Youth Forum at Future Africa!

Posted on June 25, 2021

 

On 10 June, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in partnership with the University of Pretoria and its transdisciplinary research institution Future Africa, hosted a youth forum under the theme: ‘Reimagine education tomorrow – Our time. Our turn. Our future’. As South Africa celebrates youth month and commemorates Youth Day on 16 June, this initiative is especially relevant to the times. While COVID-19 has ravaged the global economy and has led to the loss of millions of lives, it is the youth who will face the harshest burden of the pandemic legacy. This applies particularly to learning and teaching opportunities, which have experienced a complete paradigm shift, moving almost exclusively online. According to Rachel Fischer, a project management consultant for UNICEF YEaH and Carnegie ECRLF, the purpose of this initiative was ‘to celebrate the experiences of youth and students across all sectors of society [and] across various [disciplines]’.

In his opening remarks, Prof Cheikh Mbow, Director of Future Africa, mentioned that higher education in Africa should play a strong role in the demographic dividend as Africa today is young, with more than 60% of the population being below the age of 25 years. He added that the trust that is needed in the society in general cannot be achieved without a framework for youth to engage with each other and learn new techniques under the right mentorship and with the necessary support. Prof Stephanie Burton, Vice-Principal for Research and Postgraduate Education (2011 to 2020), emphasised the need for the youth to discover what they hope to achieve in life and to continue asking pointed questions about how to get there.

Dr Wycliffe Otieno, Chief of Education and Adolescent Development for UNICEF, continued the opening remarks with a presentation on ‘Situating the context from a global and local perspective’. He suggested that young people who embrace ‘self-drive, innovation and proactive thinking’ can significantly address the social ills prevalent in their communities. He continued by pointing out that UNICEF’s appeal to young people is to see the various challenges they may face as opportunities to hone skills, change their destinies, become assets to their communities and be game changers in their societies.

The first cluster dealt with on the day was startup management skills, which focused on the experiences of young entrepreneurs and the challenges they face in their businesses and daily lives. The University of Pretoria’s Startup Management and Entrepreneurial Skills course is a uniquely designed programme focused on enhancing an understanding intrapreneurial awareness, orientation, intent and action. Moreover, this programme is designed to help young entrepreneurs improve their quality of life in individual communities and society at large. The panel consisted of students who had been active participants in this programme and spoke about their experience and the applicability of the knowledge they had gained. When asked about how she had experienced the programme and what advice she would give to the youth, Maymoena Khamisi, an education student at UP, suggested the following: ‘When it comes to entrepreneurship, everything presented it in the workshop can be summed up as follows: success is a journey of countless baby steps, a constant process of growth. You should continue to hold yourself to a higher standard. You are the only person responsible for your success. There is no progress without action. Assistance always means focus is everything, failure is necessary and positivity fuels productivity.’

The second cluster for the day focused on One Health and young academics in One Health practices and was led by a team of young academics involved in the various One Health projects. Prof Wanda Markotter, Director of the Centre for Viral Zoonoses, mentioned that the youth involved in the cluster represented 16 disciplines covering animal, human and environmental studies. The focus was on One Health approaches and capacity building around ‘vector-borne diseases such as malaria; innovative approaches to improve food nutrition in neglected communities; analysing spill-over factors for disease emergence; and disease surveillance in high-risk interphases such as abattoirs’, and on finding alternative ways to detect COVID-19 in poor communities, for example by testing water and sewage. The panelists discussed the need to start using technology to bridge the gap between existing research silos in academia, especially through trans- and interdisciplinary research collaboration. Funding is important, in particular when it is directed towards interdisciplinary work, creating projects and conducting research that is relevant to societal needs. In his closing remarks Tedson Nkoana, the facilitator for this session, suggested that ‘the responsibility of young academics is to learn, innovate and master [their] way of doing things and pass this knowledge down to the youth and future academics’.

The third cluster presentation dealt with augmentative communication and focused on the production of health care materials for youth with disabilities and complex communication needs. Taking a pragmatic approach, it was possible to directly address youth with disabilities and include them as critical members in the project. Dr Kirsty Bastable spoke about how people with complex communication disabilities need to be heard and listened to. One of the innovative ways to help address this condition is through augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), a system and field of study that is able to support expressive language (the ability to speak) or receptive language (the ability to understand), or both. What was especially poignant and relevant to this cluster was that youth with complex communication disabilities spoke using AAC. Sibabalwe Mkunquana, using AAC, recited a poem about living with a disability, which included the following: ‘breathing difficulty is a part and parcel of my disability in my goddess days. Suffocating masks during COVID-19 have dehumanized my breathing. Constance Ntuli suggested that medical professionals should receive better training in how to interact with people who use AAC.

The final cluster for the day dealt with analytical skills and social dimensions of health crises for community outreach and focused on the youth outreach group Shape Shifters, which is comprised of youth leaders from a community in Eersterust. They established themselves as a permanent group after receiving a UNICEF-UP grant in 2020. The group was established in response to the question about what it would be like to create a space for young leaders to be creative and think about various societal challenges and how the youth could effectively help solve them. It provides a platform for young people to shape themselves, their minds and their communities. Youth representatives from Shape Shifters spoke about how this initiative had enabled them to find confidence and agency while working alongside other youth and in their communities. Nsamu Moonga, the facilitator for the Shape Shifters, feels that many older people have grown cynical and have lost interest in engaging with the youth. The Shape Shifters are trying to ‘narrow the gap between those with experience [and those without], and provide person-to-person support for younger people’.

In closing, Prof Cheikh Mbow commented: ‘Without half of the youth as agents of transformation [on the] frontlines, obtaining the right skills and being ready to fight those challenges, African society would be lagging behind in terms of responsive ability against crises.’

Each of the clusters included during the forum considered the value and necessity of collaborative, transdisciplinary work and community participation guided by the voices of the youth. Given humanity’s interconnected and social realities, it is important to pay attention to the youth and their nuanced and invaluable approaches to helping solve the ills of the world.

- Author Austin Pinkerton
Published by Mellissa Mlambo

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