A UNIQUE LENS
As a young boy growing up in a small agricultural community of only 1,000 people in Swaziland, Innocent Dlamini spent his days caring for livestock, attending school and stealing moments to practice soccer. His days began before sunrise, typically at 4:30, when he would awaken to help care for the cows before walking several miles to primary school with his peers.
"Having shoes to wear was a luxury," he explains, "but it was a very happy childhood. This was our only view of the world."
Innocent recalls many afternoons racing home from school with his friends to see who could run the multi-mile path the fastest. He laughs, "Everyone was hungry, we wanted to get back quickly.” Upon arriving home, his job was to once again care for the cows, as was the tradition for all boys in the village. Although he had an intense passion for soccer, sports were discouraged by the adults and perceived as an unwelcome distraction from the primary goal of caring for livestock. “It was our responsibility to get all the cows into a designated area before dark. We’d be punished for playing sports, so we'd make a soccer ball out of whatever we could find and create our own field. We'd get in trouble, but it was worth it." At this very early age, Innocent began to consider new boundaries.
NURTURING A SPARK
Even with the welcome athletic distractions, Innocent was always an excellent student, achieving consistently top grades. However, the typical path for children in the village was to leave school before graduating high school and begin working in the fields.
His father, a supervisor at a sugar plantation, was only able to come home to visit Innocent and his five siblings about once a month. Yet he recognized Innocent’s potential immediately. “My dad transferred me to the school in the town where he worked so that I could continue my education,” Innocent reminisces. Working awkward shifts to spend time supporting Innocent's studies, his dad helped him to become the top student in the country and, at the time, the only child who went on to college from their village.
Innocent credits his dad's unique perspective as driving his success.
"He saw things in me that no one else could ... even me. He saw my potential and didn't hesitate. He always encouraged me, energized me, he was my pillar."
A NEW LANDSCAPE
Innocent's years of hard work paid off and he was soon offered a full scholarship to a 2-year International Baccalaureate program designed to merge academics with civic engagement. Attracting students from all over the world, Innocent soon found himself in India, a country with a population of over a billion people, few of whom spoke English. He recalls feeling both thrilled and nervous at his new reality. "Initially I was excited to leave home and see the world. I wasn't worried until I landed and everyone was speaking Hindi and I thought, 'What did I do?'" Nevertheless, Innocent got to work and went on to graduate from the program with flying colors.