1,000 Mugs: Empowering Students in South Africa


Parish of the Messiah, Auburndale In relationship with Simunye* and the Winterton and Khethani Townships, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

“We discovered that the simple act of coming had made a difference”

Simunye, is a South African NGO located in Winterton.  It is a collaborative effort established by six Winterton and Khethani churches-Anglican [All Saints, Winterton], Assemblies of God, Dutch Reformed, Khethani Christian Fellowship, Lutheran, and Methodist.  This organization has been engaged in many projects to support Zulu families impacted by the AIDS epidemic. Members of the Parish of the Messiah have visited the Wintertown-Khethani area, worshipped at All Saints Anglican Church, and were very impressed by the scope of Simunye’s efforts. 

Members of the Parish of the Messiah have been supporting projects in Winterton, a small farming community, and the adjoining Khethani Township in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa for over twenty years. 1,000 Mugs: Empowering Students in South Africa began in September, 2008 at the memorial service for Marlene Nelson, a member of the parish, who wanted to make 1,000 mugs and use the proceeds to improve the quality of education for Zulu school children in Khethani Township. Marlene died before she could fulfill her vision, but, at her memorial service, her colleagues at the Harvard Ceramics Studio promised to create 1,000 mugs if Messiah would handle all sales activities and administer the funds.

Initially, the project focuses on establishing a library for the Celimfundo Primary School in Khethani. Christian Ndlovu, the school’s principal, stated that their goal is to make the library available to “learners, teachers and the community…during working hours….”  While we have a longstanding relationship with the Winterton/Khethani community, no member of the parish had visited Winterton or Khethani since 2004, several years before the creation of 1,000 Mugs and before the school was built. All communication pertaining to the project has been limited to phone calls, mail and email.  Encouraged by a Mission Tithe Matching Grant to “make it personal,” a small group of us decided that we had a number of questions that need to be discussed in person in order to determine the future direction of the project.

Meeting with representatives from Simunye, the school, and the community revealed a number of roadblocks to the idea of a library, and we discovered that people in need will say yes to most anything you offer them.  Rather than ask “Do you need/want a library?” we needed to ask “What do you need?”  In the end, it was a place to cook lunch for the children at the school that was the most pressing need of the community.  And so it was that a kitchen was built, using local workers, that not only serves the children at the school, but also the whole community in the evenings and on weekends.

Some Reflections on Lessons Learned

We learned, relearned, or had fleshed out several significant lessons as a result of our work on this project and our time in South Africa:

  •  Before we left, one very significant understanding was suggested to us by Laura and Holly and by reading sections of Toxic Charity. The community that you are reaching out to must define and prioritize its needs. We are sure that the school still would like a library but, when the government could not provide a building and the headmaster knew that the funds were still committed to the school, meetings were held with the school staff and a more pressing priority was expressed. This was confirmed at our meeting with Mr. Ndlovu, (headmaster) Mr. Mokoena (deputy headmaster) and Mr. Hlongwane (community chair) when Mr. Ndlovu thanked us for letting go of the idea of a library and providing funds for a kitchen. So, we learned firsthand that, as Laura observed, it may be that when a project bogs down it’s because something else is needed.
  •  We also learned that we had to trust God to work things out. We could never have been prepared for everything that might happen during our time in South Africa. We saw a variety of needs, met many amazing people working creatively to meet those needs, and encountered some difficulties that we never could have anticipated. The difficult political situation detailed in our narrative left us worried and distracted. We did not solve this problem! We simply came. However, we discovered that the simple act of coming had made a difference. We were told that our presence caused the community (particularly Simunye) to focus on the problem and work it through. It was plain to us that God’s Spirit was using the openness and willingness of local people to be involved in ways that would truly help the school community.
  • As we worked together we recognized that each of the three of us brought unique and important gifts and ideas to the process of listening, making plans, and building relationships. It will be exciting to see what fruit that understanding bear in the future.
  •  Finally, we are humbled by the willingness of the South Africans we met to address with energy and optimism the myriad problems of their communities, to put themselves on the line, and to work cooperatively despite denominational differences. There are lessons there for all of us.