Worcester Mews early enough to catch the matrics during the first schooling period.

There was excitement in the vehicle aided by my newly enlarged comfort zone. I was ready for the Nyaluza delivery. At the school gates, we stumbled across two students doing star jumps for what I assumed was punishment for being late for school—setting a tone of intrigue. I knew this delivery was going to be different.

Thandie chatted freely with the teacher that had helped facilitate the delivery. Today we would be visiting each matric class and distributing that way. Metal railings hugged the rough concrete hallway. The walls were littered with informal writing, football references and harsh swear words, and derogatory statements. The Nyaluza environment was different. Graffiti is a form of expression, whether one is to view it as good or bad. It was clear that the students were filled with anger and frustration. I hope our SD cards can help.

The SD card team was beginning to understand our audience. Thandie was always fearless and understanding, having spent her childhood in these areas and rose to a PhD scholar. Impressive. Tristan and I were two Zimbabweans on a mission to do anything to empower students to empower themselves. We have no real grasp on the socioeconomic issues these students face daily. We will never understand, but we can offer the students the tools. The puzzle piece will hopefully find space in the students’ puzzles.

Nyaluza delivery.

Delivering class by class was rollercoaster-like; the initial intrigue followed by the anticipation for the name call and rounded by the excitement of what the cards could hold. Rinse and repeat when taking to the next class.

Nyaluza was the last big school for delivery, with only two more schools and 81 cards left to deliver. It was a huge milestone. The vision of providing personalised learning support for the 520 matric students in Makhanda’s no-fee paying high schools was within touching distance. Of course, much work is still done, but we have grown into our roles as a trio. Thandie, always fearless and always leading. Tristan is always curious and searching for violations within the school to bark at the Department of Basic Education. Myself, always observing and always trying to get a read from the psychological cues students and teachers offered. All different strengths but all intertwined into a trio with a vision.

Thandie Nqowana points at the prize. Photo: Dylan Coetzee

 

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