It is with profound sadness that Guy and I share the passing of SCALEAfrica’s longtime project manager and hero, Geoff Renou. While we worked together for nearly a decade on school projects in the South Luangwa Valley, he was as much a friend and a mentor as he was a colleague and a partner in everything SCALEAfrica has achieved. And to my twins he was Uncle Giraffe - both because he was tall and that Geoff and Giraffe sound a lot alike - they thought they were very clever. He is beloved by our whole family and we’re incredibly grateful to have had his friendship and guidance for so long.
As we embarked on those first SCALEAfrica projects together in 2008, it became clear very quickly that Geoff was a gift and also had a gift. He was a gift because he shared so much of what he knew about the valley, about construction and local materials, but also how to build consensus and include the right people at the right time into the process. He had a gift because was incredible with people - respectful, kind, truly gracious, and generous with his time and knowledge.
He was also communicative and empathetic in a way I have found rare. I hold vivid memories of driving around the valley on long, bumpy trips to projects or parked under a baobob, sharing tennis biscuits, hard-boiled eggs, warm cokes and talking about all sorts, but mainly family and especially his girls, his grandchildren and his partner, Pam. How beloved they were and how proud he was of them. An adventurer, an athlete and a sportsman, if there was something to experience, Geoff was intrepid. Yet, he could also be careful and prudent and circumspect. He always seemed to know just the right thing to do.
Through the years, together we built classrooms, teachers’ housing, sanitation and kitchen facilities, and he helped us do them in ways that were atypical, needed buy-in from government, but also training for the people that built them. He was incredible at integrating and respecting what skills people brought and to merge them new techniques and approaches. So many times I stood there baffled while he spoke to Jonathan or Davey about how they were going to achieve what I had drawn with what they had at their disposal - only to realize they were all ten steps ahead of me. He did all of that important work: he handled the operations, the deliveries, the misunderstandings, the protocols, the approvals, and most importantly he taught and mentored people - including me. He helped me communicate this work back in the US by actually getting the darn things built and helped build SCALEAfrica into a mission-driven organization that challenged the narrative about who design is for.
I don’t think he truly understood the fundamental shift he helped create in the design profession. When we first began in 2007, social architecture in rural communities wasn’t very widespread and when it was discussed, it was looked upon as charity or vanity. But through the work of SCALE and others, we were able to make the case that design can be a form of service, that it’s in the public interest and that when infused with skill-building and local sourcing it’s a valuable driver of impact. He helped inspire untold numbers of design students - and hosted a few in his home in Mfuwe - by showing that it was possible to align your values with your skills.
Our greatest achievement together and what I see as a physical manifestation of Geoff’s legacy is Vinza Community School. He was the one that brought me there- when it was a grass shed - because of their tremendous need but also his sixth sense that they would make great partners with SCALE. He was, as usual, right. Today, there are five tech-enabled classrooms, outdoor assembly, teacher offices, a kitchen and frankly the best school sanitation block you might ever see. My primary role is to design and to integrate all we learned from the last projects into the next one, but Geoff was archetypal - the maker, the builder, the diplomat, the translator of design versus what’s possible, the trainer. None of it would have been possible without him.
I owe him such a debt for my development as an architect and for playing a starring role in such a transformative chapter in my life. There is no one I have worked with in my career that I respect, admire, and trust more than Geoff. The only thing he was ever unsuccessful at was teaching me patience and - trust me - he tried in his own gentle way. I’m honestly at a loss as to how to continue without him. But, I do know that the impacts of Vinza and Geoff’s mentorship - on the kids, on the students, on the team that had the privilege to build alongside him - will outlast us all. He’s etched in my heart and my gratitude is so very deep. Zikomo kwambiri, Geoff.