2002 was a very good year for the Paxtons. Not only was it the beginning of a 20+ year partnership, but we discovered a deep, shared love for the classroom and an enduring interest in rural education. In many ways, this year shaped the 21 years of adventure that have followed.
2009: Craig and Michelle Paxton in a classroom
The adventure took us to a little village called Zithulele, where all three of our children spent their formative years, surrounded by an incredible community. We were privileged to join a remarkable group of passionate, highly competent people - made up of both community “outsiders and insiders” - who shared a commitment to serve the people of this much-neglected corner of the Eastern Cape. Over the years, no less than seven non-profit organisations have established a presence in the village, working alongside government health and education services, and covering a range of sectors from youth, livelihoods, disabilities and the environment. In many ways, this collaborative “rural hub” concept has become a template for others around the country and continues to be a warm, challenging, and exciting place to live.
Seven years prior to moving to Zithulele; sitting in an apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts (incidentally found for us by Amy Gleason of Ubuntu Global Connections who has become such a long-standing supporter and friend!). Our adventure started to take a more concrete shape in the form of the initial strategic plan for Axium Education. Rooted in our backgrounds as maths and science teachers and our experiences in rural schools - where so much potential lies alongside vast challenges - we started with what little we had to offer, trusting that this “little” would be multiplied. And it has! This year Axium serves over 6000 learners, employing 200+ staff - the vast majority of whom are drawn from the communities we serve. And yet looking around us, there is still so much potential waiting to be fulfilled...
Very quickly, Axium became much bigger than our own personal story. We were joined by amazing volunteers, community members and eventually staff from all over the country and world who felt a pull towards the organisation’s mission. From the initial focus on high school maths and science, Axium now works throughout the education pipeline from literacy in the early grades to supporting students as they take their first steps at university or college. Currently spread across two sites, 3 hours’ drive apart, our senior leadership team is gearing up to take effective programmes to every corner of the Province… and beyond! There is a maturity and momentum to the work that was not there a few years ago, and this has attracted interest from funders and the government.
As our own children began to reach the end of primary school, we faced some tough choices. At the Zithulele Independent School they had received the most incredible bilingual education and had opportunities to excel in a range of extramurals. Yet for Kelly, our eldest, there was a niggly sense that a wider world beckoned (she had been in a class/grade of four children for the past seven years!), that she had her own adventures to live out. After many (tearful!) discussions and much prayer, at the end of 2022 we relocated to Cape Town, a huge, big city adjustment for all of us after 12 years in the village.
And so this very special time of our lives has come to an end, but our personal adventure continues, albeit with different challenges… like ensuring our children keep their rural roots in the midst of the big city! We, fortunately, had nine months to put plans in place to manage this transition, including the hiring of a fabulous replacement for Michelle as COO, Sithembele Zondeka, and we have some really strong senior leaders alongside him who have been with us for some time. Craig continues in his role as Executive Director, which over the past five years has become largely remote and externally focused, with regular visits on site. Michelle continues as a board member and is investing every moment of her “spare” time in developing Axium’s finance team. Our kids have settled well (probably much better than the adults!) and it's interesting to watch how they have been shaped by their experiences in Zithulele (Ashley has expressed much outrage at the half-an-hour a week that her new school devotes to isiXhosa, “It's an important language you know!”). The bigger narratives of Zithulele and Axium, which our personal adventures have been privileged to be intertwined with, continue to be marked by, on the one hand, huge challenge, and on the other, such potential as we see learners, staff, schools, organisations and communities develop and sometimes even thrive.
Zithulele was (and is) so much more than just a place to live while we worked. It was a way of life, a community, a rubbing of shoulders with people from mixed cultures, backgrounds, income brackets and ages every day that is almost impossible to replicate in the city. In Zithulele we really did experience what it was like for a village to raise our family and we are so grateful to all the people that were part of our lives and played such a huge role in helping our children develop into little humans. After 5 months of being away, we miss a lot! We miss the people and close friends that we ‘did life with’; we miss thetha’ring in our sadly-still-very-feeble-isiXhosa; we miss sending our kids to their amazing, bilingual school (barefoot!); we miss the “commute” to work and the people and conversations on the way; we miss the frisbee court and all its people; we miss the constant rollercoaster and problem solving; we miss our cool and ‘real’ church; we miss the parkrun to the beach every Saturday and the warm sea; we miss watching our staff grow and thrive; we miss seeing the learners involved in our programmes; we miss the good chats during the long car trips to different sites; we miss the Zithulele chess team; we miss being able to call on other organisations/people when something was needed that we couldn’t do; we miss the singing; we miss the thunderstorms and spectacular sunrises; we miss hearing the kids playing outside the office; we miss amagwinya; we miss the spontaneity; we miss the energy in the office; we miss not having load shedding… and… and… and…!
Thank you Axium team (you really are an amazing team!) and Zithulele family for an amazing 12 years… and long may the adventures continue! Nenze njalo nakwa banye. Enkosi, Siyabulela!