It’s International Youth Day today – a day to celebrate the potential of youth and discuss with critical minds the contemporary issues that relate to them. Today’s story attempts to do both – shed light on some issues facing youth in Twapia, while celebrating the imagination, ambition, and hope that are so embodied by youth world over. Whether it is building a movement for road safety in Mexico City, creating programs for youth leadership in Calgary, or aspiring to tackle endemic challenges in Twapia, Zambia, there are many exciting youth world over that have the potential to make really interesting changes happen today and tomorrow.
Children seemingly overwhelm the adults in Twapia; at most times of the day they can be found on the main paths and side streets of Twapia. For every adult I would see in Twapia, I would see several more children – playing soccer, walking to schools, or playing with the amazing toys they built on their own…
Like this one:
No matter what day of the week it was, crowds of youth (from toddlers to young adults) were the most present piece of the Twapia community fabric.
To me this is a real life picture of a situation predicted by national statistics. According to some figures, almost 45% of the nearly 12 million people in Zambia are under the age of 15. If we raise the the cut off to 25 years of age, well over half of the population of Zambia is represented. The median age in Zambia is just over 17 years – another reminder of how young the country truly is. On charts and figures this shows a country very different than Canada where the median age is almost 40 years. Every day in Twapia the tangible reality of this statistic unfolded in the laughter of children that far outnumbered the ‘old folks’.
In the words of one teacher I met, ‘A healthy present and future is highly contingent on the development of Zambian youth’; in the words of this teacher, Zambia will never be able to move forward if the majority of its youth enter adulthood without proper education. ‘If we don’t develop them in the present, then how can they build Zambia in the future?”. Even so, many children in Twapia do not have the opportunity to attend school. I wanted more information on the situation with education in Twapia; however, – as volunteers who actually work on education will tell you – it’s an incredibly complex problem involving civil society organizations, governments at all levels, teachers, households, and countless other stakeholders. The best I could do while compiling these stories was to speak with teachers, parents of students, and parents whose children couldn’t attend school.
In these conversations a variety of problems were expressed – some challenges were institutional (the government no longer ensuring universal education after year 7), others were bureaucratic/corruption (some schools charging money when they shouldn’t), while others relayed a lack of quality teachers, and depressed household economics as central issues limiting the education of youth. As I said earlier, I’m no expert in this field. My only goal with this post is to convey the story as it was told to me.
A commonly cited challenge in Twapia is that household finances are unable to pay the primary school fees. In other situations children are needed to take care of house hold duties and school may be out of grasp for them. Aside from the steep fees for actually attending the school there are also material and school uniform costs. As teachers and parents alike relayed these stories to me the weight of the challenge became very real – everything had a price! But what happens to the youth in Twapia who make it through basic schooling?
A teacher shared that of the children who are able to finish basic school and secondary school it can be very difficult to continue their education at a college or university – few scholarships exist and those that do are highly competitive. For youth in the lower income townships education throughout life is daunting. But even against such precipitous odds many children still dream of brighter futures – for themselves and for their communities.
One of the youth, Steven, I met in Twapia carried lofty dreams and goals for both himself and for Twapia – and he is by no way an exception. All the youth I had the pleasure to meet in Zambia kept a few grand dreams in their back pocket and they were always more than happy to share them. Like Rachel from my last story, Steven saw education as a tool he could use to improve his community and the lives of those who live there. Steven, who is a neighbour of my host family, was one of the first people I met in Twapia. Aside from sharing great directions to find my way around town, Steven showed himself to be a bright youth with a polite demeanour and a dedicated work ethic.
During my time in Zambia I was lucky to get to know Steven and his family – I learned them about the community and its challenges and opportunities – and on that note I am excited to introduce you all to Steven!
February 19 1992
Steven was born in Twapia in 1992 and has lived there his entire life. His family is made up of four children – he has two sisters and a brother. Of the children in his family only he is able to attend school. His brother is able to have individual lessons occasionally (a type of one off tutoring); however, full time school is not an option. Steven attended Twapia basic school until grade 8 and now attends Kansenshi Highschool in Ndola. In 2009 he expressed a desire to graduate from high school in 2010 and move onto university or higher learning.
What is life like in Twapia?: “Life here is okay. They say ‘My family is poor’ so I say ‘ I need to educate myself’. They saw ‘We are poor in Twapia’, but still I say ‘I want to work hard’, I want to become someone in the future, someone who can make Life in Twapia better!”
What is your dream?: “I want to change my life. I want to be a doctor… A doctor to help other people. To help the sick, to help Twapia. I know many who have suffered because they had no doctor. I want to change this”
What is your thirst?: “To make change for my sisters – to change the way they learn and live. They didn’t go to school like I did. I want to change their learning… I want them to be learning in a school from a teacher, not just from me.”
What is poverty?: “Poverty is when I don’t have the authority to do something in my own life. I can’t do the things I think about when I am living in poverty. I don’t have control over my life.”
What is Opportunity?: “When I am able to get what I need to take care of my family it is opportunity that gets me there. Opportunity lets me change things”
Steven showed a tenacity for change that I feel speaks towards why investing in youth and into their dreams and ambitions is so important. His story is an essential piece of the puzzle when talking about life in Twapia – for it is youth who will continue to build the community and create the future. Statistics tell of a country dominated by youth; Steven tells of the youth who dominate the country – untapped potential with a desire to change Twapia and Zambia in their own way. For me, that is a story of leadership but also a story that reminds us of the importance of investing in youth.
Education and potential come to mind when I think about Steven and many of the youth in Zambia. From the teacher’s perspective, education is the key method that will remove barriers and allow students like Steven to reach their dreams while building a new Zambia. Steven too shared this belief – he saw education as a powerful tool to improve his life, the life of his sisters, and the state of being of Twapia.
When I reflect on some of the words Steven shared with me I feel a resonance with today, International Youth Day. Steven once spoke of Twapia as something he wanted to change –
“Life here is okay. They say ‘My family is poor’ so I say ‘ I need to educate myself”. They saw ‘We are poor in Twapia’, but still I say ‘I want to work hard’, I want to become someone in the future, someone who can make Life in Twapia better!”
Embodying the tenacity and ambition of youth, Steven shared that he didn’t intend to be a passive actor in the future of Twapia. Rather than dwell in circumstances and challenges of his own community he worked hard in his studies, contributed to the learning of others, and set big dreams.
Today on International Youth Day I’d like to celebrate youth all over the world who are taking today’s challenges as starting points to build their stronger tomorrow – I’d like to celebrate those like Steven who have a dream for change and are going out there to do it!
It’s been a long time since either Annelies or I have posted anything on this site. When we started this blog we didn’t intend to make it like a typical blog with constant updates. We each had a finite amount of stories from friends overseas and we aspired to share them as best as we can. We each have a few stories left and will continue to post them up until we run out.