Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Correspondent
BY the time he was 13, Foster Dingani (26) had lost both parents. Like many people who become orphaned at such a young age, Dingani was lost. A cloud of helplessness follows many an orphan and as he greeted adolescence, Dingani found himself under its shadow.
Suddenly, the worries of a normal teenager were not for him. Rather, he was worried about where his next meal was coming from. What the future, or even the next few days would hold for him were things that he did not concern himself much with.
In fact, he had all but given up on becoming anything noteworthy in life.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t have hope, I would do anything in life,” he told Sunday Life in an interview.
After finding shelter and love at Zimkids Orphan Trust in Pumula (Bulawayo), Dingani struck a friendship with Collen Makurumidze (25), then only 15 years of age, who was also yet another down and out orphan. Under the trust’s roof, the two were fed and had their school fees paid for. More important perhaps than these essentials, education and food, the two had taken part in the building of the centre.
They had got their hands dirty as, brick by brick, they had seen the structure rise. Now it was time to turn on the lights on. It was during the centre’s bid to get electrified that the two boys, who have been destitute only a couple of years previously, found out about the wonders of the sun.
“There was a guy who was supposed to install a solar system at the time but there was no one assisting him because the team that was working with him had abandoned him,” said Makurumidze.
“The two of us knew the basics about electricity so he gave us a few instructions. He told us what sockets he wanted and gave us a list of other things he wanted us to buy. We brought the supplies and then he gave us three weeks to connect a solar panel for the centre. We did it within a week and he was amazed. He then said they were some solar panels that needed installation and gave us money to do research over the phone on the internet.”
The pair, shunned by a society that gives the cold shoulder to those that need its care the most, surprised the seasoned professional with their efficiency.
“We did our research and he taught us a few things and the rest we did ourselves. From then he taught us how to make connections but he was in a hurry. We did what he asked and all he had to do was to come and turn on the power,” said Makurumidze.
Their efficiency, confidence and determination had not gone unnoticed. Soon even professionals were interested in them. It was time to take the next step in their journey and they found many willing to help them in this leap forward.
“Another team from South Africa came to put electric fence around the centre. They then asked for local artisans in Pumula who could help and we told them we could do it. They showed us what to do by putting a bit of electric fence around one corner of the centre and then they challenged us to finish the rest within two weeks. Instead we told them we could finish it within a week. However, we actually did so within four days. A month later the whole team came back, including the guy we installed the solar for, and they asked to take the two of us twice a week for training because they felt that we knew what we were doing,” said Makurumidze.
The two boys would soon find themselves in the hands of Bob McGowan, one of the pioneers of solar technology in Zimbabwe. McGowan was a mentor with a difference, as he believed that he did not have to hold the hands of these fledgling young renewable energy trailblazers. They would have to sink or swim on their own.
“He gave us some manuals and told us to figure it out ourselves. We did that and the next day we completed our very first job at a private home in Emganwini. We installed a 150 Watt solar geyser,” said Makurumidze.
Going against the odds is what the two boys had done all their life and it was something that they were about to become experts in their newly found profession.
“Our second project was in Hillside and because the solar panels were to be installed on a separate six-metre stand, the guy who hired us told us that others had failed before us. First a company of eleven had failed then a company of eight and a company of nine had also tried and failed. Then we came and we managed to pull it off on our own. It was just the two of us.
We finished it on the third morning,” said Dingani.
Six months after McGowan had taken them under his wing, the two boys decided to leave the centre. As much as it had nurtured them, their lives had taken flight and it was now clearly time to leave the nest.
“Thereafter we then decided to get our own vehicle but that was a problem because we didn’t have funding. At that we were only getting an allowance. We went back to Bob and told him that if could give us half the money for a car we could come up with the other half and repay him within 14 months. We went through every scrap yard in Bulawayo looking for a car. When we got our car that’s when we started working on our own,” said Makurumidze.
Only a few years after they had been wandering the streets of Pumula, dazed and confused, two orphans had managed to bring a new company, Colfos, into the world. The world was at their feet and they were as hungry and as determined as ever to do big things.
“We did massive projects that hadn’t been done in Zimbabwe before. We worked with African Bush Camps and Zimbabwe National Parks. For ABC we installed a solar panel that was the biggest in Zimbabwe until this year. These were 268 solar panels which amounted 45 Kilo Watts. For National Parks we did solar boreholes. We powered up one school in Gweru and also did their computer lab,” said Makurumidze.
Still working with McGowan from time to time, the two now travel the length and breadth of Zimbabwe, assisting non-government organisations like World Vision as they attempt to bring light to remote parts of Zimbabwe that have never known electricity. They have also done the same to almost all the country’s most exotic tourism destinations.
Fairly successful and supporting families of their own, their lives now are now a far cry from what they used to be. Despite their present circumstances, they still remember vividly when they lived without direction as two orphans navigating life without a compass.
“I had a passion for art. We would make dolls and wire cars and I was so passionate about it. At the same time I loved anything related to electricity. I wanted to be an artisan in the army. That was my biggest dream,” said Makurumidze.
Dingani reminded his friend how they had actually almost both joined the defence forces. For the man who gave them their start in life, Dennis Gaboury, their success has not been a surprise.
“When we built the centre they were perfectionists. We had to tear down many a wall because they were not happy. If anyone was going to success it was going to be them,” he said.