"Walking the Talk" in Zimbabwe

Posted by Charles A. Ray
October 25, 2011
Ambassador Ray Participates in AmbChat

Conventional wisdom holds that people over 50 cannot master social networking; that new media and fancy tech toys are reserved for the young. This is an unfortunate misperception that causes many senior government leaders to avoid a great opportunity to reach out to new audiences in a manner that they "hear" and understand.

For the record, I'm solidly in the pre-computer generation, having turned 65 over a year ago and worked as a government employee for over 49 years. Therefore, according to prevailing thought, I am one of those who simply cannot make best use of new technologies that my younger colleagues take for granted. But, I refused to accept this.

For years, I was casually active on social networking sites, but since I took up my post as Ambassador to Zimbabwe, I have leveraged my social media activity as part of my job to promote U.S. foreign policy. How has a member of the "Silent Generation," those born before or during World War II in the hush that preceded the digital explosion, managed to do this? Buy into the system (literally and figuratively), find your voice, and use the tools everyday.

Almost every U.S. embassy and agency has a website, and even a Facebook page, to communicate with public audiences -- in the United States and abroad. U.S. Embassy Harare has a website and a Facebook page, as well as a YouTube channel and a Twitter account. I use my personal Facebook page, Twitter feed, and blog to supplement and expand the embassy's messages. In Zimbabwe, where 65 percent or more of the population is under 35, these tools are increasingly effective channels for communicating with educated, young Zimbabweans. With Zimbabwe's dramatic rise in the use of 3G service to access the Internet, our use of these methods gives us rapidly growing access to young people on their cell phones. Using Facebook and SMS, we regularly put together youth-oriented discussions and programs at a moment's notice.

My embassy team also uses social media to blunt the impact of incessant anti-Western propaganda by the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). For example, when hard-line elements blocked meetings I had scheduled with young people in rural areas, we responded with live Facebook chats -- engaging the very same young people, some of whom logged onto Facebook through their phones while others participated on computers in our American Corners. The chat was accessible to anyone following our Facebook page and generated more discussion and media coverage than an actual live meeting would have.

I also engage in daily chats with young Zimbabweans on my own Facebook page. My page has become a platform for explaining U.S. policies in an informal setting. This has changed some of the perceptions that young Zimbabweans have of the United States and American officials. During one of my late night chats, a young Zimbabwean man wrote, “Who does the writing on your page? A member of your staff?” “No,” I replied. “I do it myself.” “Wow!” was his response. “I've never heard of a senior official doing something like that himself.”

In a country, such as Zimbabwe, where young people are often ignored, making myself available to youth audiences on social networking sites has done more to undercut slanted government messaging than almost all of our other programs. I answer their questions and sometimes ask my own; but, more importantly, I engage them in conversation and I listen to what they have to say. The fact that young Zimbabweans are seeking us out at the rate of 25 -- 40 new followers per day is testament to the effectiveness of this method of communication. Even some younger government officials have joined our fan crowd.

By demonstrating U.S. values in direct and practical ways to a vast, hungry digital audience, we have changed the terms of the debate in our bilateral relationship immeasurably. We're not just talking about the values of open dialogue -- we are "walking the talk." To quote my grandmother, the woman who raised me and shaped my own values, U.S. Embassy Harare's use of social media is proof that, "What you do speaks so loud, I can't hear a word you're saying."

And, it also proves that you don't have to be a member of "Generation X" or a "Millennial" to use these tools effectively!



October 26, 2011

Stephen M. in Zimbabwe writes:

@ Charles I agree with am actually organising an event to increase awareness and help africa embrace technology , local experts and international experts will gather to come up with an action plan on how to use this social media platform for the good of the nations

October 28, 2011

Bhavana in Zimbabwe writes:

Dear Ambassador,

Yesterday I was having dinner with my family and was speaking about the increasing population on this planet of ours, and especially how we should not waste any food. To throw away food that is good, is just NOT GOOD. After reading an article from Washington DC, regarding wastage of food, I suddenly found myself looking at your own twitter page and "solarcookersint" . Please let me know how you feel Zimbabweans can have access to solar cooking. Thank you.

Muhammad F.
October 31, 2011

Muhammad F. in Pakistan writes:

Social media plays a pivotal role to reach in any society. Through this we not only learn the problems effective and efficiently but we can deliver message to people handheld. Handheld can be a mobile, not necessarily to have a palmtop or any internet based communication.

Its all, how we use social media. At the end world ethics based on the collaboration of different societies and cultures.

Muhammad Naeem ul F., PhD

V.E. D.
Pennsylvania, USA
November 4, 2011

V.E. in Pennsylvania writes:

Dear Mr. Ambassador -

What a great post about the practical side of social media! The various platforms are places to share information, to communicate with others on this planet, whether it be in our own local communities or with the great wide world. Thank you - I'll certainly be sharing your post in my "world:" libraries.

Katharine K.
Virginia, USA
November 7, 2011

Katharine K. in Virginia writes:

Hello, Mr. Ambassador-How Great: the message wonderful, the medium brilliant (especially given where you are); & the writing inspired/-ing with the only clues that you aren't X,Y or whatever, being the wisdom of your words & on the top of your head. Continue to enjoy! kk


Latest Stories