Empowering African youth

Young people in Africa today face many different challenges and circumstances.  These engender both hope and hopelessness among them, depending on their particular context and on available support, resources and opportunities. Young people who are empowered easily find hope to imagine and create a good future for themselves – and in turn to empower other young people.

The situation of an average African young person often includes that of a conflictive political situation, threats such as HIV/AIDS, the violence of poverty, a broken family and problems related to climate change such as frequent drought. While Africa today is often characterized as an ’emerging market’, with growing economies, improving  institutions  of  governance  and  decreasing  poverty,  these   are  indicators  that  appear  in  annual  macro-economic reports  but  are  yet  to  be  experienced  by  many ordinary young people, particularly the poor majority. Commenting on this,  Ellen  Johnson  Sirleaf,  Africa’s  first  female  President (Liberia) and the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, said that, “Africa is not poor but poorly managed”. One  major  factor  amid  all  the  challenges  for  youth  is  the  rapid  advancement of  communications  technology. Some consider this technology, which is strongly embraced by young people, as a new ‘opium’. The various Silicon Valley creations are hugely popular and widely consumed on the continent. But others point to an encouraging ‘Arab Spring’ in the area of social media.
The use of social applications is a notable alternative to conventional communication methods. It is  providing  important  avenues for real-time  communication, for  disseminating news, for advertising the  involvement  of  youth  in  different  projects  and  for  discussion  forums on a wide range of topics. Youth have also become a major determining factor in today’s politico-economic  arenas  through  the  use   of  social  media,  and  this  has  created an ‘online Arab Spring’ with its  creative  ideas  and  instant  exchange of information, both of which challenge the more traditional thinking  of those who hold the reins of power and wealth. 

Tragically,  left  behind  by  the  rapid  pace  of  technological  transformation, and  by  growth  and  change, are the many young people who do  not have the same access or opportunities. These youth remain poorly educated and unemployed as their   governments and economies do not provide conducive environments for self-growth and self-realization. This then becomes a push factor for young people, who may even risk   their lives by engaging in desperate attempts to migrate, as evidenced by the mass drownings of African people crossing the Mediterranean Sea. It  is  in  this  context,  which  may  be  either  oppressive or promising, that  the  Church  continues  to  form international young  people  who  are  determined   to grow and change, using the tools  of Catholic Social Teaching and Ignatian  Spirituality.  Youth  ministry   programs, such as ‘Magis’ or Integral  Youth  Development  (IYD)  in  my  own  Jesuit  Province  of  Zimbabwe- Mozambique,  for  example, have  been  avenues for   socio-economic  and  spiritual  change.  ‘Magis’ promotes  Ignatian  Spirituality  among young people and a way of life dedicated  to  service  and  the  pursuit  of  justice. IYD is a Jesuit project that   seeks to empower youth aged 12-29 to prevent HIV infection, to attend to their civic responsibilities and to protect the environment. One on-going, outstanding  example of a beneficial youth program is  found at St Peter’s Parish in Mbare,  the  poorest  and  oldest  township  of  Harare,  Zimbabwe. Unemployed  young  people  there  started  a  clean- up  campaign  to  raise  awareness  and  improve  stewardship  of  society’s  public  spaces.  Through  their   efforts,  a  novel  project  was  born, the  ‘Team  Up  2  Clean  Mbare’ initiative  for  ecological  justice. Its  monthly clean-up campaigns in the  neighbourhood  have  transformed a  former  dumpsite  in  Mbare  into a  park and playground. 

Another  example  is  the  Catholic  Youth  Network  for  Environmental   Sustainability in Africa (CYNESA),  which was started by a Jesuit brother and two  Ignatian  Youth  members. CYNESA has its headquarters in   Kenya and now has offices in eight African countries. The  network’s   mandate  is  education, networking,  advocacy  training  and  supporting  local  action  plans  for  responsible   stewardship  of   the  environment.  Among  other   projects, CYNESA created  a  Climate  Change  Toolkit  in  2014  for  use  by  youth  in  Jesuit institutions in Kenya, Tanzania and  Zimbabwe. CYNESA is a fine example of change and empowerment that can happen when young people take the lead.

Tendai Ellton Matare SJ
Student of Theology. Zimbabwe
Hekima University College in Kenya

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