Some people are just doomed to fail, that’s the way some adults look at troubled kids. Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “A bird with a broken wing will never fly as high.” I’m sure that Njabulo Nkosi was made to feel that way almost every day of his in school.

By the time he entered high school, Njabulo was the most celebrated troublemaker in his town. Teachers literally cringed when they saw his name posted on their classroom lists for the next semester. He wasn’t a talkative person, he didn’t answer any questions in class and got into a lot of fights. He had flunked almost every class by the time he entered his senior year, yet was being passed on each year to a higher grade. Teachers didn’t want to have him in their classes again the following year. Njabulo was moving on, not moving up.

Njabulo joined the retreat when I showed up to lead their first retreat, the community leaders gave me this overview of the attending students. I knew that I wasn’t the first to hear about Njabulo’s dark side as the first words of introduction. At first, Njabulo didn’t want to join the group, but felt at ease when the groups started building a list of positive and negative things that had occurred at school that year. Njabulo had some definite thoughts on those situations. The other students in Njabulo’s group welcomed his comments. That made him feel like a part of the group, and before long he was being treated like a leader.

The next day, Njabulo became more active in all the sessions. By the end of the retreat, he had joined the Homeless Project team. He knew the disadvantages of poverty, hunger and hopelessness. The other students on his team were impressed about how passionate and concerned he was of those issues. They elected Njabulo as co-chairman of the team. When T. J. showed up at school the next Monday morning, he arrived to a firestorm.

A group of teachers were protesting to the school principal about him being elected as co-chairman. The very first communitywide service project was to be a giant food drive, organized by the Homeless Project team. These teachers couldn’t believe that the principal would allow Njabulo to be in charge of such an important organisation.
Two weeks later, Njabulo and his friends led a group of 30 students on a drive to collect food. They collected a school record of: 5000 food cans in just two hours. It was enough to fill the empty shelves in two neighbourhood centres, and the food was welcomed by needy families in the area. The local newspaper covered the event with a front-page article the next day.

That newspaper story was posted on the main bulletin board at school, where everyone could see it. Njabulo’s picture was up there because he had done a good thing, he lead a record-setting food drive. He was reminded every day about what he did. He was being acknowledged as leadership material.

From that day onwards, Njabulo’s became a good example of what a learner should be, started showing up to school every day and answered questions in class. In that same year he led a second project, collecting 100 blankets and 500 pairs of shoes for a homeless shelter. Njabulo reminded us that, a bird with a broken wing only needs mending. But once it has healed, it can fly higher than the rest. So never judge a person until you really know her/him very well.