02.04.2009 Feature Article

The children are the future...

The children are the future...
02.04.2009 LISTEN

Judging from our cultures, symbolisms, and historical artifacts, African communities have always valued wisdom. We tend to hold an entirely valid view that wisdom usually comes through the experience that having lived brings; experience is, after all, the best teacher. Consequently, we have developed a culture of respect and reverence for our elders. As youngsters, we are taught to behave and speak courteously when in the presence of people older than us. While this will always be an admirable trait, its extreme practice has led to an imbalance in our communities that is constraining our growth and development.

'What do you know?'
Too often in many an African community, the rights and well-being of children take a back seat. Children must be seen and not heard, and their potential contributions to society can be ignored – a consequence of the imbalance in many of our patriarchal communities, where the views of 'older males' take centre-stage. So endemic is this that people in their 20s and 30s are sometimes seen as 'small boys' and 'small girls'. In discussions and exchanges, they are often told to keep their ideas to themselves because 'they don't know anything'.

It says a lot about a community if its twenty- or thirty-somethings really don't know anything. A well-educated and well-equipped twenty-something can be a real asset to his or her family, community, organisation, and country.

In other communities across the world, they constitute a significant proportion of the driving force towards development and growth. I was extremely impressed to learn that the young heiress to the global Santander banking empire (the fifth largest bank in the world by market capitalisation) is less than thirty. She is currently the CEO of one of the banks within the Group, and is tipped to take over from her father in a few years.

The world through a child's eyes
It is right to value 'our olds', and the experience and wisdom they possess, but we must not lose sight of the virtues of youth and the contributions our young people can make. Indeed some argue that the world would be a far better place if we all adopted children's innocence – an idea also promulgated by no less a personality than Jesus Christ.

Many a fearsome challenge has been resolved with ideas based on the principle of child-like simplicity. The world is a simple and beautiful place when viewed through the eyes of children. Through a child's eyes there is no black, white or brown – there are only people. Through a child's eyes the shortest distance between two points is a straight-line - no complexities. Through a child's eyes there is a place in our world for all people, animals, vegetation, and all else.

Of course the world – and life – is complex, and child-like simplicity cannot traverse all the challenges we face, but the energy, exuberance, simplicity, and innocence of youth has a role to play. These qualities are often the antithesis and counter-balance to the cynicism and corruption that grown-ups develop due to challenges in life.

Daddy gets the biggest meat
One of the practices that epitomises this 'adult-dominance-to-youth-detriment' is the difference between the amount of meat a father and child may get when dinner is served. In many homes across many African communities, most of the nutritious stuff ends up on Daddy's dinner plate. It may seem simplistic, but it is indicative of the skewed culture many of our communities still have.

The idea behind this distribution seems sound; after all, Daddy is probably the main breadwinner and he needs to keep his strength up so he can effectively perform his duties both at work and at home. And it is also true that there are physical limits to what a child can consume, but that is often not the rationale behind smaller portions of the good stuff. What seems lost on us is the fact that Daddy doesn't actually need all that nutrition. All this does is add pounds to his physiology, increase the size of his 'pot belly', and put his health at risk. The child, on the other hand, needs the nutrition for good physiological and mental development.

All too often, our young people have to wait until they are 'old enough' before having access to some of the things they actually need as children. Rather than resolving to turn these practices around, some among our parents' generation look for ways to justify it: 'we didn't have it that good when I was your age' is a typical excuse. It is incumbent on every generation to seek to improve on the achievements of the previous one - otherwise things will never get better - but they need to be properly equipped.

People drive change and growth
As an IT man, I may be expected to champion the benefits and value of technology – which I do. My experiences, however, have taught me that regardless of the type of vehicles and tools we employ, people are the key drivers of change. Capable people bring ideas and engage in efforts that drive and expedite change and growth. This is why the most successful organisations in the world cite their human capital (i.e. their workforce) as their most valued asset, next to information.

The quality of human capital needed for positive change and growth is not attained by accident - it must be developed. Successful organisations and countries invest huge sums on the development of their people and capabilities. These people in turn use their skills, knowledge, and capabilities to generate ideas and provide solutions that take the entities forward. This development doesn't start when people are in their 20s or even their teens - it starts from infancy, and leads to a much more capable people. Sociologists and anthropologists tell us that by the age of ten, most people have already developed the bulk of their personalities.

Young people in other countries can, and often do achieve some astonishing things. They are bold and resourceful, and they often do things that we marvel at. I recently read an article about a 9-year old who has written a mobile phone programme that is selling like 'hot cakes' around the world. I don't see why a 9-year old African can't make the international press with similar feats.

Investment in youth for true liberation
In her quest for greater achievements and development, Africa can ill-afford to neglect human development. Our continent needs a critical mass of well-educated, knowledgeable, skilled, and well-balanced contributors and change agents. This increase in 'maturity' will only come through specific and concerted human development initiatives, starting with our children and young people, and African governments must have this objective at the heart of their development agenda.

For a better tomorrow, our leaders must invest in the young people of today. We need to put the right systems and mechanisms in place to develop our young and give them the platform to be the best. Such initiatives must include improved access to better, more practical education and awareness programmes, but we also need to accord our children a more fitting place in our communities, and set better examples for them. We must listen to our children and tamper their youthful views with our 'wisdom'. We need to continually encourage and support them, and instil in them confidence that will drive the realisation of their full potential.

African governments should invest more in education, development and play schemes, mentoring programmes and the like. They must develop better regulation and support systems for child-rearing and education systems - from nurseries and pre-school up - and spend less on short-term, cosmetic programmes. They must provide better support structures and education for parents to help them with their parenting duties.

We need youth centres, educational parks, and play schemes for our young people. We need specially developed audio-visual 'edutainment' programmes to be transmitted via television, radio, and the Internet, and not rely only on western programmes. We need apprenticeships for our young people to develop vocations and marketable skills, as well as better succession planning to help position them for employment. We need more government-funded opportunities for our young people to interact with their peers elsewhere in the world, to share ideas and exchange views and information.

It's a tired old cliché that states the obvious, but our children really are the future. We must create an environment for them to develop, give them a platform to shine and excel, and afford them opportunities for success. Africa's true liberation depends on them.