Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Speech to the Youth Of Africa

A speech I recently gave at a graduation ceremony for SPW - Students Partnership Worldwide - - the NGO I manage.   

91 volunteers spent 8 months living and working in rural communities of Zambia.  These words are for them, and their indomitable spirit.  
I want everyone to know that I wrote my own speech, like Obama.  Who likes Obama?  Who knows, amongst us today, we may have not only the future president of Zambia, but quite possibly the United States of America.  

America is everybody's country.  The blood, sweat, tears and dreams of the world are tied up into America's destiny.  It is the reason I am here, so deeply honored to speak to you.  I suppose you want me to speak because you deem me important.  But you are the true heroes and dignitaries.  You are the most important people here today, more important than ministers, presidents, NGO country directors and senior managers.  We are brought up to respect these people of authority, as they seem very important.  But they rarely do anything as noble as what you have done.  You didn't just talk about social change, or give money, or take a class, you were social change.  You went directly into the community, lived with them, shared in their joys and sorrows, and broke bread with them, and listened, and guided and provided for them a service that the government cannot provide.  You took responsibility for your fellow countrymen and made their problems yours.  Do you realize how tremendous this is?  Do you realize what you have done?  You have done more than any of us who sit in our comfortable offices, and go to our conferences and trainings.  Who fly all over the world and buy expensive things in duty free shops ( oh, I am sorry, maybe that is just me).  

I am honored, first of all, to be here in your presence, asked to say some words to mark your tremendous achievement.  

You are truly the heart and soul of SPW, without your works and efforts, SPW would cease to exist. 

This is only the beginning, that is why it is called commencement.  Your new life begins here, in this moment, today, as you now you go on, into the world as ex volunteers of SPW.  

Let me remind you, that we have numerous managers, even our current country director is an ex-volunteer.  So the future is bright if you seize it and make the most of your experiences.  You will have help along the way, but the ultimate responsibility for your life is with you.  As the bible says, "ask and you shall receive", not receive even if you haven't asked.  You need to voice yourselves, be active and engaged, in a new york city word, as I am from New York, you got to be a hustler.  The world is yours, if only you ask for it, and see yourself as worthy of having it.  

Look at your older peers, and see where they have come from.  They were one day like you, and now they are coordinators, managers, country directors, and have traveled to Europe, America, India, and other parts of Africa to join the global movement to fight not only HIV/AIDS, but to give a voice to young people who consistently get spoken for, rather than speak about their own needs.  And this is what makes us special.  Youth teaching youth, youth leading youth, youth are our future, without the youth we are nowhere.  

I can't express in mere words my joy in working with fellow young people ( I consider myself forever young).  Your energy and joy is contagious.  Don't lose your youthful spirit, no matter how old you get.  It is the ultimate elixir against all the perils that surely come in our way, along life's winding path.  

You may not realize everything you have learned, but over these past months you have built the foundation for future success, both professional and personal.  Teaching, presenting, meetings, mentoring and being responsible for the day to day operations of the program, these are not little things at all.  These will help you no matter what you undertake next, and opportunities will be vast if you apply yourselves, and move with the same energy you moved with in SPW.  

And let's not forget about what you were a part of.  You were the embodiment of young people making a difference in their communities.
Your work makes a huge difference.  Not because I say so, or Richard and Mary, or anyone else.  This program has undergone external evaluation from reputable sources from the United States of America which have determined that your work changes young people's behavior.  This is a landmark for SPW, to have such results, and its because of your efforts.  You are making a difference.  You also have gained the support of the Finnish embassy, DFID in the United Kingdom, personal individuals, new Zealand aid and a host of others who have visited and continue to be impressed by your teachings, your enthusiasm, and your songs.  

I thank you very much, and for those of you who know me, know how much I like the songs of the program.  

I remember my first visit near kapiri, in a rural school, on a visit from new zealand aid.  It was my first day of work, four months back.  I observed a lesson, by a volunteer who had a michael jordan buckle on his belt.  And they came together and went through the lesson, which was excellent, though what struck me was the songs and happiness, the smiles, and positive energy emanating from that classroom.  That was beautiful, something magical for me to see and feel.  

The world has so much to learn from Zambia, from Africa.  

Here we were, in a community that struggled under the weight of poverty and disease, and still some how the human spirit soars and sings.  It fights back against all circumstance and refuses to be defeated.  You were a part of this fight, this struggle for dignity and refusal to resign in the face of so many odds.  Don't see yourself alone in this.  Look around you and see who is here, people from different parts of Zambia, different tribes and languages, even all over the world, all coming and working together for a new and better world.  

We can't make it alone, we must seek help, genuine help, from anyone who wants to work by our side.  SPW is international, and we express solidarity with young people all over the world.  Be it America or Ghana, people are people, and we must learn from and work with each other.  We are more than zambians and americans or British, we are people, young people, who want to change the world, for the better, a place where young people are listened to, who help shape the world according to their dreams and aspirations.  That is a day I am sure will come upon us if more people do what you did.  It is for this day and the work required to bring it forth, that keeps me in SPW, and makes me happy to see that we can work side by side, for the years to come.  

My profound love, blessings and good wishes for your future.  A future brightened by the African sun.