On a trip to Zimbabwe, I had the opportunity to tour several villages. Save one, every single village was exactly the same with a slight variance in the geography. Each was full of emptiness, sadness, and despair; each lacking in male presence. Economic poverty was a defining factor. Each citizen had lost their ability to dream and imagine a better future; they were simply surviving. And then we traveled to the last village. This village was under the same tyrannical dictator and had the same economic poverty, but that’s where the similarities ended. This village was full of life, joy, and hope. Instead of leaving the village to pursue economic resources, the men, the husbands, and the fathers, remained present. The dream of a better future permeated the entire village. It made me ask, “Why?”
While the external situations were the same, the difference was that one village decided they didn’t have to obey the cultural norms and rules. They decided they could create their own local economy of trade that wasn’t dependant on the dominant economy of the state. They decided it was more important for families to stay together than it was for them to be separated by culturally defined stability. In short, they decided relational strength was more important than the hope of financial security. To assure this value was lived out, every family in the village helped take responsibility for every other family so the husbands and fathers didn’t have to leave to make money. In other words, they decided the dominant economic structures, cultural rules, and educational structures didn’t work for them, and they didn’t have to abide by them any longer. By taking responsibility for their own future as a town, they became a bright spot in a dark country.
I’ve traveled the United States and have learned that innovation and progress are not limited to big cities. I have seen small towns the size of Knoxville pulsing with innovation, economy, and hope. I’ve also seen towns, as we all have, throughout Illinois on the verge of non-existence. I have seen churches who have confused being alive with keeping their doors open. Through history, there has never been lasting neutrality in this way of life. We are either innovating or we are dying. The future of small-town life in Illinois is headed in one or two of these directions. Holding on to the status quo and the way things used to be only guarantees a slow decline into the realm of memory. We can blame it on the state as a whole; we can blame it on the negative effects of agribusiness and globalization. We can blame it on our elected officials and our oligarchy disguised as a democracy, but at the end of the day, all that blame does is guarantee a slow, painful decline into non-existence.
The village in Zimbabwe that I referred to at the beginning of this article had nothing working in their favor. The only thing that separated them from the rest was that they simply decided to choose differently. They created their own path to more. They took responsibility for that path, and then executed it. We are circumstantially far better off than the village in Zimbabwe, but like them, our future life, family, and town is dependent on what we are going to choose. So, how do we tell a better story? By choosing a better one! Choose more!