Youth empowerment: Moving beyond stereotypes

Youth is the long process of growth that allows human beings to build skills and competencies in order to function and contribute to society.

The United Nations defines youth as people between the ages of 15 and 24 years.

Power defines a society and its beliefs — it is about how we organise our lives, how we think about and treat the different members of our community as well as how we deal with our families.

Most Africans believe that no one has this power and this sort of power is governed by tradition.

If that were true, we would all be wearing skins — and I don’t even like to imagine what I’d look like in skins! I probably wouldn’t be here since I might well have been left to die when I was an infant.

And even if I was alive, I wouldn’t be sitting in this wheelchair. And we wouldn’t get planning on going home for lunch or dinner that includes sadza since it is made from a plant that our ancestors had never seen.

Our traditions have evolved, as traditions always do, based on new exposures and new experiences.

Older people are more set in their ways than are the younger. They see the world based on their long experience — and we, the young, not only have less experience than our elders, we have different experiences — and that is precisely what our nation needs.

When I was born, many members of my parents and grandparents’ generation took one look at me and assumed that my mother must have been cursed — that I was disabled because of witchcraft.

They never studied science and knew nothing about genetics, so they could not move beyond what they had been taught by their equally uneducated parents.

While many people in rural areas still maintain these beliefs, those with more education — which is a type of experience — know that our elders were wrong.

If we are to follow the African tradition that dictates youth obedience, we are expected to do so. If we are to follow tradition, we must comply without question to what our elders tell us to believe and to do.

We must not complain that our parents do not involve us in decision-making processes or that our teachers do not ask us for our opinions.

Or when our political leaders take advantage of us by recruiting us for rallies, for campaigning even in many African countries, as child soldiers — they refuse to give us any of the power that we, through our votes, give them.

Consider in practical terms what it would mean if we did not bring our youthful understanding to bear on our nation — what a high price Zimbabwe would pay for not incorporating the changing wisdom of youth into our society.

We have thousands of young people with disabilities lying in huts in rural areas or lingering around on streets begging for money because they have never been given a chance to become educated.

Have we ever considered the possibility that the disabled child who never learned to read or write might have found a cure for cancer or discovered a new source of energy?

Stephen Hawking, the world’s most famous physicist and mathematician is not only in a wheelchair, he can only speak by using a computer because he has Lou Gehrig Disease.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of America’s greatest presidents, also could not walk. The famous composer Beethoven was deaf.

Some of our favourite musicians, like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, are blind.

Do we have so much talent in the world that we can afford to throw away the abilities of the 10% of the population with disabilities? I doubt it.

And do we want to be the sort of society, which teaches young people like me that we are useless nothings, a community where people with disabilities are instruments of experiments by charities?

A nation where banks, public toilets, buses, and even jails are not wheelchair-accessible — although making a building accessible costs only a bag of cement?

For Zimbabwe, the challenges are social. They are about women’s rights and respect for people with disabilities.

They are about moving beyond old hatreds that divide us and traditions that cripple our ability to build a more vibrant and economically-successful nation.

That power is in our hands, in the hands of our youth — and we are already exercising it, as is obvious in the way that young people — especially educated urban young people — refuse to be chained to an old mentality that has been passed from generation to generation.

We read books, travel, watch television and surf the web, and, in doing so, move ourselves and Zimbabwe, past old stereotypes and fears.

But this does not mean that we need a generational war. As I said above, Zimbabwe needs the wisdom of both generations.

So perhaps we all need to remember how many wonderful salads — potato salad, bean salad, beetroot salad — exist, that are made up of both raw and cooked vegetables.

Energy Maburutse is a member of the United States Achievers Programme and works with the Cultural Information Trust in Bulawayo. He was diagnosed with brittle bone syndrome at birth.

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