Ten years ago, my partner and I packed up our jobs, packed up our house, packed up our family, and moved to go and live in a very small and remote amaXhosa village on the South African Wild Coast.
We had no running water, no toilet, no lights and no electricity. There were no roads and no schools. We were a day return trip from the closest hardware store or proper shops. We didn’t speak isiXhosa. Our neighbours didn’t speak English.
We rented a dilapidated cottage from our kind neighbour, Nonezile. It had half a roof, no doors or windows and a dirt floor. It had been used by cows and donkeys for years before we moved in.
Life was robust and eye-opening to a family from the city, but reflecting back, there were quite a few lessons that I can apply to my business life today.
Respect everyone for the skills that they bring to their job function
Most of the huts in the village still had traditional cow-dung floors. How difficult can it be to smear cow poop on your floor? Well, if it’s your first time it can be very tricky. You need to know how fresh the poop that you are going to use needs to be (You need to collect very fresh dung, before insects have had a chance to lay eggs in it, otherwise you get things crawling out of your floor afterwards and leaving holes behind). You need to get the dung/water mix just right, and there is quite a tricky technique using the side of your hand like a blade, to get it layered on smoothly.
You quickly recognized that everyone knows more about something, than you do. Everyone. Everyone is good at something. So, treat everyone with respect and courtesy. Everyone you meet is the managing director of their own job description. Treat them respectfully.
(As a side note. A dung floor is surprisingly effective and robust. It has great insulation and once it has dried is soft and has no odour at all. Every month or two, as soon as it starts getting a bit dusty, you simply add a thin layer of new dung onto the old one.)
Believe that you can get things done
People will tell you that many things are impossible. They will tell you how hard they are, why they are failing, that things can’t be done or won’t work. Often, by believing in your cause and not giving up, you will prove them wrong . Don’t let other peoples negativity or fear and failure stop you from trying the impossible. Expect the best and focus on what you can do, instead of what others can’t do. It’s never really about believing that something can be done – rather it’s about believing that you can be the one to do it!
Sometimes 80% is better than nothing
We were faced with so many daunting projects that were completely out of our comfort zone. We had to make our own furniture, dig our own toilet, put on a roof, set up a system to harvest our own rainwater (it was the only water we would have). This wasn’t our skill set, but we quickly learned that we could achieve a result that was 80% okay, and that was functional and would get the job done well. It might not have been perfect, and a carpenter might have frowned at the result, but we quickly learned that 80% was good enough.
There are many times that I put things off in my business because it seems like we just aren’t ready and that the result won’t be perfect. I need to constantly remind myself that 80% now – is better than 100% of nothing in the future. Just do it. You can always fix things up as you move forward.
Things won’t happen on their own
Sometimes you just need to drag yourself down the hill and start digging. You can want a toilet. You can think about building a toilet. You can plan and research how to build a toilet. But it’s not going to happen on it’s own, or because you wish it, or plan it, or talk about it. It’s not going to dig itself. At some stage you just have pick up a spade, walk down the hill, and to start digging a hole, getting dirty, and sawing some poles.
You won’t always have the right tools
We didn’t have electricity or a generator. We built all our furniture with a handsaw, a hammer and a screwdriver. We didn’t even have a level space to work. We built our furniture on the slope in front of our hut.
Don’t use not having the correct resources or tools as the reason not to start a job. Use what you have, where you are, and do what you can. You’d be surprised how well most things turn out with initiative, persistence and the wrong tools.
Share what you have
When we lived in village we were embraced as part of the village. We participated and shared and were shared with. If our young kids were wandering the village for hours, we knew they were being cared for by someone else. We borrowed skills and advice and resources, and we shared what skills, advice and resources we had.
Share what you have. Share your network. Share your knowledge. Mentor and assist when you can. Look for ways to help and support clients and customers and suppliers, and even competitors. Play it forward. We are all in the village of Africa and need to help each other.
Make kindness count
The villagers were amazing people. Smiling, caring, gentle people. People who are demonstrative. Men who held my hand when they talked to me. Women who rested their hands on my arms and shoulders. People who made me feel a part of them and cared for. Children who visited us all the time. Always a small excuse to come and be with you. To join you in what you were doing. Everyone so quick to smile and laugh. Loud talking, long greeting. Simple. A sense of community like I have never experienced.
You aren’t that special in your business life that you don’t need to be kind. Let kindness be central to your vision and integral to your DNA. If there’s no kindness in your business life you’re wasting precious time.
It was an amazing experience living in the village. Some days we wondered how we are going to last two years there, while on other days we wondered how we were ever going to be able to move back home.
Living in Africa often means being innovative, and tough and resilient. You need to be rough, and robust and very ready to laugh. And more than most places, you need persistence and stubbornness.
Getting anything done often takes more.
Whether you are living in a tiny village, or growing a business, this is what this great, bubbling, pulsating continent is all about.
We kept a blog/journal of our time there, so if you are interested in our experience in the village, there is a link to our blog here: