Saturday, March 31, 2012

Ubwonko Bwiza- A puzzle of 22,000 pieces

Ubwonko Bwiza: Books for Rwanda’s Future. I am trying to get books for Rwanda. Seems like a simple task, really. I never anticipated how much work it would be. But, it is a good kind of work; the kind that you want to do and that you enjoy doing. This project feels like a puzzle, a challenging task to be figured out one piece at a time.

Let me give you a little background on the project. It was started almost three years ago by volunteers from the previous health group. Like them, my group had also wanted to coordinate a project to procure books; however, the new Peace Corps administration felt that such a project did not fit within the Peace Corps goals and methods. The administration allowed the current project to continue, because it was too late to terminate it, but they would not allow us to begin another.

The project dragged on. Overtime, communities lost interest and dropped out, seriously threatening the continuation of the project. Something had to be done. I proposed a solution to the problem- integrate volunteers from my group who wanted to start a book project, but couldn’t, to fill the gaps in the current project left by communities. I partnered with the current manager of the project to match gaps with communities.

Our part of the deal, in exchange for inclusion in the project to receive books, was to raise the remaining funds needed. The previous group’s efforts had leveled out. Donations were no longer coming in and they were concerned. How the project works is that the books are donated, but the receiving organization is responsible for supplying the shipping and customs costs. Shipping a 40-foot container from America to the landlocked country of Rwanda costs about 14,000 US$. In addition, customs for 22,000 books was estimated at 3,000 US$. Plus, we wanted some extra money for any additional, unexpected costs. In total, we had to raise approximately 20,000 US$ for the project. At the moment, we had only 4,000 US$ in the bank account. In order for Peace Corps administration to allow the project to continue, we had to raise the remaining amount of money in less than two months.

It seemed like an impossible task. We set to work. We began spreading the word and making calls for support. “Please donate to Ubwonko Bwiza. Help us end the book famine in Rwanda!” We used every means available. We sent emails to family and friends; we posted on our blogs and facebook profiles; we reached out to schools and community organizations; we organized fundraising events; we approached businesses for sponsorship. Then, we began the whole process over again, making more desperate cries for support. “Please help us. Please support us.” As a result, donations began to pour in. Through a combination of these channels, as well as hard work and perseverance, we managed to raise the funds and continue the project.

Then, the volunteer who started and was currently managing the project finished her service and left Rwanda, passing responsibility to another volunteer. Unfortunately, this volunteer did not take her job seriously and did not commit the hard work and time the project demanded. The project reached such a dire position that administration intervened. They wanted to know what was going on and how the project was progressing. Surprisingly, they approached me for this information. I replied that I was only helping to coordinate the integration of members of my group and didn’t know about the overall state of the project.

Unsurprisingly, management of the project finally passed to me. I adopted something that was more of a disorganized, incomplete mess than a project. Here we were after two years of the project. Two years of improper management and the books still had not arrived, or been shipped for that matter. Communities had given community contributions to receive books, but we didn’t have a record of whom, how much, or what books they were receiving. Volunteers from these communities had finished their service and left Rwanda, taking crucial and necessary information with them, and giving the impression that they had taken the money and run. Some communities still had not paid, so we didn’t have all the money needed to complete the project. Other communities were impatient and demanded their books. Last, we had not provided any support to communities on how to start and manage a library. It was time to get this project back on the track it had been allowed to deviate far from.

My first task in this puzzle was to gather the pieces. Who are the books going to? What is their contact information? Where are they going? What are they getting? I collected this information. It was a slow process. I emailed returned volunteers back in America who started the project in their communities two years ago. I asked them to identify a current volunteer at or near their site who had agreed to help establish the library there. I also insisted that they provide me with the name and contact information of a Rwandan counterpart at their organization. I sent email after email, I asked question after question, and I bugged people and followed-up over and over. I compiled all this information into an excel file.

Concerning the question of who is getting what, I turned to a stack of aged book orders I was provided with by the previous management. There was no rule to how communities had filled the forms out, making their demands confusing and unclear. Beginning at the top, I went through the stack and deduced the communities’ order. I found that the overall order of books did not coincide with the sum of the individual communities’ demands. Given no other choice, I edited communities’ distribution until it matched what we were getting. It felt like I was trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole, which everyone knows is impossible without shaving a bit off the corners.

When that was done, I took a break. “We are getting there…” I thought, and then I added a Rwandan expression that made sense in this situation, “…slowly by slowly.” 40-foot container…22,000 books… 20 libraries and communities.

Next, I confronted a looming reservation of my own. I was concerned and uncomfortable about giving 1,100 books to a community without any sort of guidance on how to start or manage a library. I knew that if we did that the chances of the books being used were slim (they would probably be locked away somewhere), they would most likely be used incorrectly (meaning I would have spent all this time and effort to procure toilet paper), or worse, sold at the market. The situation was complicated. Peace Corps would not allow us to conduct a library training like I wanted and was eager to organize, because we couldn’t provide the community partner with the same objective necessary to receive a grant. That left me with Plan B- writing a basic, easy manual on how to start and manage a library that we would provide to volunteers and community counterparts to guide their process.

Writing a manual is not the difficult part. How to format and present the information requires more thought. I delegated the task to a fellow volunteer in search of a secondary activity, and she wrote the text. The result was great, exactly what I was looking for. Simple, easy, basic. The only problem was presentation. Handing a document of 30 pages of written text to a Rwandan counterpart who may or may not speak fluent English was problematic. How could I make the information contained in the document accessible to someone lacking a solid grasp of the language? The answer: PHOTOGRAPHS… Lots and lots of photographs.

I spent a day at the Peace Corps office, hanging out in our very own volunteer library. I took photographs of books and pointed out different parts referred to in the manual, such as title, author, cover, and spine. I categorized books by the methods described and took pictures to accompany the directions given. I labeled the photographs in a way that would be lucid to counterpart whose English was a second language.

The manual outlines registration lists, circulation notebooks, and simple card circulation systems, as well as strategies to inculcate a culture of reading in Rwanda. I am not sure the manual will be enough to prevent book abuse or theft, but it is the best I can do given the regulations I must follow. Other volunteers have shared stories of books being folded in half or pages being torn out, and I listen and cringe at the thought.

The manual will be accompanied by a transportation plan. You see, the books will arrive and we will be responsible for getting them through customs and to our distribution point. After that, the responsibility of getting the books to site is up to the organizations and communities involved. They will pick up the books and transport them to sites across the country. Planning is not an innate part of Rwandan culture, so I know that if I left our counterparts on their own, they would not plan for the arrival of the books and the fact that they actually have to transport them. For this reason, I am requiring each community to submit a “transportation plan” that describes how they plan to get the books to site- the method, as well as who will be responsible and their contact information.

I have referred on many occasions to this obscure distribution point. The distribution point is a place where we will transport the books after we get them through customs and from where we will sort and distribute them to communities. You see, the books will be arriving in pallets of secondary school- this and primary school- that, and we have to break them down into 20 piles of 100 books of this to that community and 200 books of that to this community. Then, each community will schedule a time to pick up their books and take them to site. Very straight-forward. The only problem is we don’t know where this distribution point is going to be.

It’s hard enough to find a space large enough to accommodate 22,000 books, let along in Kigali. I’ve been searching for such a space and I’ve had this same conversation on numerous occasions. What do you imagine when you think of a space to accommodate 22,000 books? This has been our dilemma. I say, “I am looking for somewhere to store 22,000 books,” and I ask, “Do you have space?” and I receive the reply, “Yes. Come look.” I go look and the space is about the size of closet. Definitely not big enough. It’s not their fault. First, I am sure no Rwandan has ever seen or imagined 22,000 books. Second, space in the capital city of the most densely populated country in Africa is hard to come by.

From a distance, the customs process appears to be a cinch; however I am certain this will not be the case. When the container containing our books arrives at the port in Kigali, the customs office will call to inform us. We arrive with a clearing agency, present the proper documents, and pay the customs fee, and the books are released. Seems easy right? The problem is that the customs office doesn’t always call when the books arrive. We only have a window of one week to get the books through customs before they start charging us exorbitant fees by the day. Further, customs is notorious for complicating even simple, quotidian tasks.

We get the books through customs and to our distribution point. There, we will sort them into piles for each community. Communities, following their transportation plan, will arrive to pick them up and take them to their site. Then what? On paper in the agreement, this is where our responsibility ends; however, it seems incomplete to me. I just can’t accept that we are supposed to hand over a large pile of books to communities, watch them drive away, and leave it at that, library manual or not. For this reason, I’ve set up a network of Peace Corps Volunteers paired with each community receiving books. Their role is to facilitate the process of establishing and managing a library, in hopes of ensuring that the libraries are in fact established and successfully managed.

These volunteers will also help in another task. No project would be complete without an aspect of follow-up, monitoring and evaluation. Personally traveling around the country to check up on 20 libraries is logistically difficult. Six months after the books have been distributed to communities, I will ask these volunteers in communities to write a brief report on their library, describing how the books are used. They will also take photographs of the library and the books being used. I will compile these reports and photographs into a final report that will be submitted to Peace Corps, Books For Africa, and our donors.

During the more stressful periods of this project, when it was still far from the right track, I was kept awake at night by the looming thought of the books arriving. I tossed and turned in bed for hours thinking about how messed up the project was and everything I had to do to straighten it out before the impending arrival date. I worried that it was an impossible task ahead and that I would fail miserably, reflecting poorly on Peace Corps, volunteers in their communities, and me. By day, I went through the actions, systematically confronting the issues one by one, with a growing sense of dread in my stomach.

I recently wrote a report to Peace Corps updating the administration on the progress of the project, and found that after months of hard work, the project might actually be back on track. I visited the offices of administration involved in the project to discuss it. I left feeling good, thinking, “Hey, I might actually pull this thing off.” Now, I sleep soundly, knowing that the project, far from complete, is progressing in a forward direction and on schedule.

I was due to end my service in May; however, I have decided to extend for another year. That means I will be able to see this project through to its completion. Well, not without a few extra bumps in the road. Before I was planning to stay, I selected another volunteer to take over management of the project. His greatest selling point- he was enthusiastic about tackling the customs process, the one part of the job I was dreading the most. I responded, “You are in.” Now that I am staying, my successor and I are sharing responsibility for management of the project, delegating tasks between us, since it is really too much for one person to handle.

After two years of collecting and compiling book orders, raising money, and just plain perseverance, I received notice that the books have shipped. Finally. They left the shores of America en route to Rwanda and will arrive in Kigali around May 10th, approximately six weeks from now. This is where it all gets a little crazy. In May, I will travel to Senegal for three weeks to attend a training for my new position (more on that later). From Senegal, I will fly home to America. One of the perks for volunteers extending for a third year of service is that they get a paid vacation home for 30 days. Peace Corps suggested that I take my home leave immediately following the training- it would cost them less to fly me home from Senegal. Hey, fine by me- less time spent impatiently on an airplane and I will be home at the peak of the summer. A year may sound like a long time, but it is only a short period to get anything of importance and quality done. I imagine I will return from my home leave, hit the ground running, and not stop until 12 months have passed by in a rush.

The significance of this schedule, with regards to the book project, is that if everything goes perfectly during the shipping to Rwanda, I will be here for the arrival of the books, most of the sorting and distribution to communities. If anything goes wrong and the books are delayed, which is very likely, I won’t and my trusty co-manager will have to handle the process alone. For the past two years, I have been the only one with a strong grasp of the intricacies of the project, but that is changing as my co-manager is brought into the chaos and updated on its state. We have worked side by side for the past month, and naturally the information I’ve garnered is being transferred to him. If it appears I will be gone when the books arrive, I will ensure my colleague is prepared and has everything he needs. I have trust and faith in him.

Boy, am I going to have a big celebration when this project is complete. I deserve it!

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