REFLECTING on my nearly three years in Zimbabwe, I remain cautiously optimistic; the long-term future for this country is bright, and that is due in large part to the overwhelmingly energetic, dedicated, and intelligent young people, people who make up the majority of Zimbabwe’s population.
How can young people build a better country, you might ask? After all, the culture does not give the young such power. Well, I will concede that culture is a limiting factor – but, only a limiting factor – it does not have to be a complete barrier.
Young people can – and should – take a more active role in the development of their country, but that must start with self. That’s right; the key to having a better community or country begins with each individual making a commitment to being the best that he or she can be.
So, what can you do, beginning in the here and now, to create a better Zimbabwe, a country that you can be justly proud of?
You can start by defining what kind of society you want to live in, what kind of country that you, when you’re old like me, you can leave to your children and grandchildren. And, you need to decide what kind of person you want or need to be in that society. This means that you need to clearly define ‘you.’
Don’t wait for things to happen, or for others to do things for you. Identify what needs to be done, and then do it. Start small – you should aspire to reach for the stars, but take that journey one step at a time, one challenge at a time.
Is there a problem in your community that has bugged you for some time? The government is slow or non-performing about picking up trash? Well, quit complaining about it; get a group of your friends together and start a volunteer project to clean up your neighbourhood. Even better, organise a small enterprise of your friends and offer your services for a modest fee to homeowners in your community.
Never stop learning. Don’t restrict your learning to the classroom, text books, or what teachers have told you. Read widely; question every assumption, and put every theory to the test. Reach out to the broader world and see what it has to offer. You might be surprised to learn that you might even have something to offer that world.
Don’t fear failure. I read somewhere recently that ‘fear; is an acronym for Forget Everything and Run’. Well, drop that habit, and stop running. My definition of success is ‘a string of failures that you survive and learn from.’ If you’ve never failed at anything, you’ve probably not learned anything new. Remember, it’s not how many times you fall down that matters, but how many times you get back up.
Develop tolerance. The world is a diverse place, and so are the countries in it. A tolerant society, one that values every member and gives each member the opportunity to contribute to its development, will prosper. Intolerant societies might do well in the short term, and I have my doubts about that actually, but in the end will fail and fail miserably.
Go beyond the surface. This is related somewhat to my injunction to keep learning, but it’s important enough that I highlight it. Develop the habit of educating yourself on the nuances of situations and people, and avoid the dangerous habit of judging merely on surface appearances, incomplete information, or sound bites. Look behind the curtain and see that all those blinking lights are really being manipulated by a small person, as Dorothy did in the Wizard of Oz.
Maintain a positive attitude. If you’re an optimist, sometimes you will be wrong, but, if you’re a pessimist, you’ll always be right. Look for the positive side of a situation, and take advantage of it. Sometimes, things that we think are negative, if viewed properly, can work out to our advantage. When life gives you lemons, don’t cry, just make lemonade.
Learn to visualise the outcomes you want in life, then get up off your backside and work to make them happen. In most cases, you have a 50-50 chance of success, which is better than the 100% rate of failure if you never try – right?
Put your focus on the things that really matter. I have noticed over the past three years that politics dominates every conversation. It’s as if nothing else matters. Well, ask yourself; in your daily life, how often does politics really affect the things that matter most to you? You get up; brush your teeth, have breakfast, spend some time with your family, and then off to school or work.
Now, I know that political decisions can affect our lives – bad economic decisions can raise prices, drive away investment, cost jobs – but, it’s really the day-to-day personal decisions we all make that truly determine our lives.
Look at the business that survived the terrible hyperinflation; they did that, not through political intervention, but hard-headed personal decisions. I’m not saying you should ignore politics, but put it in its proper place – somewhere out there, but use more of your energy in building a better local environment. Help kids do their school work, clean up your neighbourhood, start small local business to satisfy local needs, help fill in the potholes, plant a tree. I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.
By working on the things that you can control, by striving to make your little corner of the world better, you contribute to making the country, and ultimately the world, better. If everyone does that, imagine the outcome. It’s like building a brick wall. You have a picture in your mind of what the whole wall looks like, but you erect it one brick at a time.
Ambassador Charles Ray is the outgoing US Ambassador to Zimbabwe. This was his speech at the DefZee Presents held at theUS Embassy Public Affairs Section