Yoshito Hori speaks about leadership lessons with enthusiasm in a suit and tie

Following a 6 a.m. wake-up call, we ate breakfast and gathered at 7:30 a.m. to receive our assignments. This became our routine for the next four days.

Participants in the project were divided into seven teams, i.e. the restroom team, classroom team, kindergarten team, tennis basketball court team, open classroom team, library & staff room team, and orphan team. Each team had ten people. My eldest son, second son, third son and I were assigned to the same classroom team. Meanwhile, my wife, fourth son and fifth son were grouped together into the kindergarten team.

After picking up a brown paper bag that contained water and sweets, we boarded on buses with each respective team. After a ten-minute journey, we arrived at the Baobab Primary School. The pupils, wearing blue uniforms, were there to greet us. “Children come to the school in uniforms because wearing them is the only thing they are required to do,” the explanation provided at the orientation crossed my mind. “But each comes from a family mired in poverty.”

To make us feel welcome, a choir standing in the shape of a letter U began to sing. Dancing followed in the middle of the chorus. Drawn by the beautiful voices and rhythmic dances, we started swaying to the music. Once the welcome song was over, we took a tour of the primary school and listened to the explanations. I received the impression that reconstruction was still very much ongoing. The building structures were nearly complete, but the toilets remained shattered. Not a desk or chair was in sight. The walls remained either bare concrete or had been destroyed. The school was full of pupils, as it was reportedly the last day before the winter break. The children were resplendent in their uniforms, with cheerful faces.

Moved by the children’s expectation, we all felt determined to rebuild the school and give these kids the best chance possible. Instructed by our team leader, we took up our posts. The job assigned to the four of us was classroom restoration. We started polishing the classroom walls with sandpaper, then painted the walls.

After a while, I briefly went to check on what my wife and two youngest sons were doing. I found the two children absorbed in painting playing equipment at the kindergarten. After two hours of work, our team took a morning break at 10 a.m. I went to the restroom with my children, washed my hands and sat in the shade of a tree. Opening my brown paper bag, I drank water, and consumed an apple and sweets.

I looked around and noticed there were three types of T-shirts. Volunteers like me were wearing an orange T-shirt. Local expert workers wore a yellow shirt. Pupils at the Baobab Primary School were wearing a light blue shirt. A few senior pupils at the school had joined us as volunteers.

Those of us in orange worked with the helpers in light blue under the direction of the local expert workers in yellow. The official language of Zimbabwe is English, a legacy of the country’s history as a British colony, then called Rhodesia. Classes at the local primary schools were taught in English. So we had no problem communicating in English.

The sky seemed to be blue every day in this part of Africa. We never saw a single cloud above our heads. We were told that the weather was fine every day in Zimbabwe, with the exception of the rainy season in October and November. We felt cold in the morning and evening, but hot during the day because the air was dry. We returned to our worksites as soon as our morning break came to an end, continuing to work diligently in the rising heat.

This was a curious turn of fate. I had never before experienced hard physical labor. In Tokyo, I seldom work under somebody else’s direction. My basic job as a manager is to set out a vision, develop an organization, and empower other people to work willingly. But in this volunteer activity, my role was completely the opposite. Receiving my instructions at the tail end of the line, I was doing hard physical work for the first time in my life.

Many business managers had paid to travel to Zimbabwe to take part in this project. Normally, these managers are issuing orders, as so-called knowledge workers. But here in Zimbabwe, they cheerfully went about their tasks, following the instructions of the local construction site workers. I asked several other participants why they chose to take part in this. They answered along the lines of, “I wanted to give something back to society in some way.” Assigned to field sites, all of us seemed to be doing our best from our pure desire to offer the children a good educational environment.

We left our “work” at 1 p.m. Our faces and hands were covered with paint after five hours of intensive labor. The white paint had left our pants and T-shirts useless.

The “volunteer workers” returned to the hotel in their team buses. Unaccustomed to the hard physical work, my body was exhausted. The basic program was for us to work four to five hours in the morning, leaving us free in the afternoon. The arrangement reflected the consideration of organizers, who wanted to give us time to enjoy with our families and broaden our knowledge.

Today, all project participants were scheduled to visit the Victoria Falls. One of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Victoria Falls was beyond anything I had imagined. 1.7 kilometers from side to side and about 100 meters from top to bottom, they are twice as wide and nearly twice as high as the Niagara Falls, with more than twice the volume of water carried.

The shape of the Victoria Falls was also beyond my imagination. We are used to watching waterfalls either from the bottom or from the top, as there is height difference. But for Victoria Falls the water falls into a gorge so that we were able to watch the water cascading down from just several meters away from the opposite side of the gorge at the same height. The spray from the falling water left us soaking wet and was wholly responsible for the tropical rainforest in the vicinity.

Local people call the Victoria Falls Mosi-Oa-Tayun, which means “storm of thunder.” The name certainly seemed apt. The ear-splitting sound was truly thunderous, and the sprays of water were just like a storm. I sat down and meditated on the tip of the falls to enjoy the nature’s blessings being absorbed into my body and mind.

After dark, we enjoyed an outdoor dinner. The sky appeared to be moonless, and with no lights on nearby, the sky was stunningly beautiful, studded with stars. I could see the Milky Way clearly with the Southern Cross attached to it.

I heard that locals call the Milky Way the “Elephant Track” in their native language. Sitting cross-legged on a tuft of grass, I looked up at the sky, and closed my eyes as if the dazzling array of stars were embracing me. I was just a tiny presence in the context of the universe and Mother Nature. But with heart beating, I had a clear sense of being alive. When I opened my eyes, I saw a group of jackals in the pool of light created by a flashlight behind me. Their gleaming eyes and shapely ears left impression on me.

August 8, 2010
Yoshito Hori
From a hotel in Zimbabwe

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