By Batilloi Warritay
“These things never used to happen in our days.” “So many things are in decline, standards have fallen.” “These young people just do not know how to do anything.”
These outbursts are very common among people over 60, especially as they gather at homes, or in their select conclaves. All one hears are the stories of “How things have fallen apart.” I wonder though whether my generation is giving a fair assessment of the current state of affairs or providing just one part of the story?
Let us take a look at the reality of one young man I met recently at Lumley Beach. Let us call him Sheka Bockarie. He is 24, clearly a product of the civil war. He had never gone to school. Never attended an Adult Literacy programme of any kind and cannot write or sign his name. When I asked him how he takes care of signing for things – he said “Na me finga a de use.” However, he wants me to get him a job. Where do I start?
Then there is Joe Kponda, whom I encountered a few years ago at the “Lumley Beach Rock”, At around 11:00 am, as I was finishing my long morning walk, he was lying down, bemoaning his current state of joblessness. We started a conversation and I suggested he join some of the road construction going on in the area. His reply, “Den kine wok dey, yung man go just die!”
Even more worrying are the repeated pictures we see on our WhatsApp posts of “Kush Drugged Youth” just wanting to forget their woes as they stand dazed on our streets. Sadly, the fact that many of these young men and women are victims is lost on our under-informed society that has opted to flog them senseless, or in some cases attempt quick “fire necklace” options, to cleanse Sierra Leone of their “negative influence.” We still await more progressive options to be provided by Government, to respond to the growing mental health emergency we are witnessing. But I digress.
These are but a few of the thousands of restive youths we see daily – uneducated, unmotivated and unskilled in an economy that is finding it increasingly difficult to absorb them into the productive sector.
Society as a whole however needs to be more empathetic to their plight as they are all victims to a varying degree of a calculated system of robbery that starts after their first few months of birth.
First, they are robbed of the appropriate health care, which has meant that their brains have not developed optimally. Research shows that 80 percent of a child’s brain development occurs within the first 1,000 days of life – making those three years important for lifelong health and mental development. The process of robbery is seen in many who have not gone to school as in the case of our dear young man Sheka. By the time they reach 18 or 21, the average young person has been subjected to 13 – 15 years of a systematic loss of advantages that have caused them to have a less than a 10 percent chance of a good life. A life where they can earn an honest living; independently take care of themselves and their basic needs; get married, have a family.
The result is that we see many young people who have nothing to lose and nothing to hope for.
Young people are blessed with energy and desire. No matter how they are, none of them really wishes to die poor, or die period! Their inexhaustible energy is a great resource to tap into. They need guidance, coaching and support. The same thing which many of the 60 plus generation needed when they were young and in some cases still need today. They can afford to go out and procure the level of support they need. Most young people do not have those resources.
So where does that leave the young person. They have a lot of potential but are in effect a powder keg of trouble, because unfortunately if they do not get it the honest way, they may tend to resort to dishonest ways of achieving their ends.
The intention of this article is not to prolong the tirade of condemnation and hopelessness but to share a few innovative ventures going on in Sierra Leone society right now. Let us focus on two such institutions.
Life by Design
Many of you may remember the story of Mr. Joe Abbas Bangura, the brain behind the very popular radio and TV programme “Life by Design” – which today, is a major youth and young entrepreneur start-up development company. Joe Bangura has publicly told his story of being born to illiterate parents, who could not even afford to buy him the Albert Academy ceremonial uniform. A life of early struggle and failure in high school, with missteps and mistakes that seemed to have been pointing only in one direction – downhill! Yet in his words, “Nurturing played a major role in making me who I am today.” For him, it was the role model Mentor that came into his life, that gave him responsibilities and tasks for which he was now to be held accountable, that allowed him to turn his life around; become more disciplined and ensured that he made the right choices.
The reality of his past has informed the work of the company “Life by Design” that is changing the lives of hundreds of young people around the nation.
Take for example, the young man who listened to his programme on “Building your Craft” and followed up a discussion with him that led to the development of a tailoring store, that now hires nearly 20 people, with 14 sewing machines and is bringing in other youth willing to learn and change their destinies. This happened because of targeted mentoring, advice and nurturing.
Or what of the young boy Hassan, who is now working in World Vision in Kono. He was challenged with the idea of just beginning classes for children in his local community. The young man listened and spurred on to start with 5, the number grew to 10 and eventually led to the renting of a cinema hall, to hold over a hundred young people. The funds he earned, paid for his university education.
The same company was significantly instrumental in shaping Kelvin Doe, the extraordinarily intelligent young Sierra Leonean student who with Joe Bangura’s help and many others, learned how to speak acceptable English. The teams then prepped him for his first TEDEX Talk that eventually exposed him to the world and paved the way for him to go to MIT and Harvard University. Clearly it took a “village of people” stepping out of their comfort zones and becoming engaged in the development of one young man whose life was changed forever.
The second group is Aurora Foundation. A small organisation with an amazing team of people dedicated to training young people who have left university with little or no skills in information technology and basic computer skills and preparing them for the job market. Their doors are also open to youth with no certification at all, who however are interested and excited about information technology and learning. They are also supporting start-ups. They invite interested young people with a worthwhile plan or vision to apply and then work with them for 10 months. The first five months include an intensive in-house training programme that includes basic book-keeping, finances, information on Tax Regulations, Marketing skills and techniques. They prepare them for Pitch Night events (marketing and promoting events) where they may identify and acquire funding for their business ideas. The last 5 months then involve a period of mentorship. During this period, they identify what specific types of mentorship is needed – technical, financial or just specific monitoring and tracking of the participants progress. They are then teamed up with locally identified mentors and, in some cases, foreign technical mentors. Out of the 32 start-ups that have graduated from Aurora Foundation, 26 are still operational, 11 of them showing tremendous growth.
The start-up examples were simple but important:
A young man who identified the need to provide a space for learning online responded to the dearth of books, lectures and materials that hundreds of students complain about daily in Freetown. The e-learning Centre he established, now provides support material, access to significant e-learning sites that students across a wide range of the education spectrum currently enjoy. He is also developing partnerships with other companies.
Then there is a young 24-year-old girl, who wanted to be a story-teller and do photography but did not have a camera. With the organisations support and network, she now has a highly professional camera and has developed a specialization in portraits. She is developing her own brand and reaching out to high profile clients.
Other groups such as the SOS Village, Innovations Sierra Leone, CTI and the Skills Development Fund in the Ministry of Technical and Higher Education are contributing to the development of young people nationwide. Many of the groups named had certain things in common.
First a recognition that our young generation in Sierra Leone will not automatically change into the well-equipped and knowledgeable adults we want them to be. They will need to receive the necessary training, exposure, nurturing and support that is required.
Second, a clear recognition that many young people today have been dealt a difficult hand of cards, that is a situation which they also recognize but are not willing to give up, because they want to succeed.
Third, they are all aware that there needs to be a definitive level of investment and engagement in and among young people. Such levels of investment have to be intentional.
So, if I were to be prescriptive, I would propose that we should stop complaining about young people and their inadequacies and get involved. For the 60 plus generation get involved through a philosophy of “Each One Take One.” For some, this may be action you are already taking. You have encountered a young person, and you have started the direct investment and engagement approach either through direct counselling and schooling support.
Concerned adults in mosques or churches, or an Alumni Association can also engage. Identify a support programme in your community. It may be something as simple as providing the “under 15 football team” in your community, to challenge a nearby community group. Or just giving your old foreign TIME or Vogue magazines to youths hanging around the corner nearby. What would it take for responsible adults in community to invite a young person to share their perspectives and visions in their local club, church or local group. Perhaps, now is a good time for you to support a targeted young person in your neighbourhood, providing guidance, mentorship and a new sense of hope. Not being involved is no longer an option for those of us that can make a difference.
There are some good things young people have going for them. The first is that they live in a borderless world. Young people can learn English and mathematics without a traditional school teacher. They can identify what is wrong with them by just clicking on Web MD and figuring out some cure, or at least double check what their local pharmacist is prescribing. All that is possible if they are curious. Now they have access. In the past it was not that available.
Many others are still in the same position where young people were 20 some years ago and this is because unless someone sparks the curiosity in young people, less than 10 percent will be naturally curious or pushful for such a change in their circumstance. They will still need that nurturing and support. We have to be intentional and willing to engage with young people, if we expect there to be a difference in the future.
There are risks. Possible rejection, suspicion of our intentions, and the impression such association with young people may create among our peers. How do we deal with a generation whose interests and values are in such contrast to older adults? Fear not , we only need to take the first step. Many young people are just waiting to see that we care.
Our recent elections present two contrasting pictures. The first of young people who, exposed to the facts of the results, primarily because they have access to technology, are able ask questions that hold individuals or even the leaders of the day to account. The second, swathes of young people, eager to follow the crowd of success, that blind themselves to truth or at least their willingness to dialogue the credibility of our recent actions.
Young people in Sierra Leone may not have figured out how best to organise themselves but they are now conscious of what it means to have their vote and its value. There is hope for SL in the young people we have today but not vain hope. It is still going to require some levels of intervention.
So, for you the reader who can make a difference, identify today how you can engage among young people waiting for guidance and mentorship.
Batilloi Warritay is a Senior Communication for Development consultant living in Freetown.