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African Youth Network Across Borders

The Nairobi-based African Youth Parliament is a network of young people in more than 45 countries committed to African development. Tackling such problems as AIDS, post-war reconstruction and poverty, members are reaching out to fellow youth in an attempt to create a brighter future for their countries and continent. Cathy Majtenyi has more in this report as part of a VOA series on youth and politics.

When Omowumi Olumide Obidiran was 15 years old, she and her sisters pressured their father into buying them a computer.

That was 10 years ago, when computers were scarce in her Nigerian town. Few people knew how to use them, and Nigeria was just getting introduced to the Internet and e-mail.

The teenager was fascinated by the world opened up to her through her computer and Internet access, and learned all she could about information and communications technology.

Ten years later, Ms. Obidiran is teaching information and communications technology, or ICT, to young people in southwestern Nigeria through the Global Resource Information Network, an organization she helped found.

The law school graduate says she notes with concern the wide digital divide between Africa and the West, and urges youth to master information and communications technology as a tool to change their societies.

"ICTs only make every other thing easier, and it makes it faster, it makes it more workable," she says. "The way the whole world is now, it would be impossible to actually develop and get in tune with the rest of the world, without embracing ICTs. So, it's not ICTs in itself that's important, but, for the purpose of development, and that young people are the best to drive this effort by."

In South Africa, 25-year-old Ansuya Naidoo is preparing for another day of rounds at the public hospital in KwaZulu Natal, where she is interning.

During her university years, Dr. Naidoo participated in free medical clinics, and was involved in other volunteer work.

Her big concern is the spread of HIV/AIDS, both in South Africa and across the continent. Dr. Naidoo says, reaching out to young women is an important step in limiting the spread of the disease.

"Young women themselves seem to feel that they don't have much power and choice, in terms of sexual relationships, and that sort of facilitates the spread of that [HIV/AIDS]," she says. "And, I feel that, if we empower young women better, they'll be able to make decisions for themselves, and stop the spread of this."

Dr. Naidoo and Ms. Obidiran are two of more than 160 members of the African Youth Parliament network, which is committed to African development.

Launched in Nairobi in 2003, members, or action partners, as they are called, work on projects dealing with poverty, armed and social conflict, HIV/AIDS and other issues.

Reuben Mwangeka is a program officer at African Youth Parliament. He tells VOA that, in many traditional African cultures, women and youth are discouraged from participating in decision-making, something he and his organization want to change.

"Africa is a unique situation, whereby the population of young people in most countries is above 60 percent," he says. "What we are saying is, 'we have a greater stake in the future of the continent, and we cannot just sit back and do nothing about it. We need to be involved; we need to own the African development process.'"

Involvement of youth in politics is something Benedict Thuita Kinuthia is striving for. The 22-year-old law student works in the leadership and governance section of the Kenyan Youth Parliament, affiliated with the African Youth Parliament.

His section lobbies to ensure that young people are represented on government development committees at all levels, and encourages youth to run for positions in political parties, and even parliament.

Mr. Kinuthia says Kenyan youth are very worried about unemployment, a severe shortage of spaces in secondary schools, obsolete equipment in universities and poor and unaffordable housing, issues he says should be addressed by youth at the party level.

"We want to see a situation, whereby we have young people being actually elected and voted to hold elected offices within the political parties," he says. "Apart from participating during the political rallies, as people who are supposed to carry banners and chant your songs, we also want to participate in the formulation of the manifestos of those parties, and even the constitutions of those political parties."

But for Rwandan Ronald Nkusi, the struggle is more basic. Over a decade after Hutu extremists killed up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, he and his fellow youth are still coming to terms with Rwanda's enormous loss.

While in college, 28-year-old Mr. Nkusi and his colleagues were disturbed by the fact that many youth had participated in the killings. He and his friends founded the Youth Association for Human Rights Promotion and Development to ensure that nothing like that would ever happen again.

Among other things, the group visits secondary schools and villages to teach students about human rights, in part to reverse the anti-Tutsi messages that the organizers of the genocide broadcast before and during the violence.

"Young people are vulnerable to manipulation, and that was the strategy, which was used to entice them and really bring them to participate in what was going on," he says. "This time around, we want to concretize that young people can critically analyze whatever they are told by the older people, as [with] regard to human rights and democratic principles."

Mr. Nkusi and his group are also trying to form a network of young people to discuss the causes of instability in the Great Lakes region of Rwanda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo, and what can be done to overcome the conflicts.