from African Path
By Nducu wa Ngugi
Early morning. It is greeted by many with sighs of relief that they made it through the night. Hordes of young men congregate at Kwa Mbira shopping center, Limuru. Some walk up and down the dusty pot-holed road that dissects the small unassuming town almost in half. Patches of what used to be tarmac dot the almost impassable road that leads to LimuruTown on the one side and to Ndeiya on the other. As the sea of despondent youth mill about looking for work, any kind of work in a town that has nothing to offer, they while the time with stories that have no immediate bearing on their present situation and dream of making it out someday. Many of them do not see their predicament as a direct result of failed government policies and misplaced priorities.
“ODM has a good chance but I do not know what to make of these guys jumping from party to party like little monkeys high on weed. I mean don’t they have principles?” politics one youth adamantly, his hands flickering in the air for emphasis.
“You are a fool. Kibaki cannot be unseated. He has the government on his side. Plus Moi is now working for him and he will bring a share the Rift Valley votes. That is what will decide this election”. They argue back and forth. Then someone brings in the elections closer to home.
“Hey, who will you vote for here?” And the discussion becomes heated.
“Please don’t get me started with these greedy MP’s, always giving themselves a raise at our expense. What are they making now? Sh.750,000 a month plus benefits? And what is the minimum wage? About Sh. 5500?” says a college graduate who has not found work yet.
“What about this Majimbo?” queries another youth wearing Bata Shoe flip-flops that have collected dirt so that his toes prints are traced precisely on the inside. His big toe is bandaged with a piece of cloth from a torn shirt tied into a ribbon and marked by a dried out dark stain covered with reddish clay soil.
“Well, isn’t Kenya already divided into constituencies, district and subdivisions? Why couldn’t they have distributed the wealth through these divisions? What makes this Majimbo better?” and so the debates goes on.
“Let me get a sportsman cigarette. You know I always pay you. Or do you think that these hands are made of wood?” pleads a young man. If BAT knew that he smoked their products on credit would they make him their spokesman?
What is with the youth of today?
This scene in Limuru is a scene that is representational of thousands of shopping centers around the country and is not isolated to urban and semi-urban areas. It is the story of Kangemi, Uthiru, Kisumu and Mombasa. It is a tale told countless times in Mandera and Wajir, from Machakos to Kutus, across the Rift Valley and into Nyanza. It is the story of youth poverty and unemployment in Kenya. Young people are often viewed with skepticism and suspicion. They are treated as miniature adults and their views on social, economic and political agendas are dismissed as misguided and immature. This exclusion in the decision making processes disenchants many who feel ostracized and irrelevant.
The youth in Kenya as in many African countries seem to have slowly been left out of the national equations for a number of years. In Kenya, until 2005 with the creation of the Ministry of Youth Affairs, it was almost assumed that young men and women would be absorbed in one way or another into the labor force after finishing school, be it primary or secondary. In a country that does not have enough spaces at the university level for its qualified high school graduates one would think that the government would have pragmatic alternatives to tap into these vast, energetic and resourceful labor pool.
What we have seen however is that the youth have been left vastly unattended which has rendered many of them hopeless and disillusioned. Empty campaign promises by politicians that they will bring development once they are elected in no longer sufficient to energize these restless youth into investing their talents in a system that quickly forgets about them after Election Day.
Many have therefore resorted to or redirected their young energies to social vices that if left unchecked for much longer will fester into social chaos. Youth unemployment and poverty have directly contributed to retrogressive social activities including but not limited to drug abuse, prostitution, psychological disillusionment with citizenship, restlessness and crime. These vices are threats to social development and pose a clear and present threat to security at the local and national level.
Youth poverty and unemployment must therefore be seen as economic violence against the Kenyan population as a whole and ostensibly as a violation of human rights.
What needs to be done?
In many rural areas especially the local economy was left to fend for its youth or have them enter into an already strained agricultural sector that relied mostly on subsistence farming. Declining produce prices and low wages are not ingredients that attract youth to agriculture and neither does stagnant wages in the local tea, coffee or flower farms as the case may be. In the cities the lure of the bright lights bring young men and women to the centers in search of good paying jobs and opportunities for business. They quickly find themselves in the dark alleyways of Kibera, Kawangware, Kangemi and Mathare. Here they are welcomed and greeted by the deplorable living conditions in these slums where running sewers, flying toilets and rampant human decay are the norm. Amidst all these madness many people strive to make an honest living while others fall to the temptations of social ills and are forced into desperate and extroverted living.
The formation of the Ministry of Youth Affairs two years ago was therefore a welcome idea and one that has to be endowed with adequate resources and the imagination of a nation in order for it to meet the challenges of franchising a disillusioned youth. It will take pragmatic and aggressive approaches to meet the dire needs of a youth in peril.
The Ministry of Youth Affairs strategic Plan for 2007-2012 spells out critical areas that need to be addressed, inter alia:
1.) youth empowerment and participation
2.) youth education and training
3.) youth crime and drugs
4.) youth and employment
These four categories have to be pursued at grassroots and national level if we hope to engage our youth to be constructive guardians of a growing democracy and future leaders. This country belongs more to them and their children and it behooves the present leadership to recognize that we have to prepare tomorrows stalwarts today.
The government has to invest in youth training and tap into their entrepreneurial acumen. Business ownership requires skills beyond the practical application that a particular trade requires. There is sourcing, producing, marketing and book-keeping to be learned through local polytechnics, on-the-job training and internships with individuals, government agencies and other development partners. The government can play an important role here by making low-interest loans available to youth who have taken business education classes and written sound business proposals. It can also help them by marketing their merchandize locally and internationally. We must therefore scrap the assumption that feeds the notion that investment in the youth through polytechnics, internships, on-the-job-training, apprenticeship and other infrastructure is not of paramount importance.
The government must also among other things invest in companies that sell finished agricultural products internationally. There is no reason why we grow coffee and have it processed abroad only to be sold back to us at exorbitant prices. These factories will create jobs that are needed here and will also save us foreign revenue that can be injected locally to fund youth leisure and educational programs.
As we embrace the youth and ask them to believe in a Kenya and indeed an Africa that is democratic, united, respectful of the rule of law and human dignity we must begin to actively lay down the framework that will make this possible. That means that present leadership has to start living by those tenets of accountability, transparency and respect for rule of law. I think that we can begin the process by purging corrupt officials and prosecuting them in court of law and eradicating cover-ups for wanton theft and abuse of office. It is hypocritical to ask the youth to abide by the law when they see public officials get away with murder and other crimes against humanity.
On the education front we must address the relevance of our academic curricula and tailor that to reflect African history, cultures and struggles using a mirror that is indeed African. While it is important understand Europe for instance, we cannot do that at the expense of our own journey. Our youth have to be taught African histories and languages with an African world outlook. Schools must become centers of learning, questioning, evaluating, synthesizing and applying knowledge and not factories for blind followers with no particular political orientation. What we need are dynamic thinkers and doers, proud African men and women.
It is also of critical importance to expand out institutions of higher learning to accommodate the huge numbers of students who are interested and qualified to attend colleges and universities. This will allow the youth to have choices based on their talents and areas of interest. We cannot turn down thousands of qualified students from higher learning institutions and expect our talent pool to showcase the best we have to offer. Education must be a right guaranteed by the State for anyone who is interested and not a reserve for the monied and connected. Therefore it behooves us to expand our capacity at the university level to accommodate more students.
The political, economic and social integration of Africa will not be determined at a Berlin Conference or by Wall Street but by our active engagement with each other in all spheres of life. We cannot afford to be strangers in our own land and we can eradicate this by allowing commerce through bi-lateral trade agreements and easing the movements of our people and goods across borders. Products made in Kangemi need to find their way easily into Bamako, Kigali and Soweto. This means that Africans must become manufacturers and marketers of their own products instead of suppliers of raw materials to European factories who in turn sell the processed goods as finished products back to us.
Youth and the coming elections
Every election year politicians make promises that would make Moses’ promise of deliverance seems like baby food. We can no longer allow empty rhetoric or full pockets to sway the elections and the youth of this country. This time we must demand accountability before and after elections. A true leader does not wait until he or she is in the seat of power to do good deeds. In fact it is the good deeds that should lead him or her to that seat. We must ask the hard questions now. What have you done for this country and this constituency within the last five years? Where are you taking us with your leadership? How do we get there and who is coming with us?
Promises must be followed with action. Actions that not only reinvigorate and galvanize the youth into active participation in the building of the nation but ones that have practical application and relevance to the living conditions of the people. Members of Parliament must remain connected to their constituents by having offices in their localities. They must be accessible and available to the concerns of their constituents. They must be reminded that they are employees of the people and that they will be held accountable. When their representation goes contrary to the people for whom they are speaking for, they must be reminded instantly. The days of MP’s behaving like they are landowners of the constituency of which they represent must come to an end.
Poverty as a human rights violation
Poverty is perhaps one of biggest challenges facing our community today. Indigence is predicated by inadequate education, insufficient health care services, discrimination, unequal access to resources and insecurity. To some the poor are seen as a lazy, uneducated, suspicious and violent entity and are therefore looked upon with disdain and apathy. This leads to discrimination in one form or another based on ones location in life. It is ridiculous to deny someone the means to buy clothing and then accuse them of walking in the nude!
The government must understand and uphold that every one has a fundamental right to live with dignity, have adequate housing, proper sanitation and a way to provide for and care for their families. To deny anyone these necessities is to violate their human rights. The poor must have equal access to power and resources and more importantly, they must have a voice in shaping policies that affect them.
Governments must find creative and dynamic ways to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty by empowering the poor with sound policies and infrastructures that uphold their human dignity and human rights.
Conclusion: True Leadership
True leadership must capitalize on the various human resources available in their localities. They must work in concert with business leaders, women’s groups, churches, youth organizations and local education boards to find tangible solutions with impactful benefits for the population. Leaders must forget this obsolete notion that they are all knowing and that the people they lead, especially the youth, are dumb and out of touch with reality.
True leadership seeks out its citizenship and listens to their needs and concerns. As their representative your duty is to find ways in which you can assist them with solving the problems that they face through government action and resources when necessary. You must be their voice in parliament advocating on their behalf and not for your self-preservation.
True leadership at the grassroots and national level must be concerned with the rising numbers of unemployment and poverty and therefore must delve into finding ways to create more jobs, increase higher learning institutions, offer skilled training and easy access to small, low-interest, business loans that our youth especially can tap into. Technical schools, internships and on-the-job-training can create a skilled labor force and through partnerships with various industries can make entry into the labor market easier.
If there is anything to be learned let it be this: the future of this country lies in the hands of the youth and if we are any wiser we will lift them up from the doldrums of despair and into the bright lights of a democracy that is at once vibrant and youthful.
Our educational, political, social and economic failings are reflected daily in the youth that mill around shopping centers with nothing but dreams to hold on to. Poverty and unemployment are reflections of economic violence and a self fulfilling one to boot.
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