Lizz Ntonjira is a youth advocate and the founder of the Lizz Ntonjira Network, a platform that provides innovative, engaging, interactive and tailored training and coaching for the youth. She is currently the Head of Global Corporate Communications at Amref Health Africa, one of the largest health development NGOs in Africa. In this interview with NKECHI ISAAC, she emphasises the need for the longstanding structures of alienation imposed on young people to be addressed, even as she stressed the need for the older people to pass the baton of leadership to the younger generation. Excerpts:
What exactly is the motivation for the youth advocacy you are championing?
There is a growing prejudice against young people, and this has been evidenced by the lack of implementation on policies that favour the youth across Africa. Young people have been intentionally left out of decision tables while ours is the youngest continent, with an average age of more than 70 per cent of the population aged below 35.
So, then I always ask myself, how is such an overwhelming numerical majority, which is the most connected, conversant and mobile segment of the African society, deprived of its rightful share of decision-making power and associated opportunities? These longstanding structures of alienation imposed on young people need to be addressed now, not in future. Now.
In Africa, young people currently bear the biggest brunt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with job losses, salary cuts and business closures. For African youths, unemployment is not only about livelihoods. Jobs for us are like doors to a better and positive future of empowerment and freedom. Jobs and opportunities empower us and activate a vigorous energy to develop our talents and abilities to the full.
Additionally, the challenges young women face are unique. Young women in Africa shoulder a multitude of burdens and they do it alone. As such, there is a pressing agenda for gender equality and justice.
There are no deliberate policies to involve the youth in governance in many African countries. Do you see the attitude of the older generation in this regard changing any soon?
Depends on the country. Some countries have progressed in ensuring that the youth agenda is acknowledged and actioned. I’m impressed with Namibia, who appointed Emma Theofelus, asNamibia’s information, communication and technology deputy minister at only 23 years. Rwanda has been exemplary in setting the pace for inclusion of young people in their state appointments and also in the private sector. In fact, one of the people featured in my book, #YOUTHCAN, is Ambassador Jean De Dieu Uwihanganye, the High Commissioner of the Republic of Rwanda to Singapore who was appointed to that position last year and prior to his appointment as high commissioner to Singapore, Amb. Uwihanganye served as Minister of State for Transport in Rwanda and was appointed at only 30 years.
I need to add that we need not include young people to these positions as some sought of tokenism. We need to avail equal opportunities to young people because they are now the custodians of the future. The older people need to pass the baton, if not for anything, for the continuity of their respective national development agendas.
Are you disappointed that the youth in quite several places are showing no zeal for leadership?
Young people are frustrated, and frustration can lead you to many things, one of them being depression or that lack of zeal. Some youth have totally given up hope because of the empty promises we continue to hear from people in positions of power. Young people are tired of being used and feel somewhat hopeless because no matter how hard they try, the people in power continue to choke them.
For instance, I live in a country with extreme inequities where, some people get away with murder while others are imprisoned for years for stealing chicken to fend for their families; where some people use state funds to fly abroad to get medical attention, while others give birth on the road; where some are beaten for not affording masks while others callously flout rules and restrictions with not even a slap on the wrists; where some sleep hungry for loss of jobs during COVID-19; others become millionaires for stealing money meant for the people; where some bruised egos make it their duty to change legislation and laws to favour them while the common citizen continues to suffer because the people they have entrusted to look out for them care nothing for public interest or public good…a country where young people continue to be oppressed by decisions and policies that do not favour their future or that of their children’s children. Given, there have been some few developments here and there, but a lot more needs to be done.
Because of these frustrations, young people have been reluctant to take on positions of leadership. However, I encourage my fellow youth to keep going. Change is inevitable and Africa’s youthful population must prepare to tackle a myriad of things including climate change, public health, education, employment among other critical issues.
In many African countries, you talk about the youth, you talk about drugs, heinous crimes and other vices. How can this orientation be corrected?
Realities on the ground – of extreme poverty, high youth unemployment, gender injustice, corruption and politics of exclusion have ensured that the gap between the aspired living standards of African youths and their actual living conditions are too wide to bridge – this is what leads to some of these social vices.
These social vices can only be overcome by a number of things including enhancing the fight against corruption; enhancing participatory decision-making and increasing civic space at national and local levels; strengthening the capacity of local governments for service delivery and security; promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment; engaging youth in building social cohesion; working with the media to promote human rights and tolerance; promoting respect for human rights, diversity and a culture of global citizenship.
You know, it’s not that we don’t know what needs to be done. It’s that there is no political will to do it.
Widespread poverty and lack of motivation and mentorship are keeping many young people away from acquiring education. What is the way out of this?
One of the ways out of this is revisiting our curriculums and checking whether they align with the skills needed in the job market. At the present time, they are not aligned. Our current curriculums do not acknowledge that the future and landscape of work is changing and changing at a very fast rate.
Accessing education to all is a great step forward and in particular, I applaud my country Kenya for doing this, but at the same time, we have to think about the teacher to student ratio; the learning resources for children in schools; the availability of nutritious meals for children to stay connected during class. Free education will not mean much if children have to go to school hungry.
Mentorship is critical. I’m so passionate about mentorship, so much so that a year ago I founded the Lizz Ntonjira Network, a platform that mentors, coaches and trains the youth. The Network is aimed at enlightening the youth on the different unexploited professional and personal paths, to become the leaders of today and consequently inspiring the next generation of leaders. Within its mission to inspire young leaders through mentorship and coaching, the Network has held a number of events with a total attendance of over 700 participants with four being youth career workshops and one CSR visit to teenage mothers in the low-income areas of Nairobi city.
The Lizz Ntonjira Network continues to grow with over 2,000 registered members joining the Network. Currently, the Network has six personnel executing its mandate.
For the youth to assume their appropriate place in the scheme of things, the old brigade of African leaders must give way. Do you see this happening any soon?
I don’t think the conversation is about doing away with the older generation. I’m from the school of thought that every young person that succeeds stands on the shoulders of giants who have been there before us. Those that have fought for various freedoms and have generously passed on their learnings and insights to the generation behind them. My issue is that there has to be a generational balance. We must find a way to strike generational balance because we are all important, and worthy of leading our countries to the next frontier.
Do you have political ambition?
Ha ha…. I’m not sure. Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s see where my future stars align and lead me to.
What do we expect from Lizz Ntonjira in 10 years from now?
Oh wow, in 10 years I will hopefully have published more books and hope that I will have positively impacted and influenced thousands, if not millions, of young Africans.