The article below kicks off a series on economic development and the growing problem of youth unemployment around the world. The series will examine underlying challenges to job creation in developing countries and successful models for building the self-sufficiency needed to grow economies.
In the fall of 2008, I began teaching a life skills class to young probationers at a hostel in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood. The 10-week workshop was a secular program focusing on everyday ethics — basic things like “Take Care of Yourself”, “Don’t Take Harmful Drugs,” “Be Competent” and “Be Industrious”.
There were around 20 youth in the workshop, ranging in age from 14 to 25. All of them had gotten into trouble with the law and were wards of Kenya’s criminal justice system. About 75% of them had problems with drugs & alcohol, and most were illiterate in both English and Kiswhaili.
I had not intended to work in the community when I first moved to Nairobi. I was supposed to be on sabbatical from a busy law practice back in the US. My new docket was to consist of reading, catching up on long-overdue workouts, and lunches with new friends. But through a stream of coincidences, I found myself driving through the soot filled round-a-bouts of downtown Nairobi, past markets specializing in live chickens of all shapes and colors, and amidst trash-ridden slums to arrive at the probation hostel where I had been invited to give a 2 hour seminar on ethics and life skills.
I admit that it didn’t take much arm-twisting to interrupt my life-of-leisure docket. Like any trial lawyer, the chance to talk in front of a group is irresistible. And as the mother of a teenage son, helping young men improve their lives strikes an inherent chord. And truth-be-told, I’m not one to sit still for very long. So off I went to the first class, feeling like a very determined – but unmistakable – fish out of water.
On the first day of the mandatory class, the boys shuffled in reluctantly, certain that they were about to be lectured for an hour on their unworthiness and need to reform. Fortunately for them, that’s not how I teach my classes. Instead, we talked about how each of the basic values could be used to help other people, and how helping other people to improve their lives could increase the quality of the boys’ own lives. They explored the concepts for themselves though skits and other activities. The skits were a new concept for them. Kenyan schools tend to be very didactic, and this seminar was their first opportunity for experiential learning.
At the end of the seminar, boys who were skeptical and lackadaisical were now leaning forward in their chairs, happy and engaged. I asked, “Does anyone have any questions?” The hand of one of the few English-speakers shot up. “Yes,” he said, “When are you coming back?”
The question was like a call to action for me. How could I say no to a group of young people that was so eager to learn? It spurred me to create a 10-week workshop with the goal of increasing the young men’s self-worth and helping them become more confident in their abilities. I can’t say that I reached everyone that attended, but in most of the participants, I saw profound changes taking place during the course of the workshops. They started to manifest a hope that when they were released from the program, life would be better. In fact, the biggest collective dream when they got out of the program was that their families and communities would see the positive changes they were making in their lives. That they would be seen as the people they had become, not stuck in the mold of their pasts.
One of the most eager participants was a young man named Philip. He was always one of the first to arrive in class, bringing a shy smile and gentle but persistent contributions. At the end of the 10 weeks, we held a dance party and graduation ceremony. When I pulled in to the yard of the probation hostel for the celebration, Philip came bounding up to me, “Michelle, Michelle, come and take my picture.” Philip had a clean and neatly pressed uniform and shined shoes. “Take my picture, I want to show my parents how I’ve changed.” I took his picture, and pictures of all of the other photo poses that Philip set up: Philip with a friend, Philip with three friends, Philip with a piece of furniture that he made.
Philip was being released the following afternoon, and he extracted a promise that I would bring back the prints the next day so that he could take them with him as he traveled back to his parents in his home village. I got him the prints, and Philip sent a thank you text as he was boarding the bus home. I don’t remember the exact words, but I will never forget the tone of the message. He was overflowing with excitement and hope.
The bus ride was long and Philip didn’t get to his village until late that night. I got a chilling text. “Michelle, things in my village are bad. No one has any food. My parents are starving. What do I do? I don’t know what to do.”
I had no idea how to respond. I took a deep breath and told him to look around for ways that he could apply his new skills. He had learned how to make soap, so I asked, “Philip, you know how to make soap. Can you sell soap and make money to buy food for your family?”
It was a stupid idea of course, which he gently pointed out when he texted, ”They are hungry. No one is buying soap.”
Oh, right. Well, I asked, can you find any way to make some money? You have skills. Be industrious, etc. He didn’t find the advice helpful.
His texts got increasingly more desperate. From his high of hopefulness and optimism, he fell through shock, past panic, and into despair and desperation. This emotional fall culminated in a text in which it was clear that all of the progress he had made in his recovery had now been stomped into the red Kenyan dust of the drought-stricken landscape that was his home. This text contained the message that so many in this aid-dependent continent are criticized for sending. The message that comes when proud, capable people throw up their hands in the face of a situation that seems totally hopeless and beyond their control. This text made me cry.
“Michelle, please, send money.”
To Be Continued . . .