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Young Africans Discuss Problems Facing Their Continent - 2003-04-01

More than 160 young Africans, from 46 countries in Africa, recently met in Nairobi (March 19-29) to discuss the problems facing their continent.

Most African politicians, like their counterparts elsewhere in the world, are middle-aged men. Rarely do you see a 20 or 30-year-old in any parliament in Africa.

Yet the majority of Africans are young people. And they are the ones hardest hit by the problems facing the continent - such as poverty and lack of schooling. Young people are also the ones getting infected in large numbers with HIV/AIDS.

But until now, the young voices of Africa have rarely been heard. For 10 days, about 160 young people from all over Africa met to discuss how they could work to forge a better future for Africa.

Muthoni Wachira, a 25-year-old Kenyan, said the young people decided it was time they got involved in politics. "I think it is important because we are the future. Our countries depend on us. And unfortunately we keep being told that we are waiting for leadership for tomorrow. And nobody is training us now on how we are going to become leaders tomorrow. So we've decided to just take matters into our own hands and learn for ourselves," she said.

The 10-day African Youth Parliament was held in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

The idea was originally conceived during the first sitting of the International Youth Parliament in 2000, an international network of young leaders and activists, who work for the rights of young people and their communities. A wide range of international organizations stepped in to help with funding.

Young people all over the continent were then invited to submit papers on issues that mattered to them. From these, the delegates, all between the ages of 16 and 28, were chosen.

The meeting in Nairobi concentrated on five major issues affecting Africa: conflict resolution, governance, HIV/AIDS, poverty and development.

Though the delegates had their youth in common, many differences still remained. Nigerian Adebowale Atobetele, 23, acknowledges that working with such a large, diverse group from many different countries wasn't always easy.

"Language is a big problem. I must say that sometimes I think that our French-speaking brothers can be difficult sometimes, difficult to please. Because they always want to be the first to speak. They are sometimes very aggressive. It's not necessary. We don't need that. You know language is a big barrier but whatever it is, it is the love that must bind us together," he said. But the delegates said they worked to overcome these obstacles. By the end of the meeting, each of the delegates had drawn up a personal action plan that they were going to work to implement when they returned home.

Bushra Razack from South Africa, 16, says she is going to start youth workshops in rural areas to teach young people the facts about HIV/AIDS. South Africa has the highest number of people living with the virus in the world. "They don't know the facts about AIDS. And there's so many myths going around. If you sleep with a virgin you lose your AIDS status. And so babies are being raped all the time. So, what I do when I go home, one of my proposals is to start youth workshops. We'll be going to the rural areas because there's where the main problem is and speak to them about it. Because giving them pamphlets is not going to help because most of them are illiterate. So we are going to go out and help sort the myths from the facts," she said.

Ms. Wachira, the delegate from Kenya, believes the key to solving her country's problems is developing a new political culture among the youth - where they vote according to issues, instead of thinking in terms of tribe or personal gain, as is common among the older generation.

"The kind of politics we have in Kenya is politics around an individual, around his personality. So we don't actually have any values that are associated with a political party. People just move around with whoever is popular or who has more money. So the kind of culture that we want to introduce with the youth, because they are the people who are having governments in future, is that you have certain political beliefs, certain values, and no matter who is the leader of your party at the time, or how much money he has, you stick with the beliefs that you want to see through to the end," she said.

Ms. Wachira is at the forefront of a plan to set up a Kenyan youth assembly, a lobby group to represent young people's interests in parliament. Under the plan, each of Kenya's 210 constituencies will have a youth representative to voice young people's concerns to the local member of parliament, as well as holding their own youth assembly meetings.

Three-quarters of the young representatives have already been chosen.

Yara Kassem from Egypt, 23, said she also plans to work to get more young people involved in politics. "I wanted to promote civic education in Egypt and get youth involved in political party in general, not only the ruling one, through seminars and workshops and even campaign in rural areas. I'll start working on this action plan when I first come back, organizing those workshops and raising awareness, especially in the rural areas and especially about the involvement of women in the political life," she said.

Mr. Atobetele has a more specific message. He wants to urge the young people of Nigeria to ignore leaders who encourage them to get mired in political violence.

"A lot of youths have been involved in violence. Actually, they make use of youths in Nigeria. If there's going to be any political riot or killings, the young people are the ones used. So what we need to do as young people is to be aware of who we are," he said. "Identify ourselves, as the leaders of tomorrow. Not just from tomorrow, but tomorrow starting from today. And then we can take our lives in our hands and be responsible for our actions. If they bring a gun and some money to you, tell them no, I am not doing it. Why don't you go get your kids to do it?"

These goals sound ambitious, even for older, wealthier and more powerful people. Do these youngsters have any chances of fulfilling their dreams? Ms. Wachira said she is confident.

"The majority of the people I've met just this one week all seem to have a vision. They didn't come here just to enjoy Kenya. They came here because there is something that they want to see happening back home. The way I see it, the kind of people who we have here are going to push them to decide, where are we meeting next. And to push this into a maybe five, ten-year program," she said.

To help implement their personal action plans, each delegate will be given a small grant, as well as advice on sourcing further funds.

Ms. Razack, the delegate from South Africa, says she has been inspired by the meeting. "I've gained so much more than what I expected. I have made friendships that I know I'll never forget. I've heard views and opinions from people around the world. And I've learned teamwork skills and that no matter what has happened to us, because we have been broken down in the past, there is so much hope in Africa. The youth feel so strongly about creating change. I have faith that the future is going to be a happy one," she said.

The representatives at the youth parliament have received messages of goodwill from important figures all over the world, including South African President Thabo Mbeki and former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali.