A couple of days ago I found myself at a business breakfast in the company of a large gathering of some of Harare’s most influencial CEOs.
They came to interact with one another and to listen to Finance minister Tendai Biti.
Don’t ask me how I ended up in this distinguished circle; suffice to say the hosts did not throw me out, so there must have been a measure of legitimacy in my presence!
Listening to the minister and observing the interactions between him and the business leaders and noting the kind of dialogue exchanged between all parties, I came to the conclusion that Zimbabwe is not short of ideas or skills or experience or leadership.
This didn’t exactly come as a surprise to me — after all, we are famed all over Africa for our high educational achievements and our heavy intellect.
It’s just that when you face the simple everyday activities that turn into challenges — ordering a cup of coffee, withdrawing money from the bank, using public transport — you do start to wonder.
In a small village in Malawi, there was a 14-year-old-boy who, having been told that the family could no longer afford to send him to school, continued to borrow books from the local library.
He read an old textbook about the principles of energy and began to collect bits of scrap metal to build his own wind turbine.
To the astonishment of his entire village, William Kamkwamba was able to use his windmill to power light bulbs and transistor radios.
His second windmill even pumped water. This is a country where reportedly only 2% of the population has electricity!
So what makes Kamkwamba different from you and I?
What made him; even after his father pulled him out of school, even though his days were mostly taken up with backbreaking labouring in the fields, even given the fact that he had never in fact seen a real windmill working, still feel determined to try, to keep at it, to put disappointment aside, to persevere?
Today Kamkwamba is celebrated the world over. He is a student at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, and he has published (with Harper Collins, no less!) his story in a book called The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.
A documentary feature about him is due to be released next year, and he will also attend college in the United States.
There are hundreds of potential Kamkwambas all over Zimbabwe. What makes the rest of them remain unrealised potential.
The gathering of CEOs demonstrates that it is in fact possible to develop yourself.
Most of these gentlemen (yes, I’m afraid the women were few and far between) did not grow up in privileged backgrounds with silver spoons in their mouths and a trust fund to help them navigate a well-mapped-out future.
They pulled themselves up by the bootstrings, focused on success and paid the price. What is it that makes other people just want to lay down and die while others shout “A luta continua” and keep going?
The Other Wes Moore (published by Spiegel & Grau) is the remarkable story of a young African American man who discovered there was someone in his city who had the exact same name as him, but facing a completely different fate.
The author was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Johns Hopkins, a Rhodes scholar, a White House Fellow under Condoleezza Rice and an Afghanistan combat veteran. The other Wes Moore was (and still is) in a maximum-security prison, where he was serving a life sentence without parole.
He was sentenced for his part in a botched robbery in 2000 in which his half-brother, Tony Moore, shot to death an off-duty Baltimore police officer who was a father of five.
Westley Moore (the author) wondered how two young men from the same city, who were around the same age, and even shared a name, could arrive at two completely different destinies.
The juxtaposition between their lives, and the questions it raised about accountability, chance, fate and family, had a profound impact on Wes.
He decided to write to the other Wes Moore, and much to his surprise, a month later he received a letter back.
He visited the other Wes in prison over a dozen times, spoke with his family and friends, and discovered startling parallels between their lives: both had difficult childhoods, they were both fatherless, were having trouble in the classroom; they’d hung out on similar corners with similar crews, and had run into trouble with the police.
Yet at each stage of their lives, at similar moments of decision, they would head down different paths towards astonishingly divergent destinies.
Wes realised in their two stories was a much larger tale about the consequences of personal responsibility and the imperativeness of education and community for a generation of boys searching for their way.(www.theotherwesmore.com)
As with Kamkwamba’s case, this story illustrates the importance of making quality personal decisions in spite of the circumstances one finds oneself in.
It also highlights the role that family and community can play in the ultimate fate of an individual. Wes Moore believes his life took the turns it did because of his mother and the high expectations she had for him. In his words: “We are a product of our expectations.”
For these reasons we should demand more of ourselves and of each other.
You may be raising a Kamkwamba in your own home, and the gap between opportunity and potential is one that you can bridge by raising your expectations.
I know which Wes Moore I want my kids to be; and next time I sit in on an Independent Dialogue and listen to important people asking each other tough questions, I’ll be sure to pose one or two questions of my own!
Thembe Sachikonye writes in her personal capacity. Readers’ comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org