Lead Us Today

How one Harvard student is helping to shape the future leaders of his country

While the goal of a “people’s government” should be one that all countries strive to achieve, in previously colonized countries, this ideal is often very hard and complicated to realize.  Though it hasn’t recently had an uprising like those seen in Libya or Egypt, Zimbabwe has been under the rule of the highly criticized and oppressive Robert Mugabe since 1980. Under Mugabe, the economy has plummeted and inflation has skyrocketed, violence and coercion have been used to seize nearly 4,000 white farms, and unfair “democratic” elections are the norm for the current ruling party to remain in power. Dalumuzi H. Mhlanga ‘13, a Zimbabwean and sophomore at the college, hopes to help train and encourage a new generation of leaders for Zimbabwe so perhaps one day, he hopes, the people can take responsibility for the development of their own communities. He is doing this through the organization he founded in 2010: Lead Us Today.

A few decades ago, Zimbabwe was called the “hope of Africa” and today it is a fragmented state with unemployment rates of nearly 95 percent and many of its people fleeing to find opportunities in neighboring countries such as South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia. In fact, between 1990 and 2005, half a million people (though unofficial estimates predict a few million) have emigrated from Zimbabwe. The government has been known to oppress freedom of speech and banish journalists from the country who write unfavorable things about government dealings and President Mugabe.  It has recently been under scrutiny by the international community for violations of human rights in its diamond mines. Perhaps the high unemployment, poor education, and poor infrastructure, Mhlanga tells me, is why young Zimbabweans feel little patriotism and little hope for opportunity in their country.  “Growing up, many of us don’t feel indebted to the country for making us who we are.” In spite of this feeling of disconnect, by founding Lead Us Today, Mhlanga hopes to help “shift” the mentality of Zimbabwean youth by showing them that rather than fleeing from the country and its problems, they should instead seek education in leadership, so they can take their future into their own hands. “There is nothing wrong with leaving the country,” Mhlanga says. “But make sure to come back and contribute. This [national] identity you have will be with you forever and ever.”

Lead Us Today seeks to shift the way of thinking for students in Zimbabwe by providing leadership workshops in schools, teaching kids about social responsibility and helping them design community service projects, and pairing select students with mentors and internships in their field of interest. It also hosts workshops, like that of “Education USA,” which informs students about education opportunities in America. Its board consists of a diverse group of individuals that represent the different groups in Zimbabwean society. It also has reached out to the Ministry of Education for support and collaboration.

Though founded less than a year ago, the organization is having noticeable success. A handful of the students in the Lead Us Today program are already planning on studying abroad, and there’s a wide variety of projects from cleaning to planting community vegetable gardens and orchards, to helping school drop-outs start small businesses. Others have even replicated the leadership program with students in primary schools. There are now a total of 16 service projects involving over 240 students. While these are small steps in shifting the overall mentality of Zimbabweans, Mhlanga has to start somewhere.

The biggest problem, Mhlanga says, is getting Zimbabweans (and other Africans as well) to shift their thinking from the short term to the long term, and to get the people of the country to take governance into their own hands. This mentality stems from the past. “First came aristocracy. Then colonialism. Then after independence, constitutions were drafted by leaders of political parties,” Mhlanga asserts. “How can people be expected to embrace democratic ideals if they don’t get a say—if they have never had a say?”

A great example of passive democracy is the 2008 Presidential elections in Zimbabwe, Mhlanga notes. Not only did initial election results take over a month to be released, but ZANU PF—the party in power—also used questionable tactics to get people to vote in the run off elections, and is widely believed to have tampered with results to ensure the incumbent Mugabe remained in power. “Why didn’t the people of Zimbabwe do anything?” Mhlanga asks. “Because democracy is a foreign concept to them. They are used to the government or some external agency making all the decisions for them.”

Mhlanga hopes that Lead Us Today and programs like it will help young Zimbabweans realize they have the power—and it is their responsibility—to help shape the course of their country. “I have always said that if I graduate from Harvard on a Thursday,” Mhlanga notes, “I will be back in Zimbabwe by Sunday.” Hopefully this sense of duty and desire to help slowly and steadily build positive values among Zimbabweans so that they take responsibility for their own development is a trend that catches on not just with young Zimbabweans but with all young people who will determine the fate of new democracies in their countries.

Meredith C. Baker ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier house. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.