Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Week in Rural Kenya and Thoughts as a Youth

As part of our program, we took a week to go upcountry, specifically in Western/Nyanza provinces, to learn about rural issues. One of the major themes in our studies is the phenomena of urban migration. Nairobi is not only Kenya's capital city, it is the hub of Kenya and many people move to search for economic opportunities. As a result, due to issues of rent and other factors, slums pop up everywhere. Around two thirds of the city live in slums. You can imagine the resulting issues with this. This week, we were out to see the rural side. As part of our final projects, we were assigned to choose a topic relating to urban issues and, while in the rural areas, were supposed to ask questions.

I stayed in a small village near Kisumu. My host mother is a lovely woman who lives with her three youngest children (she has eight in total) and her grandson. The three boys were in school and her littlest one, an adorable two year old girl, stayed at home during the day. My mama's husband lives in Nairobi (in the slum of Kibera) and works for the Kenyan police, in order to support the family. Three of her eldest children work in Nairobi and two others live in neighboring villages. Unfortunately, one of her sons chose drugs and crime as his path. According to her, he's one of many idle young men in the village. Her estimate is that fifty percent of the young men are involved with serious crimes (including burglary and murder) due to idleness, lack of employment, weakness of local law enforcement, and easy access to opium. There is actually a registered gang in that area and my mama forbade me from going outside at night. Robbery is common and my mama's house was burned down last year. Due to security issues, if I needed the toilet at night, I had to use a bucket.

I was able to talk to many people during my week. In a twist of fate, I met an American missionary on one of my walks. Later, she and a Kenyan gospel singer found me playing guitar at my mama's house. They invited me to an event at the local primary school. I brought my guitar and ended up winging it. Later, I was able to talk to the singer, ask her questions about youth and music (my issue, as I know others partnered with an organization that helps youth turn music into a livelihood, so that they can improve their economic situation and stay away from temptations like drug abuse) and ultimately ended up with her contact information. My mother is right, I am Forrest Gump.

I also talked with students, a pastor, and my mama. Everyone mentioned the lack of youth opportunities. Think about this. About 70% of Kenya's population is under the age of 35. Unemployment is a serious problem. Many Kenyans may not have the choice to enter secondary school (due to cost) and those who may even make it to university find themselves without the necessary experience or connections to make it into a profession. They may not have access to credit. In addition, corruption is common and land/property rights are not always secure. So, you have these youth who have little opportunity and nothing to do. What results from this? Street gangs, like the ones in my mama's village. Terrorist organizations, like the Mungiki near the area I work in. Robbery. Drug addiction. Remember too, these young people have easy access to tools like machetes.

It really struck me because I learned about this through my interfaith work. Terrorist organizations like Al Quaeda work in the same way. Those parts of the world also have a booming youth population, as well as high rates of unemployment and poverty. How do you think those terrorists recruit? By promising glory, money, a living, meaning in their lives, attention. All the things young people need and crave! Yet, politicians and leaders are so quick to dismiss us, no matter what country we live in. It's easy to treat us at best as if we know nothing and at worst as if we're nothing but troublemakers, smartasses and criminals. It's easier for media to focus on issues such as teen pregnancy in the U.S. and young suicide bombers elsewhere, while they ignore the stories of young people who fight to the death for their rights and work to give something to their communities.

Young people are not always angels. They may still choose to forsake education, regardless of how accessible it is. They may choose to break the law, regardless of how good law enforcement is. At the same time, they need the opportunities to make a true choice about their lives and future. Should they choose to still follow a destructive path, every effort must be made to help them get back on track and prevent them from contributing negatively to society. I'm not saying that they should be coddled and that we should expect all to swim. At the same time, they need an equal chance to start life with.

The old adage "Children are the future" is no mere cliche. Youth will inherit their nations as they grow older. However, the choices they make and the opportunities they have while young are what determine the destiny of that nation. Would you like to see your nation bask in the sun's glory? Or would you rather it go up in flames? How a nation provides for its youth will determine the answer to that question. I hope Kenya chooses to shine.

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