The IFTF Blog
If youth are our future, what of the future of youth?
Youth leadership is a hot button issue these days. But I think what we tend to forget—or don’t have the opportunity to understand—is that youth leadership is very different throughout the world. Missing these nuances could lead to potentially ineffective global youth leadership initiatives.
While working in Kenya this year I had a lot of interesting conversations about Kenya’s youth leadership dilemma; the term is an oxymoron. In the traditional setting youth cannot lead. Until you are married and have moved out of the youth category you are not considered capable of leading people. Ethnicity, gender, marriage status, and whether you are living in an urban or rural setting all complicate the matter of youth leadership in Kenya.
To top off the matter, youth leadership in Kenya takes on a much greater importance than in the US or Europe. While in the US we may have thought about running for class president to make a public statement about our popularity, youth leaders in Kenya utilize the option as a serious and necessary stepping stone for any career that will involve leading people—be it through the business world, politics, or civil society.
So where does that leave a youth leader in Kenya and how has this been changing? To find out I spoke with Caren Wakoli, Kenyan youth leader extraordinaire. (Jump to the bottom to see her very interesting bio)
TF Tell me about the youth leadership dilemma whereby you can’t lead until you are married, at which point you are no longer considered youth. To what degree is this really a problem and does it differ from the rural grassroots level youth leadership work to the urban/national level leadership work?
CW First of all, there is a problem with the notion of normativity that tends to underlie this question. That is that most people presume that the ‘natural’ course of any woman is to grow up so as to get married. For women, when they get married they are no longer considered youth, even if they fall within the constitutionally ascribed age for youth which is between 18 – 35years. They are considered to be part of the women movement, not the youth movement. But when they move to the women movement, the elderly women there would have already asserted themselves and cannot trust the young women to lead them. In Africa, elders are to be respected and not questioned, and so it becomes even harder for the younger women to carve out their space and assert themselves in the presence of their ‘mothers.’ Men on the other hand are not respected until they are married, at which point they are considered men and it becomes easier for them to ascent to positions of leadership unlike the young women.
In urban centers, the situation is the same but slightly different because of the cosmopolitan surrounding, different socioeconomic levels, and increased education. Young people do have to work hard to ascend to levels of leadership, but not as compared to youth in rural areas.
TF So there is a disconnect between the modern categorization of youth and how people actually think about youth. How does this play out in leadership circles? Does it affect the work you do?
CW Yes, although there is a broad understanding of legislated biological meaning of being a youth, the category is more fluid and elastic in everyday practice. The practices tend to project the category in at least two dominant meanings. On the one hand, youths are considered to be young, sometimes confused, still growing and depending on their parents. They are considered to be still in need of support—dependency ratio is very high because many youth do not have jobs. On another hand however, being youth is treated as trendy and a break from conservatism. Thus individuals much older than legislated biological age have made claims of being youths.
In a capitalist system like Kenya, youth are considered a burden because the youth population is skyrocketing day and night—the percentage for those graduating from colleges and universities is high but there are very few jobs. This of course is adding to criminal activities and drug abuse within the youth sector. Additionally, a lot of times there is unrest in institutions of learning and property is destroyed as youth demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the current state of things. All these incidents create a very bad picture about youth.
But interestingly, in some quarters like the private sector, it’s the youth that are calling the shots and driving it. Most CEOs are youth, and in most of the institutions that are performing well, the transformation has been brought about by the energy and innovation of youth. But funny enough, these same high fliers in corporate organizations would rarely consider joining politics to influence a similar transformation in the political landscape. They consider politics to be dirty and for retirees! But this perception is slowly changing, especially because the middle class is increasingly getting shaken in their comfort zones. With increase in the cost of living and basic amenities, they are beginning to rethink this. More and more of the corporate players are beginning play a role in influencing politics—whether directly or indirectly.
TF Tell me a bit about the ethnic issues associated with leadership. If you are one tribe but live in another tribe’s area, then you cannot be a leaders. If you are married into another tribe then you cannot be a leader... Is this a correct interpretation on my part? To what degree is this really a problem and does it differ from the rural/urban leadership circles?
CW Your interpretation is very true. Of course there are a few exceptions, say 0.15% but largely, it is almost impossible to become a political leader in an area where you were not born because you are considered an outsider. This largely affects the rural areas; in urban places it’s different. People can contest in different constituencies from where they stay or were born due to the cosmopolitan nature of the urban setting. But let me add that looking ahead youth must affirm that leadership is not just about partisan politics. Rather individuals can assert leadership at their various levels without pursuing partisan politics.
TF How has the current government treated youth leaders? How is it different form the former?
CW The current government has had so much pressure to provide solutions for the youth due to incredibly high unemployment. So they have been trying to come up with initiatives such as the Youth Fund (Kazi Kwa Vijana) and others, to try and appease the youth by offering sources of livelihoods. But with the youth bulge, even more thought and concerted effort must go into creating a long-term plan to tap into the youth resource as well as ensuring a favorable environment for them to blossom as they take Kenya to the next level of development. But to some extent youth leaders are considered a threat, especially by politicians who fear youth leaders taking their place in parliament. Having said that, the government has at least opened up participation space and allowed youth leaders to grow.
The former regime was quite a disaster! Youth leaders and activists always found themselves on the wrong side of the law and in jails and prisons. If someone was considered to have immense potential, they were compromised, assassinated or just silenced. Despite this, most of them never gave up. And right now, most of those who were tortured for being active and radicals are today’s leading lights in civil society and even parliament.
TF What is the youth leadership structure in Kenya? What are the other ways youth can get involved?
CW There are very many youth organizations in Kenya. Young people in Kenya have a government Ministry in charge of youth called The Ministry of Youth Affairs. It has a minister, two assistant ministers, permanent secretary, and directors in charge of various departments. And then there are youth officers from national to grassroots level at the Division. When the ministry was launched, they introduced the Youth Fund and asked youth in Kenya to start up their own enterprises and to apply for loans. One of the key qualifications for the loan is that the young people must be in a youth group of 10 or more and have a business idea. This saw the massive upsurge of youth organizations to the tens of thousands!
Despite this, there are youth organizations that are independent of government; such as foundations, trusts, NGOs, CBOs and companies etc. Some are national, regional, district and community based. A few are East African.
There are also various other groupings of youth that gives them spaces for participation i.e. religious groupings, professional groups, learning institutions—Colleges, universities, polytechnics etc. At the moment we lack an umbrella organization for youth in Kenya. But the National Youth Council, which is a creation of the National Youth Council Act, is mainly about consolidating and harnessing the abilities and initiatives of youth in Kenya. It will be the voice of the youth in Kenya. It will be like the ‘umbrella body’ of youth organizations run by young people.
TF Is most youth leadership work focused on effecting political change? How?
CW Yes, most youth leadership work is focused on participation to affect political change. Other areas of focus that are increasingly becoming trendy with youth is economic empowerment through small scale enterprises, talent academies, and youth fund. But political focus seems to get more limelight than the rest.
Organizations working in politics focus on different things. Some focus on civic education, youth participation, political parties engagement, political leadership training etc.
TF And finally, anything you want me to know about youth leadership in Kenya? Challenges and successes?
CW Participation by youth leaders and young people is going high. This may in part be thanks to increased education and capacity building by various actors such as government, civil society, and the private sector. However, it is still very challenging to penetrate key decision-making organs of the society at large.
Most youth are concerned about bread and butter issues, trying to make the best for themselves, and have little space to worry about governance and leadership.
Lack of good role models is such a big challenge; hence lack of mentorship and growing of new leaders. This makes leadership succession very challenging because people rarely think about transition. Positive reinforcement is also lacking. When youth come up with a novel idea they tend to face a lot of resistance from older folks, and it requires an exhaustive effort to convince the older generation that it is worth trying.
Successes are quite a number: we now have a National Youth Policy that tries to ensure youth empowerment. We have the National Youth Council Act in place, this will allow for one umbrella platform for youth engagement. It will champion for youth issues and ensure representation of youth a various levels of decision making. Elections for the youth council have, as is typical, been postponed due to some political issues. I hope this can be sorted out soon so that young people can begin to handle and create their own solutions and take responsibility of their issues.
About Caren Wakoli:
Caren Wakoli is a proudly Kenyan young woman with a quest to see Article 1 of the Universal Declaration Human Rights becoming real in the lives of all Kenyans; where all Kenyans live in dignity and have access to secure livelihoods. She is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in International Studies at the University of Nairobi. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Communication and Sociology from the University of Nairobi. While at UON, she was one of the longest serving student leaders having served in the union for three consecutive terms; starting off as Congress-lady, Gender affairs secretary and finished off as the Vice chair of the Union. She remained outstanding in her service to the university community and this earned her the title of Young Female Achiever 2006 by the University of Nairobi’s Women Students Welfare Association (WOSWA).
She has served at various organizations with a bias to governance, media, human rights and democracy. Caren has widely participated in critical national policy processes in Kenya including; The Kenya Vision 2030, Kenya National Youth Policy, National Development Index 2009 and the National Alcohol policy. She has excellently served on the Advisory Board of Directors of NACADA from June 2006 to June 2010 where she represented youth. She currently represents youth on the National Governing Council of the African Peer Review Mechanism/ NEPAD, Kenya Chapter. She is currently the Chair of the Board of The Youth Congress—an organization aimed at empowering youth in informal settlements in Nairobi. She also serves on the Board of Youth Employment Summit (YES) Kenya—an organization aimed at empowering youth to ensure secure livelihoods for them.
Caren is currently in the process of starting a Youth Leadership Development Initiative to be able to create a critical mass of informed leaders who can help transform society and change the quality of life.
In 2007 Caren tried contesting in her constituency (running for parliament)—Kanduyi in Western Kenya (This was during the election that lead to months of ethnically motivated post election violence, the death of a few thousand Kenyans, and the displacement of half a million others) “but my plans were thwarted big time! I felt really bad and quit active party politics but I haven’t lost my political ambition just yet, I may contest in future. But in the meantime, I am building me and molding me into the leader I want to be. Basically just learning and learning some more, and also educating myself further to understand more about life, poverty eradication, sound policies etc, because I believe it is only with sound knowledge, purpose, courage, character and a sharp focus that one is able to lead a people well. This becomes the epitome of true transformative leadership!”
If you would like to contact Caren about youth work in Kenya and the region you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org