Cycles of gaining and giving
Gillian Attwood's talk at the 2022 Joint Anniversary Celebration of Canon Collins Trust and Ros Moger Terry Furlong scholarships
The first time I met Martin Buck was in 2015 when he came to South Africa to select candidates for the RMTF scholarships. This was the 13th year of RMTF’s journey. I was on the staff of the Canon Collins Trust by then, having completed my PhD in Education in 2007, with support from RMTF. We were sitting in one of those musty University of Cape Town tutorial classrooms, with the ivy vines just peeping in through windows. Martin was representing the RMFT group, and we together had the challenge of sorting through the applications that had made their way to that final list. Enjoyable, but also daunting, knowing that behind each of these applications was an extraordinary person, hoping to get support for their efforts to improve the world.
We were sitting there, and he looked over at me and said, ‘I remember your application. It was the first one we decided on. When I read it, I knew. And I said to Ros, “This one, Ros, is for you.”’ I found that conversation very moving, for two reasons.
The first was that 13 years later, sitting there in a completely different context, Martin had remembered, with clarity, my application, my work in Lesotho, and why it mattered.
And the second reason, in addition to his care and interest in me as a scholar and human being, was his obvious and deep devotion to his partner Ros, and to honouring her. I was really struck by the thoughtful and practical way he and her friends had chosen to do this, to make a difference, to do something she would have celebrated being a part of.
I know Ros had wanted to work as a VSO volunteer in Africa, and never got to fulfil these plans, and although I never knew Ros personally, I think that the work I did in Lesotho would have appealed to her.
The context: a rural, remote setting in the mountains. On one level, romantic, ruggedly beautiful. On another level, painful, exhausting in its poverty.
My passion was to explore how communities could find solutions to solve local problems. Using a Freirean approach, we looked for the connections between action and learning. We set up learning circles throughout the Malealea valley, and worked collaboratively on issues ranging from preschool education to polluted water sources.
My role was to support the process of action and learning, strengthening particular literacies needed to solve a problem. Sometimes this was at a personal level, like reading instructions to take HIV medication at the right time, or strengthening a farmer’s numeracy skills. Sometimes it was at a community level, for example supporting literacies needed to apply for a micro loan to start a business.
But overall, I think the most significant action was the establishment of a community organisation, the Malealea Development Trust. We wrote the constitution, applied for funding, and set up the systems to sustain community engagement.
A short statement about the Trust, taken from its website, reads:
The Trust’s work is centred on promoting education and development in order to enhance life opportunities for all who live in the Malealea valley. All MDT staff members have a strong sense of belonging, and are intimately connected to the community, having grown up and/or made their home in the valley. We are the backbone of the organisation. We understand the people and the problems, and are the greatest resource for identifying and implementing solutions.
20 years later, the organisation still stands. It now employs seven full-time staff and is relatively secure in its funding. They have made it through the HIV pandemic and the COVID pandemic.
The Malealea Development Trust is about people representing their own interests. Again, from what I know of Ros and Terry, this is something they would have approved of.
And I am also very pleased to say that I still have a close connection with the MDT. Just before I came here, we worked together on a 1.8 million-rand funding grant for ongoing support from the Steven Lewis Foundation. This funding relationship, first secured in 2003 at the beginning of the Trust’s journey, during the time of my PhD, is a relationship that has been sustained and grown, as with many other activities the MDT organises and implements.
That, for me, is impact. And I am pretty sure that things would not have unfolded in this way had the RMTF group and Canon Collins Trust not seen the value in that one application, 20 years ago.
The road of life is strange. I never imagined, as a scholar, that I would one day find myself in a different role, working as a member of the Canon Collins staff, supporting a different community — this time of scholars and alumni/ae. I guess the same principles apply as they did with the communities in Lesotho: we support one another to identify and solve our own challenges. These challenges are sometime at a more macro- intellectual level, like grappling with why a national education system is dysfunctional. And sometimes at a personal level, like supporting someone through the difficulties of a PhD journey – how to handle a supervisor who doesn’t show up. Or coping with writer’s block. Or raising funds for another scholar. This community of scholars and alumni/ae is about seeing beyond one’s own horizon, seeing and supporting others in continuous circles of giving and receiving.
Talking of circles, it is striking to be together in the same physical space where Canon John Collins stood 50 years ago; to think of him standing here, and of all he did to give hope to people scattered across southern Africa. Were it not for his work, for the Trust’s work, for the efforts of the RMTF group, were it not for the ongoing grit of the Malealea Development Trust, and for every one of us here this evening, each working each in our own way, the world would be the poorer. The cycles of gaining and giving, of creating opportunities for others and in so doing recreating them for oneself, are magical. I feel humbled, and grateful to all of you for being here and for enabling me to be a part of it.