Task: In eight days time provide eye screening and eye glasses to 15,000 persons in rural South Africa……and we did it! We; One sight, Mpilonhle, SA Department of Health, and Oprah’s Angels Network. What an adventure – and it feels oh soo rewarding.
It was one of Mpilonhle’s guardian angel Greg Sherkin (from Oprahs’ team) who made the intial link between One Sight and Mpilonhle. We had mentioned to Greg before that in the schools we served in rural KwaZulu Natal hardly any of the learners are wearing glasses. This was statistically impossible. As usual with Greg, this comment didn’t fall on deaf ears. A few months later he turned up with David from One Sight and persuaded him that we were worth a try as brokers for this very rewarding task.
Then the ground work started; informing and requesting the approval of the “authorizing environment” to implement the project. South Africa likes to refer to them as “steakholders” – a term from the corporate world but unfortunately very relevant for KwaZulu Natal.
Our authorizing environment involved every aspect of government; from the national government, provincial government, local government, to the traditional government and community leaders. Under the able leadership of Sabello – appointed by the the Oprah’s Winfrey foundation - we managed to get all our ducks in a row (with help of Thuli our head of clinical services). Not to forget Anastasia and Gugu who skillfully mobilized the traditional authorities, community leaders and school governing boards without insulting anyone. We owe all of them a great deal for our success.
Implementation of the program itself was that next challenge. A collaboration of many different cultures . First there was the corporate culture; focus oriented, getting the job done in the most efficient way at high speed with the least possible cost. A take it or leave it no nonsense attitude. No offense, we - the NGO culture – could do well every now and then with a lick of the corporate world.
Then we had our One sight and Mpilonhle volunteers! A group of nicer people are not available on this planet. Committed, excited, devoted to the cause, easy to please, grateful for the experience and with a sense of true privilege for being in a position to do good. The best side of man kind.
Our hosts – the Principals and teachers of the high schools we work in – as usual gave their honored guests a true sample of what Zulu hospitality means. Mdungandlovu went a bit overboard with there lunch consisting of cow head and intestines – and our staff was so happy with the amazing amount of leftovers! The High School kids were as usual a mix of the very behaved learners – those that make you proud - and the naughty to very naughty kids – happily in the minority.
Then there was the community, as traditional as they come in Zululand. Mainly Gogos, Mkhulus and their grand children. The generation in between – the missing fathers especially – either working far away from home or deceased. How I wished I had time to sit with each and every one of them and listen to their stories. It made me determined to put more effort in my Zulu.
And “us”. The NGO guys. We were the “good guys” as we like to see ourselves. In contradiction to our corporate counterparts we managed to make the task as challenging as it possibly could be with a “working till the job is done for as long as it takes” attitude because what mattered is the community, how they feel, what they think and by all means .. how not to make them upset or offend them. Maybe this concept was the most difficult part of our collaboration to understand. The entitlement of the corporate world “hey we come here to do good and you better appreciate it!” versus the entitlement of the community “ hey, arent’ you lucky that we allow you to come and visit us in our community ….. and what do you really want from us in the first place”.
And then last but not least the South African Department of Health. This group of people proved any negative stereotype we might possible have about government officials wrong. An example of true collaboration between government and NGO’s and hopelfully the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with Mpilonhle.
Rather then staying put in one place for 8 days, and bring everyone to the eye clinic, we conviced our corporate friends to go for it the more challenging option. We won’t bring Moses to the mountain, we will bring the mountain to Moses. Not only would it be better for the community who’s households are scattered all over this beautiful remote countryside, but it would be more exciting for the one sight volunteers as well since they come from all over the world on their free time to be part of this experience. Somehow a win win situation – at least that is what we thought. We convinced our partners that we will cover 16 sites in 8 days time, splitting up the team and moving the equipment and eyesight large stock of glasses each day to the next location. We would have our generators if the electricity fails.
It was a rocky start that first day, we lost half of the members of the one sight team because they followed the wrong car, the keys of the mobile units where the materials were stored was gone missing, the community was lining up in the sun, and our One Sight leader Melissa was clearly thinking aloud – “this is madness”. But our Mpilonhle team stayed calm and slowely but surely – true, a bit disorganized – we all worked together and despite the many pleas of One sight to send the continuous arrival stream of community members home (which we “said” we were doing) we managed to see 1500 persons on day one. It was nearly dark when we finished, and on our drive way back home we were rewarded with the most beautiful sunset on the rolling hills of this province. I think it even melted a bit the heart of our corporate culture. Of course – by that time – theOne Sight volunteers were already talking about a life changing experience – and it truly was, for all of us.
With every single day all the cultures grew closer, I think we even started to appreciate and understand each other. And on day eight like the intstruments in an orchestra, we all knew our script and all these cultures managed to play together in perfect harmony.
Mpilonhle would arrive first, and – thanks to the advice from team two on how to become more efficient – we discussed our roles and responsabilities for the day. Sne as leader of the registration team for the community would find a convenient spot to do just that. Khanya and her team were responsible for the snelling charts – the pre testing of every persons’ eyes. Among their many tasks, Siyabonga and Sifuso were in charge of “electricity” . Find it, no matter where it’s hiding. And they always managed to do so, with extension wires, plugs here a generators there….. Three of the health counselors would start with preparing and registering the learners and after they finished would help out with registration, snelling charts or the distribution of the t-shirts.
Our 2 nurses Sibahle and Bhegeni, and three of our health counselors would continue providing the Mpilonhle clinical and VCT services while Dudu and Longile would take care of health education in between their registration duties.
The t-shirts were a story by itself. They were 10,000 first class quality garments donated to us by Brooks Brothers. They originated as an order of Stanford for a fancy golf event – no not the university, but a Madov type crook called Stanford who through his ponzi scheme deprived thousands of honest people from their money. My husband, who is blessed with higher morals then most, wanted to ship them back on the first available transportation mode, but I managed to convince him that at least the guy did something good by giving these T-shirts to our KwaZulu Natal community – even though he most probably didn’t pay for them. But hey, who cares.
Although Gugu and I were the teamleaders of the Mpilonhle team, the honors for the true dirigent of our symphony has to go to Quinton. First he skillfully trained the learner volunteers – brought to them by Gugu assigned by the school principal. I don’t know whether we should call it “trained” or “threathened with no T-shirt if they misbehave, or are lazy, or quit their post of duty before the task is done”. The learners called him a “slave driver” but I could see the twinkle in their eyes following his orders and the sense of accomplishment when Quinton at the end of the day with the help of a learner volunteer called their names from his list with the awards.
During Quinton’s early morning training of the volunteers, Gugu and myself negotiated with the School Principals, Melissa and Mark the rooms we would occupy and “the flow”. How to “herd” people efficiently and orderly from one room to the other. Once decided, Quinton invaded with his army of learner volunteers. The consoles with the eye glasses were taken out of the units and into the appropriate classrooms. There they would be placed according to the numbers the consoles were given on the appropriate desks. Other learner volunteers were assigned to the One Sight volunteers who were creating appropriate niches and workingspaces with desks, tape and chairs.
The department of health nurses always arrived in time to set up their “eye delation space”. It was the stage between the Mpilonhle -run snelling chart and the first visit to the One Sight eye doctor.
So by the time the One Sight team was set up, the first customers were there to be taken care off.
Another challenge was the transport of eye glasses to the other site, because they had to get their stock from our end. Mike – our visionary leader – had developed a state of the art IT system with Ipods and the lot that finally functioned at its best on the last day. In between we did managed through good old transport of paperwork between sites.
I could not end my story without thanking those drivers. Because they drove and drove and drove and drove. When all the cultures were safely back where they belonged in the evening, our drivers were moving the mobile units between the sites – sometimes up to 1:00 AM in the morning. They truly diserve the largest applause.
On Thursday night – the last day of the event – we all were exhausted, but how can you bring closure to such an intense experience without a South African Braai and good music. So Mpilonhle had a party at La Colline with our Department of Health palls – because that is what they were by then. Thanks to Gugu – who litteraly went and fetched them – we managed to get some of the One Sight Team members to join in. It was an experience of a life time that we wanted to share with them.
As for myself, to the Mpilonhle staff, Mpilonhle volunteers, Department of Health Representatives, the One Sight volunteers and staff, the high schools and their principals and most of all the Kwazulu Natal Community and their leaders, I want to say thank you for your commitment, and your hard work. I am sure we made a difference to this community in KwaZulu Natal.
And yes, Melissa, David, George and Gina. We love you very much and truly hope you will come back.