Two weeks ago, I visited Mr Kanyele Kyambo, 95, who is the only remaining uncle of my father. He was dripping with so much wisdom that I spent an entire day with him, eager to learn from him as much as I could. Listening to him, I got to fully appreciate the wisdom that underpinned many of our traditional African societies.
Mzee Kyambo’s wisdom caused me to ponder the words of Confucius the Chinese philosopher, ‘by three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.’ We need to constantly reflect on the wisdom that can build a positive, powerful national character.
Character determines the footprints that we leave behind every day. My grandfather’s footprints are so inspirational that I want to follow them so that I can be a better man.
John Wooden, the great basketball head coach at the University of California, Los Angeles, beautifully articulated this role of character in the quest to be better people, ‘Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.’
In this regard, our national character is what we really are as a nation. Just like individual human character, national character forms over time on a series of choices. For instance, we have chosen to be corrupt so many times that corruption has become a major part of our national character and then we simply blame it on our leaders.
Is our moral compass functioning? Every time our nation arrives at a junction where the right turn leads to right and the left turn leads to wrong, why do we constantly take the left turn?
You may agree with me that public servants scheme for more expensive service providers to be awarded tenders because their kickbacks will be more. Companies employ kinsmen and tribesmen even if other candidates are more qualified. Spiritual leaders seldom turn a deaf ear to the cries of those who are sexually and economically exploited in their midst. Parliamentarians across political divide devise strategies to earn more money even as their constituents earn less and less. All these are symptoms of a rotten national character that ends up harming people across the country.
But all is not lost. We can begin building a morally upright, vibrant national character whose fruits will be radically different. In order to do this, we have to look beyond parliamentary legislation, political rallies and religious events. According to Abraham Lincoln, ‘Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.’ As such, building a morally upright, fruitful national character will require us to return to the basic of growing trees.
In order to harvest an avocado fruit, you have to plant an avocado seed and ensure that it receives sufficient water. Eventually, that simple seed will grow into a mighty tree that will produce dozens of avocados. We therefore need to deliberately plant the right seeds that will build the right national character. Seeds like diligence not greed; integrity not corruption; unity not divisive politics; kindness not indifference; empowerment not exploitation!
If we then nurture these seeds, diligence will result in a work ethic that will power our sustainable industrialisation; integrity will result in ethical business that rewards the most innovative, not the most connected; unity will result in a political dispensation that rewards servant leadership, not fellow tribesmen; kindness will result in empowerment of the poor and not their exploitation.
We should collectively aim for such a national character because it will determine the kind of Nation we shall become and how that Nation will treat its people. This character can already be seen in the diligence of different industries like the cut flower sector, which has been consistently grown and now earning Kenya an average of Sh80 billion. annually. Because of that, thousands are guaranteed of employment, which drives down poverty.
In the same vein, building a positive national character will positively impact existing and new industries. This will open up unlimited global possibilities that will benefit all. We therefore have a sacred responsibility to think and act green to make a lasting difference for generations to come.
– The writer is founder and chairperson, Green Africa Foundation. www.isaackalua.co.ke
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