Every school has its leaders, though they have different styles and strengths. But on a recent trip to Tanzania, I met an eighteen-year-old boy who set a new standard in school leadership. His name is Furahini Godlike.
Tanzania’s capital city, Dar es Salaam, has seen rapid urbanisation in recent years. Infrastructure cannot keep up with the rising population. Arguably the biggest victims are the city’s students. One municipality provided the following figures, which outline the challenges the government faces. All figures relate to primary schools:
- 22% more classrooms required
- 63% more school latrines required
- 80% more school libraries required
- 95.4% more teacher homes required
The numbers for secondary schools are similar. Throughout the city, schools are overcrowded, understaffed and under-resourced. And the gap between supply and demand is swelling.
Amidst these conditions, Furahini recently graduated from high school and earned an invitation to attend a college in Arusha. Unfortunately, although his college classes have already begun, he cannot yet afford to pay his enrolment fee. Rather than add to his parents’ burden by asking them for assistance – they have already been significantly burdened by his brother’s recent four-year battle with malaria – he is trying to earn the money through his own t-shirt startup. At the same time, he juggles three community-based side-projects:
- a campaign to improve student health by redeveloping the canteen of his old school;
- an English Club that he founded in 2010 and continues to run at the school; and
- an Environmental Conservation and Health project that promotes care of the local environment, again aimed at reducing health problems within the community.
Clearly, Furahini is not your typical kid; he is a resourceful, natural leader with an entrepreneurial streak. I was fortunate enough to spend some time chatting with him just before boarding my plane back home, and from this conversation I gleaned five key lessons about leadership.
Lesson 1. True leaders do what is right, no matter what everyone else is doing.
When Furahini was a student, even teachers wagged their classes. On average, he estimates that teachers attended around two out of their eight lessons per day, sheltering in the staff room the rest of the time.
The concrete “classrooms” more closely resembled crowded prison cells, albeit with open doors. Within these rooms, up to eighty students sought refuge from their daily lives, entertaining themselves in ways that any unattended teens would.
Furahini and a few of his fellow students fought the status quo by actually trying to learn. Furahini recalls finding “any textbook he could”, sitting under a tree and teaching himself and anyone else who was interested. Often these “rebels” would be laughed at and ridiculed by the other students, but Furahini and his comrades kept their spirits up with positive self-talk.
“I’d tell myself ‘It’s OK, it’s OK just keep going.'” he says. “Now I look at what’s happening – I am able to help others learn English. I am so happy. I feel like I have already reached a new level so it was worth it.”
Lesson 2: True leaders value their community.
Even though he graduated from high school last year, Furahini regularly returns to his old school to continue to develop his aforementioned projects. He has a strong sense of responsibility to those he left behind, and is determined to use his experience and position to help others broaden their opportunities.
By returning to their own communities and developing more leaders, true leaders demonstrate an innate understanding of the principle of positive feedback. True leaders want to give back to the community that has helped them become what they are.
Lesson 3: True leaders do what must be done, whether it is their job or not.
I visited Furahini’s old school as part of a group of teachers and architects. We were travelling together as part of a CEFPI (Council of Educational Facility Planners International) project. Leading up to our trip, Furahini caught wind of our visit from one of our group members, who had met him when he was Head Boy in a previous visit to the school. Furahini immediately took it upon himself to personally coordinate our visit.
It was Furahini, not a staff member, who ensured that significant preparations took place in order for us to feel welcome. It was he who greeted us upon arrival, and subsequently led us from classroom to classroom to view the school. It was he who took the English and ATYA clubs aside and practiced welcome songs so that we would feel welcome in their school, and it was he who facilitated our meeting with these bright-eyed future leaders.
All this from a boy who had graduated from the school and was not obliged to have anything to do with it!
Lesson 4: True leaders think, speak and act with humility.
After listening to Furahini’s story, I was moved to suggest that I could help him raise some funds to get him into college before the enrolment deadline. To my surprise, the young man became slightly uncomfortable, and baulked at my offer.
In his words: “To be honest, I would feel a bit funny about taking money from people. I don’t want people to help me, because I know I can help myself. I want them to help those who really need it.”
This is the attitude of a true leader. A true leader is acutely aware of those who are less fortunate than himself, and understands the importance of their own self-sufficiency (see Lesson 5). A strong connection with less fortunate people helps keep leaders grounded on a personal level, whilst also keeping them connected to the challenges that their communities face.Side note: When I consider such leaders as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, it seems to me that an awareness of the less fortunate may be a prerequisite not just for humility, but also for a highly developed sense of responsibility.
Lesson 5. True leaders know how to take care of themselves.
It may come as some surprise to find that, despite his obvious philanthropic bent, Furahini is fully aware of the pitfalls of martyrdom.
“First I have to look after myself,” he told me. “If I am trying to save someone who is drowning but I don’t care for my own safety, two people die. I have to take care of myself by saving my money and caring for my health and my family, or I won’t be able to help anybody.”