Yet the fact is that the society is not running itself nicely… because the rest of us need all the energy, brains, imagination and talent that young people can bring to bear down on our difficulties. For society to attempt to solve its desperate problems without the full participation of even very young people is imbecile.” (Alvin Toffler).
It is an open secret that with its unfair share of tragedies, ranging from the decade long war, the Ebola epidemic and most recently the floods and mudslides, the youths of Sierra Leone have been pivotal in the recovery processes.
We know that with the war, their innocence and vulnerability were callously preyed on by the adult world to devastating consequences. When we had the Ebola outbreak, the youths were central in disseminating the news, promoting preventive and recovery measures.
We witnessed how they worked tirelessly to carry the sick, disinfect the afflicted and as grave diggers to bury our dead during the Ebola epidemic, and most recently during the mudslides. Unfortunately for our youths, there is an uncanny impression that their efforts have gone without the desired recognition.
We all saw during the mudslides how these youths took matters in their hands, using their bare hands and venturing into dangerous situations to rescue their fellow citizens; even before the emergency services and earth moving excavators roared into situ. This show of human decency, compassion and civic duty was plain for everyone to see.
But the sad truth about the matter is that, these youths do not appear to have been rewarded or accorded the kind of recognition that befits such heroism.
As a nation, the more we increase the active participation and partnership with young people, the better we serve them. The more comprehensively we work with them as service partners, the more we increase our public value to the entire community.
Sierra Leone’s total population is estimated at around 6 million. According to the UNDP, an estimated 800,000 youths between the ages of 15 and 35 are unemployed and actively searching for employment. It will be disingenuous to insinuate that the role and value of our youth to our national fabric has not been recognised by the government. For the first time, The Ministry of Youth Affairs (MOYA) was established by His Excellency Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma with the approval of Parliament. The aims among others were to formulate youth development policies, design and implement programmes for youth development and advice ministers on matters relating to youth development.
But in spite of the efforts by the government and other NGOs to alleviate what appears to be a perennial problem of our society, the youth remain marginalised to the outer seams and lower rungs of society.
The advent of the Okada, with all its inherent and paradoxical implications has seemingly been a saving grace for the country’s unemployment rate. Many unemployed youths have been absorbed into the gulf of the employment cauldron, to provide a soothing balm. Nevertheless, many will see this as papering the cracks on the wall. Sadly, others will see this as the “lost generation”.
Many youths engaged in the Okada “profession” are able bodied, and in most cases bursting at the seams with potential. Although the Okada phenomenon has largely contributed in easing the transportation problems in the country, the fact remains that a good percentage, which has been forced by circumstances to engage in the business, have better potentials in our communities.
There have been stories where teachers and other professionals have had to abandon their calling for a fast buck. You can’t blame them for making such sacrifices; some chemical madness you can say.
But it is difficult to ignore the problems of our youth today. In spite of their predicaments, our youths do not only deserve a mention, but also praise to the rafters for their contribution to society in our times of need. We all saw how they mobilised during these testing times.
It is against this backdrop that I find it nauseatingly so disheartening to hear youths complaining about non-payment for their efforts and selfless bravery on social media. There have been widespread complaints from grave diggers, corpse collectors and every youth participating groups that they have not been paid.
There have been rumours and allegations that even after the end of the Ebola outbreak, some youths were still unpaid. As for those who were paid, rumours have it that they had to bribe their way to receive their hard-earned salaries. What makes these accusations gnawingly gut wrenching is the fact that these alleged injustices are sandwiched between allegations of massive corruption scandals of embezzlement by government officials.
So while these youths had been slaving away to help their fellow citizens and making a difference to humanity, some big guns have been allegedly siphoning their rightful rewards within the confines of some marbled and air conditioned office. I cannot see a greater form of injustice. One needs the conscience of a chainsaw to inflict such inhumanity. Moral bankruptcy does not begin to describe such behaviour.
But why are we treating one of our best assets with such disdain? Some will attribute this to a generational gap. The role of the youth in our country has hardly been valued in the past. It is important to note that the President was quick to recognise their role and value to society when he took the reins; hence the establishment of the Ministry of Youth affairs for the first time.
But despite such well-meaning intentions, the average Sierra Leonean youth has always been treated like a disposable commodity. In years gone by, the youth had no interest in, or no stake in the affairs of the state.
In my day, politics was the last thing on our minds. The value of youths was only relevant to the political cycle; when a few T-shirts, a bag of cannabis and large amounts of Totapak was all it took to get their support during elections. These youths were subsequently abandoned after elections, only to be re-acquainted when the next round of elections came by.
With the Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter generation today, politicians would do themselves a favour if they recognize that those days are gone; for youth is not a time of life but a state of mind. The youth are just people trying to learn how to make it among the adults in the world, who are probably not so sure themselves.
So the days when they can be used, abused and refused are long gone. And the earlier these politicians and leaders know that, and start valuing them for what they are, the better.
“Young people should be at the forefront of global change and innovation. Empowered, they can be key agents for development and peace. If, however, they are left on society’s margins, all of us will be impoverished. Let us ensure that all young people have every opportunity to participate fully in the lives of their societies.” (Kofi Annan).
Our country may be facing what appears to be an insurmountable problem with youth unemployment. But what are needed now are increased efforts to promote youth participation and commitment; more services aimed at the youth. As a nation, we can all benefit by having young people exposed to the ‘way things are done’ in a democratic society. Isn’t it time… to ‘tap the power of youth?
The foundation of every state is the education of its youth. Some people may have a different opinion and treat our youths as disposables that can be used, abused and refused. Such people think that the surest way to corrupt the youth is to instruct them to hold in higher esteem those who think alike, than those who think differently.
With the elections round the corner, the hope is that our youths will wise up to all those politicians who will come bearing gifts for their own purpose.
The hope is that they will be wary of politicians who will promise to build bridges even where there are no rivers. Until we acknowledge that youth is the biggest power and learn to tap this source, the duty of youth to challenge corruption will ever remain a wet dream.
As a country, we have the potential to empower and enable our youths to become job generators from job seekers.
To all intents and purpose, what is lacking is the belief in our youths and the will power to convert their hopes, in a world where wisdom in youth can be a rare commodity.
To all the youths, who came to the aid of their neighbours, communities and fellow citizens, we say a big thank you. You are the heroes of the day. We saw you in various media forums including Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, etc, toiling to save, recover and bury our dead. May God bless you all.
Bravo, bravo and bravo. we remain indebted to you.