Category Archives: Community (self) Development

TedxRhodesU: The Tea Stop that Taught Me to listen

This is the video of my TedxRhodesU talk – I was incredibly nervous, as the opportunity to share my passion and stories that would makes others #seeafricadifferently was incredibly important to me, I wanted to make sure I took full advantage of it. I wasn’t quite as eloquent as my written speech was but I think I got my point across. Would love to hear your thoughts!


Schooled by Students at the University of Ghana Legon

Since my last post focused on the need to listen this one will justify this approach a little more in case you’re not yet convinced. Being at the TEDxRhodesU event recently reminded me of the time I spent consulting for an ISP on a project with The University of Ghana Legon (UGL) in 2008. Both have a clock tower and when I was at UGL I remember fondly thinking of and missing Rhodes University, my Alma mater, and this weekend I had the same feelings, at Rhodes, about UGL.

 The University of Ghana Legon (May 2008)

The company I was consulting for wanted to assist the university just outside Accra to improve its student to computer ratio. To start, we met with the King of the Ga because in Ghana each traditional leader is responsible for a different sector and must focus to improve conditions in this area. King Tackie Tawiah III was responsible for education and the Ga Education Endowment Fund. Working with him and his council gave all parties concerned access to an extensive source of local knowledge that could be easily accessed during all project phases. He connected our team with others – some NGO, some corporate, and then of course the VC directly at UGL. This is the first reason to listen a little closer: the usual media portrayal of traditional leaders is as backwards and overly conservative dictators interested only in retaining power. King Tackie Tawiah proved this was not in any way a universal truth.

Commemorating the teams relationship and project launch with King Tackie Twaiah and his council

The company I was consulting for ended up not being able to assist the university but I stayed in touch with some now friends at UGL in a personal capacity. This is the way I found out the second and more important reason (in this experience) to listen and treat the people involved as the experts of their own context…

UGL managed to massively improve the student to computer ratio, and while I don’t remember the exact figures I do remember that they more than doubled the number of computers to students in 6 months. However a problem then cropped up: a minority of students were stealing the equipment. All sponsors and interested parties were contacted to request their attendance at a meeting a week later to discuss the issue.

Two days after the meeting request was sent however, and way before the meeting, the students organised their own meeting. They identified that the problem was students with lots of bags etc. being able to sneak the equipment out in among their piles of stuff. As such they decided that no students should be allowed to take bags into the computer labs but rather would have to leave the bags outside at parcel counters. The parcel counters were built by volunteer students from wooden pallets and once erected managed 24 hours a day also by volunteer students. And guess what? They were right and the problem was solved instantly – by them on their own without any intervention from the university officials, sponsors or anyone else. So much for student apathy, so much for un-involved disaffected African youth. So many stereotypes and media portrayals were proven to be not even close to the truth in this situation and are sufficient cause to take a closer look before judging based on pre-conceived ideas. For me this inspiring reaction from the students of UGL is not only a reason to listen but also to believe in Africa.

Bag-free computer labs at the University of Ghana Legon


A real life example of why I believe in Africa

One of the best days of my life to date – definitely top 5 moments – was a random Tuesday of June 2009 in Orlando West, Soweto. I was standing outside a classroom at Nkanyezi Stimulation Centre and watching with 2 others (Prisca and Vusi) through the window, behind the curtains where we were out of sight. We were watching as one of the carers from the Nkanyezi Stimulation centre, Salomina, was encouraging Thato to take her very first steps. Thato was six at the time, suffered from three different physical disabilities and doctors had told her parents that there was a very tiny possibility that she would be able to walk but in order to achieve this, extensive and continuous (read: very expensive) treatment would be required. Yet here she was taking her first steps in a classroom without electricity, carpets, any equipment – never mind specialised equipment – and a carer with no training but plenty of love and patience. Thato seemed to understand the gravity of the moment and after 5 steps in a row, taken very seriously and with every bit of her concentration, she exploded into that true belly laughter that only children seem to be able to do. And while Thato laughed Salomina, Prisca, Vusi and I all cried, cried and cried some more at the witnessing of what was a real life miracle.

What made this a miracle was not that her chances of walking, according to doctors, were slim even with the best care available – although this was so – but that this had occurred in a place with so little in a physical or material sense. Also because although Thato was the first to be taught to walk at Nkanyezi there have been several others who have done the same since. It shows that what really counts at the end of the day is perseverance, patience, determination and (albeit very hippy of me) love. With these things the most insurmountable odds can be overcome. This centre is proof of that…

The Nkanyezi Stimulation Centre was founded by Prisca Tshabalala, who having recently given birth to Nkanyezi, a child with multiple disabilities, searched for some form of support and assistance in her Orlando West community of Soweto but found none. Not the sort of woman to sit around and do nothing she started a support group for parents of children with multiple disabilities that within weeks had over 40 members. This group grew and grew all the while with Prisca reading and learning as much as she could about not only coping but flourishing with, because of and despite any disabilities. Eventually it became clear that a special school was needed for such children and since there wasn’t one Prisca founded one. After years of fund raising, campaigning and dogged determination Dimpho Stimulation Centre for children with multiple disabilities was only weeks away from opening when tragedy struck.  Prisca’s shining star, as she called Nkanyezi, passed away in 2000 at age eleven having never seen the school his mother had worked so hard to create for him and others like him. Despite her heartbreak, despite the fact that she no longer needed the services of such a school she persevered and now she did so because of a promise to Nkanyezi to make as much of a difference as possible to the lives of ‘his people.’ Twelve years later Prisca still runs the school, in fact gives her monthly pension to the school to ensure it survives, and is the foundation of strength, love and determination which seems to feed the rest of the school. From the carers, who come to work with smiles on their faces and endless patience for their pupils despite the fact that they often go unpaid for months at a time because of funding shortages, to the gardener Bra Nxobo who has been providing lunch to the centre through his vegetable garden and maintaining the centre grounds for 10 years also more often than not without pay and even with broken ribs!

This centre is just one of the many reasons I believe in Africa. The economic growth rates, education statistics etc. are all very impressive and important but it is the people, the people like Prisca, Salomina and Bra Nxobo that make me believe. The knowledge they have acquired on their own, the innovations they have come up with to overcome resource shortages, the dedication despite scant reward are motivators and inspirational to all who come across them. They make me believe because with such goodness, determination and self-sacrifice, of which Nkanyezi is just one example of many from our continent, it seems impossible for us not to succeed.

For more details check out Nkanyezi on Facebook (Nkanyezi Stimulation Centre) + Twitter (@NkanyeziCentre)


The Tea Stop that taught me to listen

This particular story is one I’ve wanted to share since 2009, and was a motivator for this blog, which I’ve been mulling over in my mind for a few years now. And as such, even though it is not a shiny and new story, it is one that still helps me today and so I decided to share it anyway.

Let’s start with a little scene setting: my hubby and I are living in the Ngong Township just outside of Nairobi, Kenya. We have a HUGE house, admittedly not as big as our neighbors 18 bedroom house, but certainly bigger than our other neighbor’s tin shack and any other we have ever lived in – and shockingly the smallest we could find in Ngong. Shack or mansion, those were our options.

We were active members of our community and so when a friend from South Africa, Fiona Goldrick, visited us in Kenya looking for a project to support, we looked to our immediate community. Fi and I were each contributing R500 towards the ‘project’ and this was the sum total of money we had to spend on creating something worthwhile and sustainable in the 3 weeks she had in Kenya. Our first step was to set up a meeting with the two women, Anastasia and Esther, we wanted to work with and see what ideas they had to create an income for themselves. The researcher in me turned this meeting into a bit of a focus group, but before we knew it we had 12 ideas from the women.

The universal favourite was some sort of tea stand. You see Kenyans LOVE their tea and drink more tea than even the British do – in fact this is the Kenyan cultural idiosyncracy more commented on than any I have heard. However the only place that tea is available outside of the home was premium coffee and tea houses, and at prices way out of reach of the average Kenyan.  A massive gap in the market had been identified, by these innovative women, and The Tea Stop was born.

A week later the 4 of us had sourced some flasks, trays, plastics cups, spoons etc, created some branding and were ready to start sales. Two shifts were done a day – thus ensuring neither of the women was away from her children too long (both were full time carers) and that they could continue running their fruit stalls outside of their homes. Esther did the morning shift and Anastasia the afternoon shift. These shifts were done at the taxi ranks and bus stops of Ngong and Karen where a captive, bored and thirsty market just couldn’t get enough tea. Three months later Anastasia and Esther were earning an income of R1200 each a month for working 2 hours a day. This income was more than what their husbands and them combined were earning before and all this from a tiny investment and listening to the people involved. They continued running The Tea Stop for a further 3 years, with an average income increasing by R70 a month per person, until both women and their families moved back to their respective rural areas to take over the family lands upon the deaths of elders. The women have both used the money they made running this simple business to start new businesses more appropriate to their new surroundings. Esther bought a sewing machine and now runs a tailoring business from her home near Lake Victoria while Anastasia used it to buy a water pump to enable growth of extra crops that she sells also from her home in the Aberdares region. They are inspirational women who work tirelessly and are still constantly thinking of how to do better. Their success is solely because of their skills and determination.

Too often in Kenya particularly I heard members of the UN talk of how carefully they had to balance the success and failures of their projects – as after all if one was too successful and actually solved the problem they would be out of a job, they frequently pointed out before jumping into their new and completely unnecessary 4×4’s and speeding off. This seemed to pre-occupy them much more than getting to know the people they were supposed to be partnering with. The number of ideas and innovations overflowing from the people could be changing lives daily if only more would listen.

And so yes I’m preaching. It’s time to listen – Africa does have the answers, you just need to ask the questions. And I’m preaching not because I knew any better or haven’t made the same mistakes but because I learnt and believe in the amazing power and ability of our people. Help release it to continue the transformation of our continent.