Nothing empowers people like self-belief. With loads of it, you can move mountains or turn deserts into fertile plains. Even the most fatalistic get so inspired by the feeling that they are able to act and have impact and cause real change.
Conversely, nothing is as stultifying as the absence of faith in the ability to make anything happen. The feeling of inability is so numbing that people are literally frozen into a permanent state of inaction. They are resigned to anything ever happening for them.
These contrasting states tell the story of Rwanda of the past fifty years. They represent the different fortunes of the country resulting from two different philosophies of the management of society.
The first is the current state in which Rwandans feel confident enough to change their lives and turn around the fortunes of their country. It is the period whose lessons about how they have done it are much sought after from across the world.
This is the period when the philosophy of management has changed from ruling to leading, from giving orders to offering directions about what should be done. It is the time when people are given encouragement, not harangued, in which the appeal is to their sense of self-worth, self-belief and own ability.
In almost all cases of calls to action, the message is carried in slogans or memorable phrases that capture the spirit of the moment. Slogans by definition are about two things – a rejection of the status quo and therefore call for change, or satisfaction with the current state of affairs and so a call for conservation. But whichever position, the effect is the lighting of the fire of belief in their ability to alter or maintain the situation, often for the better.
We all remember the effect of US President Barack Obama’s “yes we can” and “change we can believe in” slogans in the last presidential campaign. Closer to home, in Kenya, ”Harambee” had a strong impact until politicians abused it.
In Rwanda today, we may have no classical slogans, but there are plenty of memorable words that have the same effect. Agaciro (dignity or self-worth) is probably one of the most recognisable words in Kinyarwanda today, used by all – the mighty and lowly – and whose meaning is the same for all. But most significant is the recognition that it is only they, not anyone else, who can bestow agaciro on themselves by their actions and attitudes.
Then there are others which urge Rwandans to achieve the most they can, to extend themselves to the limits of their potential, not to be content with the ordinary or the mediocre. And so we often hear President Paul Kagame urging Rwandans to “be the best you can be”.
Similarly, the president has on many occasions discouraged dependency and instead pushed for taking charge of their lives by appealing to the people’s sense of pride. He asks whether they are happy living off other people’s left-overs, or being looked after by others when God gave them so much.
There is no doubt that these exhortations inspire people to apply themselves some more so as to be masters of their own situation. And they work because they are encouragements worth taking up, not because they are edicts that you ignore at your peril. Persuasion and not coercion is, in any case, the essence of good leadership.
It has not always been like this. There was a time when Rwandans were lulled into the stupor of inaction. It was a time when those in power actually ruled. They ordered and directed that things be done in a particular manner or there would be dire consequences. The people were made to sing and dance to tunes composed at party headquarters and to repeat slogans coined by the head of state that extolled unproductive agriculture as if it was a virtue.
In any event, the slogans were so unvaried that they became clichés incapable of inspiring the people to greater useful action. Little wonder, then, that there was no qualitative improvement in the Rwandans’ lives. They did nothing for self-belief. Actually official pronouncements often discouraged initiative of any sort and denigrated any effort at personal or national improvement. Instead, they lulled the people into dependency and taught them to expect and be grateful to handouts from supposed do-gooders.
It is from this stultifying state that we have been recovering and distancing ourselves for nearly two decades now.
That distance is evident in President Kagame’s interactions with citizens. The message at these events is about doing more, being better and rising to a higher level – individually and collectively. It speaks to human aspirations to a better life. The result is what has been called the Rwandan miracle. Put another way, the miracle comes from the belief that it is possible and within our means to alter our lives. That is the meaning of empowerment