The future: if you are good enough, you are old enough

There is hardly a moment you can talk about the future without mentioning a population cohort likely to live in that timeframe; the youth. And as the future of any nation tends to rest in the hands of its youth, nurturing and supporting these important members of society to become responsible citizens, leaders, policymakers, lawmakers, and guardians of a country’s sovereignty, requires a clear-cut strategy instigated by authorities.That much is clear. But what role do young people have in shaping that strategy?

You see, there is a perception among the young and the old generation alike that when someone is still in high-school or at the undergraduate level, they are somewhat too young to get involved in certain areas that may require rational thinking, and yet, when you examine most of the challenges our society faces, there isn’t a single problem that doesn’t require rational thinking. This way of thinking has at times facilitated some of the older generation to reluctantly pass on more responsibility to young people, and some young people have responded to the mistrust by switching off on matters that they would have otherwise actively participated in.

But let us look at history to see how young is young. Ironically, every now and then I like to treat myself to moments of history because the small details in them can be fascinating.You see, a lot has been said about many great people who have left a mark on history. Their courage and wisdom has been spoken about, their leadership qualities studied in lecture rooms of some of the greatest institutions, but there is something often less emphasised; the age at which they made history.

Take Martin Luther King Jr, for example. Without going into much detail of what the fallen African-American accomplished, it is often less emphasised that by the time he made ‘I have a dream’ speech, MLK was only 34 years old. And two years later, at the age of 36 years old, held thousands of non-violent demonstrators from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to demand African-Americans be given voting rights.

But young people have taken ownership of their challenges closer to home too. Indeed, when the late Major General Fred Rwigema led the Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army (RPF/A) into Rwanda in 1990, the outstanding tactician was only 33 years old. And after his passing, President Paul Kagame who was also 33 years old at the time, took on the mantle of leader of RPF/A to continue the struggle to liberate Rwandans. But here is the most important point to take from this piece; if the two men were 33 years old at the time they became leaders of RPF/A, at what age did they begin to feel that they needed to be part of the solution? While you ponder on that, here is the point I am trying to make; those two cases are indicative of the fact that you are never too young to start making an impact.

But of course, the acknowledgment alone that the youth matter both in the now and in the future does not go a long way to bridge any existing gaps that need urgent attention in order to sustain a smooth transition between two generations. To achieve a smooth transition, two complimentary factors must be in motion; as indicated, on the one hand, young people must actively take ownership of thechallenges they face, and on the other hand, there has to be a fully-fledged youth support system designed to be proactive instead of being reactive to challenges.

Markedly, while addressing over 500 Rwandan youths at the first edition of the Rwanda Youth Forum held in May 2015 in Dallas, Texas, President Kagameemphasised this very notion that taking ownership of challenges by the youth is very necessary to their prosperity and that of the nation. He expounded that “do not accept or tolerate mediocrity in yourselves or in others. Defy the low expectations that some may have of you or that you may even have of yourself. You simply do not have the luxury of getting tired or giving up.”

Thankfully, today, manymore young people continue to contribute significantly to national development–and this must continue. However, for those reluctant to acknowledge their role in taking ownership of present and future challenges, there’s bad news; first, no one is prepared to hand you the opportunity to prove yourself on a silver platter, and second, the tender age of 20-something is no longer admissible as reason not to take the bull by the horns.