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Thandeka Tutu-Gxashe: “There comes a time when quitting is not an option”

In Sub-Saharan Africa, 95 million children go to school without the benefit of the simplest of infrastructure, a school desk. Worldwide, that child figure swells to 500 million. The issue is that if you don’t have a solid surface to lean on when you are writing, particularly when you are learning to write, you never […]

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In Sub-Saharan Africa, 95 million children go to school without the benefit of the simplest of infrastructure, a school desk. Worldwide, that child figure swells to 500 million. The issue is that if you don’t have a solid surface to lean on when you are writing, particularly when you are learning to write, you never fully develop those writing skills! When one considers that being literate, is the ability to read and to write, then this means we are dooming millions of children to come out of school as ‘semiliterate!’

Can you truly imagine the detrimental impact the lack of a desk has on the continued education and future participation in the economy of these children, for their families, their communities, their towns, cities and countries and ultimately their continent?


Aspart of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Thandeka Tutu-Gxashe.

Thandeka Tutu-Gxashe, MPH is the CEO of the Desmond Tutu Tutudesk Campaign Centre (DTTCC), a charitable educational organization which addresses the 95 million desk shortage in sub-Saharan Africa. DTTCC aims to provide 20 million environmentally friendly, portable desks to schools in Africa by 2025. DTTCC the lives of African children, their communities, countries and makes Africa a more globally competitive continent through improved literacy and education.

Thandeka has been educated and worked in the UK, Swaziland, Botswana and the USA. She is passionate about education and public health, especially the fight against HIV/AIDS, and improving the health and education experiences of young people, thus promoting global peace and justice. While completing her Masters of Public Health at Emory University, Thandeka received several fellowships including from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), American Cancer Society, the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, the South East AIDS Training Center & the Dekalb County Board of Health.

Much of Thandeka’s work has been in clinical research both in the USA and in South Africa. As a public speaker she has lectured at universities, schools and community groups around the globe. Thandeka has served on the Boards of several foundations and non-profit organizations and is currently on the Board of the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation, HPSA (formerly Heifer International -South Africa) and the Foundation for Sport, Development and Peace. She was named one of the “Global 100 Real Leaders” by Real Leaders Magazine. Thandeka is the eldest daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu & Nomalizo Leah Tutu. She and her husband reside in Cape Town, South Africa and have one son.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thank you. It is an honor for me to do this. My background and working life have been focused on public health and clinical research. After living for 20 years in Atlanta, Georgia (USA), my husband and I returned to South Africa in 2008. While in Johannesburg, I was involved in Adult HIV AIDS clinical trials, and a few years down the line there was major restructuring at the research center where I worked due to the ending of PEPFAR grant funding. I had been actively involved with the Tutudesk Campaign and was currently serving on their Board of Directors. It was at this crossroads that I was invited to join the organization as their Director of External Relations, and a few years later I became the CEO.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

In 2013, President Barack Obama visited South Africa and while in Cape Town he met with representatives of different NGOs. The meeting took place at the Desmond Tutu HIV Center’s Youth Center. My Father, Archbishop Tutu, was invited to attend this meeting and of course, I took the opportunity to tag along with him and my husband! I asked my Dad to sign two Tutudesks for the Obama daughters, Malia and Sasha. I was able to present them to President Obama and give him my 30-second spiel as to why he needed to support our initiative. He was gracious enough to say that was something they should look into doing. I wonder if those Tutudesks are still floating around the White House somewhere? More recently, we gave a signed Tutudesk to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle for their son Archie, when they were here in South Africa.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was at a school in South Carolina on a Tutudesk fundraising trip and I did not explain that Tutudesk originally began as Lapdesk, an invention by a young South African, Shane Immelman. When my Dad became the Patron, the name changed from Lapdesk to Tutudesk. The next day in the local papers, radio, tv and news said that I was the brain behind the Tutudesk invention! I really would have loved to be the brains behind it, it is such a simple thing and it works! It showed me how quickly ‘fake’ news can spread and become fact, and the importance of preventing any misconceptions or misunderstandings by taking the time to say a few words of explanation from the beginning.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

In Sub-Saharan Africa, 95 million children go to school without the benefit of the simplest of infrastructure, a school desk. Worldwide, that child figure swells to 500 million. The issue is that if you don’t have a solid surface to lean on when you are writing, particularly when you are learning to write, you never fully develop those writing skills! When one considers that being literate, is the ability to read and to write, then this means we are dooming millions of children to come out of school as ‘semiliterate!’

Can you truly imagine the detrimental impact the lack of a desk has on the continued education and future participation in the economy of these children, for their families, their communities, their towns, cities and countries and ultimately their continent? The great thing about the Tutudesks is that they are portable and light. If you attend a school where there are no desks, you are likely to be living in a home where you do not have a separate desk or area to do your homework. Tutudesk gives you that space and you can bring it home to do your homework! We have given close to 2 million Tutudesks to schoolchildren in 24 African countries. We hope to be able to give out 20 million of these Tutudesks by the year 2025. We consider the Tutudesk to be an African solution to not only an African problem but a global problem as well, 500 million worldwide.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

It is difficult to name just one individual because in our work we go out to schools and give out the Tutudesks to each of the learners at the school. Although each Tutudesk is given to an individual, the impact felt is more collectively due to the numbers we work with. AusAID (the Australian version of USAID) did an impact study in 2012 of our work and the results of this were greater than even we had anticipated or could have hoped for. The improvement in each of reading, writing and homework was over 80%, teachers also reported better-organized classes and so on. The one thing that no one had anticipated was that after Tutudesks were distributed at schools or in a community, boys who had dropped out of school because conditions for learning were so difficult and arduous, started coming back to school to complete their education. The chilling question then becomes, if the boys are not in school and not getting an education, then where are they and perhaps even more significantly, what are they doing?

Are there things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Always place the education and wellbeing of our children at the top of any developmental agenda. When we go to schools to handover the Tutudesks, it is not just the desks that are missing or in bad shape, but classrooms have no windows, roofs are caving in, there are no libraries, no playgrounds, and the list goes on. With the best will in the world, the conditions are not conducive to proper education and learning. This has to change if we are going to be serious about making our countries and continent a competitive player in the world of nations! If our children are not educated properly from the onset, there will be no one to populate the universities and colleges and help move our countries into the 4th Industrial Revolution we hear so much about.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define leadership as the ability to inspire people to act for the common good and not just for their own selfish or interests. One who leads from the front and will never ask of others what he/she is not willing to do themselves. One who is not afraid to admit or apologize when they are wrong and never forgets to acknowledge the work and sacrifice of others. An obvious example for me as a South African would be Nelson Mandela.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Never take a ‘no’ as a rejection of you personally…don’t take it to heart because it’s not about you. The ‘no’s you get for the most part have nothing to do with you personally. You can avoid a lot of angst, heartaches and sleepless nights if you remember that point.
  2. There are many ways to refuse a request without actually saying the word no. Sometimes people give you the runaround for the longest time, yet they have no intention of seriously working with you or your project. They end up wasting precious time and resources you could have put to better use elsewhere if they had been honest from the onset.
  3. Be prepared to knock on many doors before getting the first yes. It takes a lot of work and dedication to the cause to keep on keeping on. Be prepared for the many disappointments and roadblocks along the way.
  4. Because you think something is urgent and a priority, doesn’t make it urgent or a priority for anyone else. Be prepared to wait for people to come around in their own time, I have had people contact me years after our initial contact at an event to want to donate to our organization.
  5. There comes a time when quitting is not an option. The more time you spend doing this work, the more dedicated to it that you become. The more you interact with the school children whose lives are impacted by the work that you do, the more determined you are to make sure that you keep on keeping on.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Am I not allowed to say Global Tutudesk movement for the children of the world in need, not just on the African continent? Actually, in this time of Covid-19, of school closures and lockdowns, I would think that more children in the world would need to have a Tutudesk, because they are confined to doing schoolwork at home and not in a regular classroom, and particularly as so many are not able to take part in online learning!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is from my Dad, the Arch. Is it nerdy for me to say that he has many good quotes? However, the one that resonates with me is “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world”. Its relevance for me is that you don’t have to be famous like a Nelson Mandela, or rich like a Bill Gates to have an impact for good in our world. Each one of us in our own way, wherever we are can make an impact on our world by doing good, because your good is added to that of everyone else and that is all that is needed to have a profound impact on our world. It doesn’t matter who or where you are in the world, or even what you have, you can still have an impact for good.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Actually, can I give you two? One is Michelle Obama and the other is Meghan Markle. They are both such phenomenal women who both appear to have so much heart, generosity of spirit, and dare I say ‘ubuntu’

(One can check out a book, Everyday Ubuntu by my niece Nompumelelo Ngomane for more on this.)

I would love to be able to sit down and have a private lunch with them either separately or together.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I am afraid I am what they call of an age to be called “BBT” (Born Before Technology)!! They can find Tutudesk at www.tutudesk.org, and also on Facebook and Twitter

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thank you very much!

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