How a Small Country In Africa Taught Me the Greatest Lesson on Innovation

The police were on strike, yet we were still walking through the streets of Tembisa. It was the middle of July, but it wasn’t hot. We were in the southern hemisphere after all, and Africa is an enormous continent whose western stereotypes were consistently being shattered during our visit.

This was in 2006, when I took my first trip to the South African township, Tembisa (right outside of Johannesburg). I could list many different reasons of why I went on this trip. I enjoyed traveling. I had been a part of mission work before in Guatemala, Europe, and in the US. My wife (fiance at the time) was going with me as well. So were my brothers and sister.

All of these reasons would make sense of why we went to South Africa in the middle of summer, but they aren’t the real reason. My wife and I went to Tembisa because my Dad was extremely passionate about this cause. We could see how passionate he was in the way he talked about Africa and the people in Tembisa. My dad is a Pastor, and the year prior he had led a small team to Swaziland (a small country landlocked inside of South Africa) and had came back to the US on fire. Our group was headed to South Africa to learn from the people there, help run a huge kids camp, and volunteer at an AIDS clinic and orphanage.

Although we spent a lot of time learning about the culture and people of South Africa, nothing could prepare me for this experience. It changed my life in so many different ways. After a 7 hour flight to Paris, and a 11 hour flight to Johannesburg, our plane touched down and we headed towards an adventure I’d never forget.

An Early Lesson in Expectations

The scene in Tembisa was heartbreaking. The other Johannesburg township, Soweto, gets a bit more attention because of the amazing “Soweto Gospel Choir” and the Soweto Uprising in 1976 during Apartheid. But Tembisa has 500,000 people living in 12 square miles of makeshift buildings and dwellings. When we arrived the police were actually on strike, and civil unrest was brewing…

We stayed in “guest houses” outside of Tembisa, which are a type of bed-and-breakfast place in South Africa. Each day we would ride a bus into Tembisa at dawn and ride out at dusk. A light smog held over the township, and you could smell burning rubber for miles outside of the city.

Everything changed for myself (and our team) when we met the group of young people we’d be working with from the local church and community center. They were teenagers, but wow how much did I learn from them. They lived in Tembisa and were passionate about resurrecting this township and the community. They didn’t let the violence, poverty, and political unrest thwart their dreams of going to college, becoming engineers, and starting their own businesses.

During the next two weeks we worked side-by-side this group of young people to run a kids camp with over 500 kids from the township. They helped us understand their community and taught us ways to work “alongside the people” instead of working “for the people.”

Interestingly, my expectation of coming to South Africa to “help” was completely biased and seemingly based on a western perspective. Instead we worked together. We listened. We took orders. And we relied on our friends from South Africa to show us what needed to be done, rather than coming in with an agenda of our own. In hindsight, this small change is what made the trip (and our connection and partnership ever since then) so successful.

My father’s passion had led me to Africa, but these teenagers passion had led me to an understanding: Passionate individuals are the ones who create change, because they will not let the problems and issues we all see (and face) interfere with their mission.

A Tent and Passionate People

It’s now almost 8 years since that first trip to Africa. The next summer we went back to Africa, but this time to Swaziland. Swaziland is “infamous” for having the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world. We took the model of medical clinic, church, and community center (all in one building area) we saw in Tembisa and brought the idea to an area of Swaziland called Madudula.

Here are team stayed outside the city in what could only be described as a rural setting. The center was square and each of us had a room with two cement slabs to lay our sleeping bags on. No hot water. Electricity every now and then. And while the streets of Tembisa had given me a glimpse into true urban poverty, this was rural poverty and a completely different way of living then most of us had ever been exposed to in our lives.

Swaziland is one of the last remaining monarchies in the world. Years after this first trip the Queen gave our group “official” land to build a school on, but during this time we were told by the local leaders that a valley was the perfect place to set up a medical clinic, clothes distribution, and the kid camps we were hoping to run.

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This is the tent we put up in Madudula, Swaziland.

So there we were, in another hemisphere, separated from the comforts of our American lives, but ready to help in any way possible, and we were asked to put up a tent…in the middle of a valley. This was not a camping tent as you might imagine. It was an enormous circus type tent that took us an entire day to get up, with engineers on our team guiding the way onto how to pull this monstrosity up so it would be safe for all of us to go under.

I learned very quickly that I was not able to take the lead on anything when it came to the tent. In fact, our group took a back seat and let the local leaders direct us on where to pull, what to hold, and how to get this thing upright and nailed into the ground. But we all worked together. We had to. There was no ego at play anywhere during this situation, because ego or planned roles would have completely ruined what we were trying to accomplish.

Innovation Does Not Have to Be New Technology

The tent served as a community hub for the next two weeks. And each day more and more people from the surrounding villages came down to the valley where the tent was up. In hindsight I now see why this tent was so important. It was different. It represented change. But it also represented possibility.

We often think innovation has to be something new and shiny. We pair the term with people like Elon Musk who build electric cars, hyper loops, and rockets.  Yet, this tent was one of the most innovative things I’ve ever seen. Why?

Because it allowed passionate people to come together for purposeful change.

The best part of this experience was that the group of teenagers from Tembisa made the trip with us. Their passion continued to impact our work and helped create lasting change in Swaziland. They could have focused on their hometown of Tembisa, yet they came to Swaziland anyway. They came to serve and were happy about it. They used the tent as a way to connect with the people there, learn their language, play games and teach their children, and show me the power of a relentless desire to make things better.

When I look back on this trip to Swaziland, I don’t remember how hard it was… Instead I remember how rewarding it was to be part of something much bigger than myself. I was mostly a quiet helper, which is very different from how I am in my life at home. But it taught me some truly valuable lessons:

  1. Have a serving mentality is powerful.
  2. Innovation is about the impact, not just about the tool or “new thing.”
  3. Passionate people are making change all around this world.

My Dad has since gone over to Swaziland almost 20 times. He runs Swaziland Relief, which is the organization that evolved out of this trip.

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The school being built in Swaziland.

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The well being drilled.

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School is in session!

Swaziland Relief has partnered with the people of Swaziland to build a community center in Madudula. Over the years they’ve brought much needed clothing items and medical supplies, and have mobile medical clinics around the country.

The tent lasted for a couple of years. It stood the test of mother nature, and eventually was replaced (in the exact same spot) by a large community building. A well was dug and built in Madudula and (as of this past year) we now have a school (six classrooms) for grades 1-3 that serves 150 children all year long with plans for expansion of one new grade level each year!

I’ve seen firsthand the impact passionate people can have. Which is why I’ve been such an advocate for passion and purpose-driven learning in our schools.

“Never depend upon institutions or government to solve any problem. All social movements are founded by, guided by, motivated and seen through by the passion of individuals. ” 
― Margaret Mead

I won’t ever forget that tent. But more importantly, I won’t forget what it represented, and how the people of Madudula grew it to be a space where people learn and help each other every single day. Let’s not forget that innovation is not always the brightest, newest piece of technology…it can be something that represents change, allows people to grow, and supports a cause worth working towards.

Swazi Classroom

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