African young people 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. In my experience, 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 broken family (single parent, divorced parents, life in an orphanage, etc.), a conflictive political situation, threats such as HIV/AIDS, the violence of poverty, 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 and 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. From one point of view, this technology is strongly embraced by young people as a new “opium.” The various Silicon Valley creations are hugely popular and widely consumed in the continent. From another point of view, there is 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 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 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 ongoing, 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. And last year, in Mombasa, Kenya, it held a training workshop on waste management, which brought together about 40 young women leaders from the Christian, Muslim and Brahma Kumaris communities. CYNESA is a fine example of change and empowerment that can happen when young people take the lead.
This article first appeared in the Spring & Summer 2018 issue of CJI’s Mission News.