Leading Change on a 'Silent' Journey

Charles Nyakurwa is the founder of Deaf Hands @ Work, an award-winning social enterprise based in Cape Town. He is also one of Social Enterprise Academy South Africa’s Tutors. Since 2012, Charles has held several Silent Walks, challenging the public to walk five days in the footsteps of the deaf community in South Africa. 

Walking a (hundred) Mile(s) in Someone Else's Shoes

For Charles Nyakurwa, the first steps of leading real change in the deaf community started with literally walking in the footsteps of his deaf brother...

“My brother’s birthday month is in September – the same month in which the National Day of Deaf People is celebrated in South Africa. To honour these events I decided to do a longer 200km Silent Walk from Noordhoek to Worcester over five days in September 2012,” said Charles, CEO and founder of the award-winning social enterprise Deaf Hands @ Work*.

During this Silent Walk, Charles challenged himself to only use the same methods of communication available to the average deaf person.

“I was only allowed to use sign language and write a little when asking for directions on where I was eating or sleeping,” Charles added.

“During the walk my phone was stolen, people blatantly called me deaf and dumb...Shop owners asked me to stand aside when standing in front in a queue... Others would blatantly ignore my presence.

That day I got a glimpse of the only life my brother has ever known.” This experience informed how Charles would create a way for the deaf community to become economically independent.


Striving to Create Change

“I have always wanted to take care of my deaf brother since our parents died when we were only seven and two. He could not find other organisations where he could work independently to earn an income, so I wanted to create a platform for him.

That day I realised how arrogant I was just thinking I could build a platform for deaf people if I do not even understand their day-to-day challenges. I felt ashamed to assume that I could build a platform without his help, when my brother is skilled and intelligent and just needed an opportunity to use his potential.”

Since that day, Deaf Hands @ Work has become much more than an opportunity to help my brother. It has become a voice for every deaf person in the country who cannot find a job and who does not want to be dependent on a family member or a grant organisation for their entire life.”

Today Charles sees Deaf Hands @ Work as the base of a larger African opportunity to create economic opportunities for people across the disability sector.

Charles has made every effort to understand the deaf community he now sees as his most important partner in building the Deaf Hands @ Work community. “I entered a whole new world once I started attending deaf parties, feeling bass-inspired music by deaf DJ’s and attending deaf church.”

Charles explained that he only learnt sign language in 2011 when his brother was already 20 years old:

“A lot of parents with deaf children can’t even use sign language. The public also expects deaf people to read lips even though it is a lot easier for us to learn sign language,” he adds.

“For the first 15 years of his life, nobody formally communicated to my brother and he couldn’t attend school.” 


The Importance of Community

Charles reflects on the last 6 years as a leader: “The most important thing is to be open to learn. There are still so many things I don’t know and I am learning every day.

If I had to do one thing differently I would have plugged into a support community earlier to mix support and theory with the problems I was facing. Just having people around who can give advice really helps.

If you are a social entrepreneur and want to make a difference, take all the practical support you can get to grow your business. Be part of a social support community.”

To learn more about practical leadership tools to motivate your team and drive your organisation forward, join us at our ‘Leadership for Social Change’ programme in Cape Town, starting 24 & 25 May 2017.

*Deaf Hands @ Work is the only organisation in South Africa that offers a platform where the deaf community can become economically independent without grant funding. It is creating 23 permanent and 27 part-time employment positions for skilled deaf employees in Cape Town. The social enterprise grew significantly over the past 6 years and has an annual revenue of over R1.5 million.