ActionAid is walking with young activists to achieve the change they want, JAMES CHAVULA writes.
When we met at Nthalire in Chitipa, Lucia Chione was in the company of her peers, talking about change and taking notes. The 21-year-old is one of thousands of young Malawians affected by massive youth unemployment and lack of skills.
However, she and her group are no idlers. She belongs to a network of activists, the youthful villagers devoted to ending poverty.
“We are young and active,” Chione said. “We are taking part in development activities and to solve problems affecting us.”
The network unites nearly 500 young men and women in Nthalire, Mahowe and Therere.
Since May, the youthful activists, aged 15 to 30, have been meeting every Saturday to plot how they can empower themselves, rope in their peers and participate in building the world they want.
Their age group remains the most neglected though 70 out of 100 Malawians are aged under 30, according to the 2010 National Demographic Health Survey.
Equipping the youths with skills for income generation is a known strategy to transform the youth boom from a potential stumbling block of national development to a stepping stone to economic prosperity, but there is no public skills development centre in Chitipa.
The void often leaves young citizens going down the drain due to drunkenness, transactional sex and other risky escapes.
The young activists refuse to stand aside and look until the situation gets out of hand.
“From time to time, we run campaigns to confront ills affecting young Malawians and other vulnerable people in our society,” Nthalire activist Shadreck Mandevu weighs in.
One of their inroads include mobilise teachers, parents, religious leaders and traditional authorities to take action against spake of alcoholism that used to hit a perilous height during market days at Kapirinkhonde every Tuesday.
“You expect pupils to be in class on Tuesday, but we were shocked to see them drinking local brews together with their parents,” Mandevu recalled with sorrow, saying it could be the reason the district recorded the lowest pass rate in last year’s primary school leaving certificate examinations countrywide.
The youth action groups also helped free girls from the ills of self-boarding where those from afar and poor ground were plunging into sex work either for survival or due to peer pressure.
Starting this term, the girls at Nthalire Community Day Secondary School, who were in danger of early marriages and teen pregnancies, have occupied a hostel on site.
The ‘hostel’, formerly a classroom, has saved the female learners from travelling long distances to get to school and other disadvantages associated with the controversial boarding system that pushes them to lodge in substandard and unregulated hideouts in the community.
The youth clubs, formed with support from ActionAid, use the human rights approach to lobby for posture change.
“The youth are key agents of development, and we are supporting them to advocate their rights and on issues affecting their society,” ActionAid project manager Wongani Mugaba says.
The main setback is that the bulging population remains sidelined, underutilised and abused by those in power, he decries.
“We are mobilising the youth into activista network and training them to advocate for social change, including tax justice from multinational companies for the benefit of social services and to end early marriages and school drop outs.
The budding activists have helped dropouts return to school and about 80 of them have improved their economic livelihood this year alone.
Besides, six boys and six girls from Nthalire recently received three-month training in tailoring and carpentry–thanks to ActionAid’s phenomenal walk with activistas.
Speaking during the graduation at Lufita Vocational Training Centre, Chitipa District Commissioner rightly termed the 12 lucky because there is no technical and tertiary education centre in the border district.
In Chitipa, schools are few and far apart. Nthalire is not exempted from the gap. In the remote area, 34 primary schools churn hundreds of learners into just four community secondary schools–Nthalire, Muwanga, Kapirinkhonde and Therere.
“For many boys and girls, education is the only way out poverty. We need to find ways to make sure they remain in school up to tertiary level to ensure their dreams come true,” said Chindevu.
The ActionAid-funded groups have initiated ways of replenishing their coffers and increasing membership.
They generate money by collectively doing piece works, including farming and building houses.
As part of economic empowerment initiatives, the Activista groups have banking schemes which allow the youth to pool together their savings and get low-interest loans for business and emergency use.
“It’s the same money our peers waste on drunkenness and risky sexual affairs,” she says.
This is the money Therere activista members used to rebuild the house of one of them when it was gutted by fire.
Just last month, the Nthalire teamed up to renovate a house of Henderson Kafunda, a person with disability.
Before they rendered a hand, the house was living in a dusty house with a leaky roof.
Listed among 80 beneficiaries of the state-run Decent and Affordable Housing Subsidy Programme in Chitipa Wenya, Kafunda thanked the youth relieving his hardship.
“They made my livelihood better as my I wait for a turn to get subsidised building materials, but I don’t know what has happened to my share,” Kafunda said.
To the youth, this is not charity.
They are offering those in power a glimpse of the desired change.
“People with disability are human being like any other. They have the right to decent housing. We cannot bring change by merely talking, but taking action as well,” says Mandevu.
The activista initiative has entrenched a culture of human rights and duties among the youthful residents of Nthalire, Mahowe and Therere, coordinator Cosbel Chilongo says.
“The majority of them know their rights and take steps to reclaim them. This enables them to air their views and play a leading role to influence change in public life,” he explains.
However, Chitipa Women’s Group director Teresa Mkandawire salutes the budding activists for complementing efforts to safeguard the future leaders.
“About 40 percent of girls in Nthalire zone quit school for marriage. The mother groups and girls clubs cannot win the battle to keep boys and girls in school. We need concerted efforts,” she said. n