Building bridges without the youth, what kind of bridges are those? by Nerima Wako-Ojiwa @NerimaW

Image courtesy of Frits Ahlefeldt
If one compares the political participation of youth in East Africa, then Kenya leads in having the most youth aged representatives in public office – between 18 and 34 years old. Considering that last election dragged on and on for an extra 3 months due to exceptional circumstances, public rallies were still filled to capacity with engaged young people.

However, according to the Next Generation Kenya 2018 Survey conducted by the British Council; 78% of young Tanzanians said that youth participation in politics and decision making was high, compared with only 38% of young Kenyans. The big difference refers to the decision making rather than the participation part. Without doubt young Kenyans are very interested in political issues and most discuss politics daily. We know that decisions being made affect us greatly however, the problem is that our interest is greater than our involvement.

And that is not by choice but by design. Youth are seen as ceremonial, they are seen as foot soldiers, those to be ordered around to fill spaces only to be seen and not heard. We are treated like children not adults. When it comes to those who most feel powerless, it is women, people with disabilities and the youth from lower social economic groups who are most marginalized. In short what I mean is poor people are vulnerable and because of this vulnerability they’re invisible.

After the handshake, the hugs and the forgiving of each other how will these diverse groups of young and marginalized people be represented? When the ‘Building Bridges’ 14-member team was announced, there was uproar from our young people as to how they were not represented as part of the team. Some analysts – usually male and old – predictably took to Twitter stating clearly that young people have nothing to do with reconciliation because “youth do not understand the historical context of the rift and cannot be part of the steering committee to build the nation towards cohesion.

Youth simply do not understand the issues.” Is this really a good reason? Is this really true? Are we Building Bridges to the past or the future? Who will live to see the consequences of the decisions made for the longest – the old men or the youth? Working as I do for a youth focused NGO I have had hundreds of discussions with the young people of this country – from many parts of this country and it is clear that most young people feel ignored and marginalized from the decisions that most affect them.

The reasons they give are based on local culture, on the way the system works and on instances of actual marginalization. There is an Ibo saying, “What an elder can see while sitting down, a youth cannot see standing up” Basically meaning that the lack of experience automatically excludes youth and in our case in Kenya the assumed lack of experience.

Elders due to their experience are to be respected and involved in all decisions and so in many instances forcing young people to conform to tradition and say nothing and contribute nothing. Basically an elder is to be listened to at all times while the youth can wait their turn. I have been in conversations with youth who are waiting to turn 35 in order to speak up on community issues. So just like the African proverb, critical initiatives such as ‘Building Bridges’ are adult things.

They are not for the Youth who have no place discussing such heavy national matters that will determine the future and our national peace, unity or growth. But how can the youth be blamed for not having experience? How do they get that experience unless they are intentionally included to sit at the table and listen and learn? It might be that they do not understand everything – but who does? Part of the problem is that youth are not properly educated on correct history to begin with.

Much of it is hidden in our murky and not so glorious past. We are given a sanitized version at school and university and have to go digging to get the truth of the injustices that have gone on for generations. But we know enough. We know things could and should be better. We know our elders have not always done well and have not put the country first. We know this present anger at corruption is not the first time it has happened.

We might not know all the gory details but we know of Goldenberg, Anglo Leasing, land grabbing, the oathing, the litany of unresolved murders, the massacres and the tortures. We are not asking for the ‘Building Bridges’ team to be filled with youth but we are saying we must be there. Let us have a voice and a contribution. Listen to our hopes and dreams and expectations. Listen to our angst and fears and challenges. Listen to our suggestions and ideas and proposals. Let us reason together. Let us feel part of the future being decided for us. Let us change how we think, talk and engage about Kenya.

To include us is not only right it is sense. They already know how to be friends without the media being present to capture the hugs and smiles and tendering of apologies. There seems to be a disconnect of logic. How can the majority of the population be sidelined from an initiative that is supposed to benefit the very population being marginalized? Who exactly will drive the initiative forward once the wazee have decided?

We hear mantras endlessly recited about investing in our youth, yet, when opportunities come where youth should be involved we are tossed to the sideline. It is patronizing, unacceptable and unconstitutional. If the ‘Building Bridges’ team were actually to physically build a bridge you can bet your last shilling that the youth would be called upon to do the heavy lifting that is of course if the money for the actual bridge isn’t stolen. To exclude them from the design of the bridge – and determine the strength and length and width and the materials used – is nonsensical.

Most young people in the Next Generation study between the ages of 15-24 agreed that tribalism was encouraged by their parents. The Report also highlighted that knowledge of youth initiatives in regions furthest away from Nairobi were less well known. The building bridges initiative cannot be Nairobi based or elitist or ageist and the involvement of the youth is not only necessary but essential if it is to work. It must be designed and owned by including young people otherwise this bridge will collapse.

Nerima Wako-Ojiwa

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