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African Youth Speak Up at Symposium to Honor Bob Marley

About 60 representatives from youth groups across Africa are in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to take part in a symposium on African unity, part of the commemoration of what would have been reggae superstar Bob Marley's 60th birthday.

For many of the youth, mostly in their teens and early 20s, the symposium gives them a chance to do what few Africans are able to: meet their peers from across the continent. Getting to know each other is the main point of the three-day youth forum, say organizers of the youth forum which is sponsored by UNICEF, the United Nations fund for children.

After a round of handshakes and introductions, the youth representatives file into a hushed conference room at the United Nations compound in Addis Ababa. But the hush doesn't last long.

PRESENTER: "Okay, what do we need?"
GROUP: "U - N - I - T - Y"

After the call for unity as an icebreaker, the representatives split into three focus groups. Each group is supposed to explore an issue that impacts African youth. The topics are large, ranging from African identity to the role of young people in developing Africa's future.

The groups begin by nominating a discussion leader, a secretary and a speaker who will present the youth groups' ideas to the larger symposium that includes hundreds of black intellectuals, including African scholars, artists, musicians, Rastafarians and hyphenated Africans from all over the world gathered here in Addis Ababa this week for Bob Marley's 60th Birthday tribute. It's the first time the annual event has been held in Africa, or outside Marley's Jamaican birthplace, for that matter.

GROUP: "Any volunteers? We have volunteer over there? Okay then let's get started!"

Group One is discussing Pan-Africanism and it quickly becomes apparent that there's no consensus on who truly qualifies as African. The debate centers on whether to include hyphenated Africans and white African-born decedents of colonialists.

Alem Tzdele, a student at Addis Ababa University, speaks up, and gets a quick response from Kassahun Demse from Ghana.

TZDELE: "I said at the first start [that] an African is someone who was born and bred on the African land and my brother here was saying we should not narrow it just to that."

DEMSE: "We've got African American, Caribbean African, you know. This world is too big."

South African, the only white person in the group, suggests a broader definition: an African is anyone with the soul of Africa in their hearts. For a definition, it's sufficiently vague and inclusive and it doesn't take long for the rest of the group to adopt it.

That settled, they move on to other, heavier issues. The lack of jobs and good schools, the dominance of Western culture over African traditions, poor governance, AIDS, the tug of the West on Africa's best-educated and most-talented. This is what Africa's youth talk about when they talk about Africa. Unsurprisingly, these are the same issues being addressed by Africa's leaders and intellectuals.

Attending the youth forum is Nazizi Hirji, a 23-year-old from Nairobi, Kenya. She has dreadlocks and sings in a reggae and hip-hop band called Necessary Noise. They play gigs throughout East Africa. She wants to follow in Bob Marley's footsteps, to be a role model for the youth who, she says, often feel powerless to change the world around them.

"There's one reggae song we do called 'Bless My Room.' It's basically about giving hope to the youth, and they really love it. And it makes feel like if I can give -- at least if not the whole of Africa, but in East Africa -- some sense of 'You're my role model.' [When] kids say, 'I want to be like you. I want to be like you,' then it's enough. I just wish that. I don't know about central Africa if they've got someone they all know who represents the youth, but we're here now and maybe when we go back we're all going to be role models to the rest of the youth," she said.

Friday is the third and last day of the youth forum. One of the main outcomes of the forum is that many of the youth here vowed to push for more representation in the governments of their respective countries, encouraged in part by Bob Marley's uplifting messages of political justice for all, including children.

The peak of the Bob Marley 60th Birthday tribute comes Sunday with a day-long concert featuring Marley's wife, Rita, their son, Ziggy, and many other top African and Caribbean musicians.