Life, is a series of choices, so we have been told. The impression is that if you make good choices, your life will be good. Most of us have heard the cliché “you are where you are today because of the choices you made yesterday.”
True, I do not dispute that. The greater part of our adult life is a result of the decisions we constantly make. However, there is that small proportion of our lives that is a consequence of other people’s decisions. Stephen Covey, in “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” advises us to focus and work on what is within our control, or our sphere of influence. That’s some really helpful advice. However, sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we end up facing the consequences of other people’s decisions.
As I write this, I am an unwitting victim of someone else’s decision. Today we have no water at home, thanks to the gardener’s decision to pour all the water in the storage tank on his beloved plants. Sadly, only 10 green vegetables are still looking healthy, the rest have withered, while we have to think about how to use whatever drop of water comes our way. This is not the first time we’ve run out of water since he came. Yes, he’s a great guy and extremely hard working, but sadly, he sometimes makes unilateral decisions that place both our lives at risk, like now. The first time was exactly a month ago. I got home at 6pm to be told there was no water. I made a quick decision to get water trucked to the house by a commercial supplier and the problem was solved. My neighbours also stepped in and provided water to meet our needs while waiting for the truckers. However, looking back in hindsight, by quickly stepping in, I denied the gardener an opportunity to learn. Consequently, he missed a key lesson about the importance of water in water-constrained city where diseases like typhoid occur frequently. Not surprisingly, we find ourselves in exactly the same situation again. Normally, I monitor water usage and advise him not to use what’s in storage for the garden. The plants can wait and it usually isn’t very long before the City of Harare remembers that we pay bills to receive water. However, I travelled last week and in my absence, he used water without restraint – to the point of emptying a 5,000 litre tank on his own in one day. I returned from a week-long trip to a home without water. The last drop was exhausted on the day I left and I am not surprised because on the day I left, I had watched in horror as he created what looked like rice paddies that appeared to drown his plants – all this from the reserve tank – despite being told to use storage water sparingly and only in the absence of council water.
However, rather than arrange to have water trucked again, I decided to remain silent and let him solve the problem in the hope that he will also learn from this experience. His solution was to find the nearest well and ask for water, which he has been using for his daily needs. In a country bedevilled with waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid, in a city with a typhoid outbreak and in a suburb that is among those affected by typhoid, this solution puts both of us at risk of contracting typhoid.
Much as I have tried to ensure that this house never runs out of water, and have communicated how water is to be used, the quality of my life is being compromised because I am living out the consequences of someone else’s decision. Thankfully, unbeknown to him, I have another private storage facility designed for moments like this, which he cannot access. I thank God he does not know about it because it too, would probably have been exhausted and I would be forced to use water from the unknown well for everything else. Currently, he brings me water every morning, but since it is not from a trusted source, the best I can do is use it for flushing the toilet, while praying that the man to whom i attribute our current water woes will not contract typhoid. However, i have had to temporarily halt certain luxuries until a steady supply of water comes. At the moment, i cannot wear my contact lenses, i have to shower rather than bath, dishes have to queue up in a pile and be washed once a day, toilet usage has been limited to twice a day, laundry cannot be done and mopping has to be with the minimum possible amount of water – among other changes that compromise the quality of my life.
At least this is a minor and temporary issue. However, many people find themselves in similar positions of living out the consequences of other people’s decisions. For example, the child whose parents make foolish decisions that later shape his/her life, or the faithful spouse who contracts HIV or a sexually transmitted infection (STI) from an unfaithful partner who keeps taking risks by having unprotected sex with people outside that union. Some of these are sadly, long term and can affect the direction of one’s life.
Some years ago, when I was doing A level, one of my classmates’ mother opted to buy herself a new dress with money that had been set aside for her daughter’s examination fees a day before the fee deadline. Needless to say the girl did not write examinations and that affected the career she was forced to take up, the pool of men she became exposed to, the type of person she married and the lifestyle she is currently living. Some may say she could have gone back to school after she started working. That’s true, but could she afford it now that she had a family in her new found society where education and a career were not as great a priority as marriage?
I also know of a lady who walked out of a 10 year marriage to start her life from scratch because her husband kept making foolish decisions that were negatively affecting her and their son. The man was in the habit of unilaterally selling off family assets and spending the money alone. When she finally decided to walk out, the husband had decided to sell the family home and she only found out through phone calls when prospective buyers started calling in response to the advert he had placed in the newspaper. Efforts to discuss the matter and reverse his decision were futile, he did not respect her opinion, despite her contribution towards purchasing those assets. She finally figured that if she hung around, they would soon be very poor and she and her son would never enjoy the standard of living she was working hard to attain as long as her husband continued to make unwise choices so she left him and before two years were over, she was happy and prosperous while the husband, now reduced to poverty, was trying to negotiate with her to return.
Also, in 2002, the Women and AIDS Support Network (WASN) conducted the “Voices and Choices” research, which looked into the sexual and reproductive health and rights of HIV positive women. What struck me among the report’s findings was the percentage of married women who were infected by the only sexual partners they had known and within the marital union, contrary to the common belief that the virus affects mostly commercial sex workers who are considered a “high risk” group. More than 70 percent of women interviewed were virgins when they got married and were infected by their husbands. This influenced WASN’s decision to focus its programmes on married women and women in stable relationships, who were at higher risk than commercial sex workers. The sad reality is that such a large number of women became unwitting victims of the consequences of other people’s choices, that is, their husbands. Although the research is more than a decade old, this reality still applies to some women, particularly those who are economically dependent on their spouses and have very little say.
These examples and my current situation illustrate how one person’s decision can negatively affect other people. The people whose decisions affect us seem to have difficulty learning from life’s experiences, yet we cannot wish such people off the planet. So perhaps, the best to do under such circumstances is first to empower oneself. This may be difficult for the child whose parents make unwise decisions. However, for adults, don’t place yourself in a position of vulnerability where someone’s decisions affect you negatively. If you are economically dependent on that person, find something to do so you can earn your own money and have a say.
Secondly, where possible, always have a contingency plan. Indeed not everyone is a good planner and unfortunately sometimes we are affected by other people’s failure to plan. However, when we know the people we are working with, it is possible to predict the consequences of their inability to plan and therefore incumbent upon us to come up with a contingency plan so that we do not become victims when the inevitable happens.
Lastly, I hope in the choices we make, we take time to think about how our decisions have a downstream effect on other people, be it family, friends, colleagues, business associates or strangers. If we try to think of others, perhaps, in a small way, we will make wiser decisions and the world will be a better place.