youth

Tamba Kpakima: Strength and Honor

Tamba has graduated from university!!!

Some readers may know of Tamba Kpakima, a dear friend I met back in 2010 in Freetown, Sierra Leone. When we met, Tamba had just graduated from high school and was tutoring high school seniors preparing to take graduation exams. His main objective at the time was to attend university and get a degree in Accounting. Except his path to higher education was far from certain.

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Tamba in 2010

Tamba grew up in the small village of Kaliyah in Kono District on the eastern border of the country. During the brutal civil war of the late 1990s, Tamba and his family were chased out of their village by rebel forces. They lost their home, their loved ones, and their crops as they fled on foot to a refugee camp in Guinea (a neighboring country) where they lived for two years. In Guinea, there was not enough food to go around, and they were constantly exposed to the elements since their small, plastic shelter did little to protect them. Needless to say, Tamba’s education took a back seat as basic survival became the primary family focus. Without basic books and supplies, the education gap in Tamba’s life was growing.

At the age of 14, Tamba had survived a brutal civil war, but he still lacked a basic primary school education. It was then that Tamba was sent to Freetown to live with his uncle. For a boy who had known nothing but village life, relocating to the capital city was quite an adjustment. Eventually, Tamba was given the opportunity to attend a missionary school where he started elementary school as a teenager. While in Freetown, he endured the death of his uncle, difficult living situations, and the challenge of having to play catch-up after so many years without schooling.

After all was said and done, he graduated from high school with a singular dream of getting a university degree…but no money to pay for it. Yet another mountain to climb in his life.Thankfully, the support of friends got him over the hurdle of paying for schooling and Tamba matriculated at the Institute of Public Administration and Management (IPAM).

Getting in to the university was half the battle though…Tamba still had to endure a whole host of challenges – sometimes school would shut down for long periods; money was always an issue; his health began to suffer; in 2014, the Ebola crisis caused the whole city to shut down for months, leaving him with nothing to do; the list goes on.

But in April of 2016, 5 years later, Tamba did it! He endured. He thrived. He achieved his first goal of earning a university degree, BSc Hons. in Applied Accounting.

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Tamba on graduation day, with his beloved mother

Back in 2010, I asked him what he would do if he were not able to go to university. Tamba’s response surprised me: “There is no Plan B.” The reason for this response was due to the strong passion that Tamba has for education.

Here’s to there not being a “Plan B” Tamba! You did it. As your friend, I am proud of you, my brother. You are an inspiration. And I wish more people would know of you … and get to know you.

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Twenty Years Later, One African’s Realistic Hope for Rwanda

Twenty years ago today, I was a junior (11th grade) in high school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA. Having lived in the US for just 6 years by that time, I was still “in between” two worlds. I had my African identity that, even if I wanted to, I could never shake. On the other hand, I had just become a US citizen and was beginning to pay attention to the significance of a new life in the greatest country in the world. Every day, I was reminded that in that small Alabama town, my background was truly uncommon and easily misunderstood by my peers. In the midst of my angst and confusion, I had a conversation with one of my sisters that liberated my teenage mind from the burden of not fitting in. She told me: “Remember. You were born in Ethiopia. You are African by origin.   That fact will never change.”

It’s amazing how freeing it is when you can truly own your facts.

That spring, I confronted my “facts” in an unexpectedly painful manner. From afar, I witnessed the tragic Rwandan genocide unfold.

Having, myself, come from a country in turmoil, I suppose it could have been yet another event in the history of a troubled continent. But, the intensity and pain felt by and inflicted by Rwandans troubled me thousands of miles away. I couldn’t put my finger on it, and there were certainly not many around me who could relate to what I was feeling. I wept for Rwanda and it has had a special place in my heart since.

The Rwandan genocide is a fact. It happened. And today, on the 20th anniversary of its beginning, there is no shortage of stories to commemorate. There are plenty of historical accounts that detail not just the trauma of brother killing brother, but also the tragedy and impotence of an international community to step in.

Two years ago, I made a few trips to Rwanda on business. Not knowing what to expect on my first trip, I truly experienced a sense of realistic hope during my time in Kigali (the capital city). The kind of realistic hope you want to champion and cheer and help make into a reality. The kind of hope you know can be a template for the rest of the continent. The kind of hope that can overshadow the horrible events that started on the night of April 7, 1994.

Of the many hopeful things going on in Rwanda, I want to share these three:

  1. Agaciro Development Fund – this fund was established as the country’s first sovereign wealth fund. Its main purpose is to ensure that Rwanda’s economic development can continue with as much independence from external influence as possible. Citizens of Rwanda, Rwandans living abroad, friends of Rwanda, and corporations are all contributors.   The word “Agaciro” is translated as “dignity”.
    agaciro
    A very fitting word to illustrate the need for Rwanda, and other African nations, to achieve economic growth AND freedom from a complicated foreign aid regime that limps alongside the aspirations of the continent.
  2. Umuganda – on the last Saturday of each month, Rwandans in every city, community, and neighborhood gather for a few hours to do community service. Umuganda means “community service”. Participation in Umuganda is mandatory for all able-bodied citizens between the ages of 18 and 65 and includes activities like street cleaning, care for the vulnerable, and even free medical care for that day.
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    President Paul Kagame participating in Umuganda

    From my time in Rwanda and my conversations with people from all walks of life, Umuganda is regarded as not only a vehicle to implement needed public services but also a way to establish unity among Rwandans. As a result of the culture of Umuganda, the streets of Kigali (and likely other cities) are clean, orderly, and inviting. It’s easy to overlook the psychological relevance but imagine being a little kid growing up in a community where public services function and there is a philosophy of unity, order, and care for your community. How does that impact a generation? How can that help to ensure the future of the country?

  3. World Alliance Against Youth Unemployment (WAYU)– a few months ago, I had a conversation with the CEO of WAYU, Aloys Ntezimana. He is overseeing the development of WAYU to address the serious issue of youth unemployment in Rwanda. Through entrepreneurship training programs and investment mechanisms for student-led businesses, WAYU hopes to transform the future of Rwanda’s economy. Rwanda is a very young country, with the majority of the population now of working age. Compound this with the fact that it has one of the highest population densities on the continent, and you start to see why the work of WAYU is extremely crucial and deserves the attention and partnership of key people and organizations around the world. I look forward to working with WAYU in the near future.

Hope is realistic when juxtaposed next to potential pitfalls. And to be clear, there are many issues that Rwanda has to overcome to realize its potential. But I encourage anyone reading this to explore the facts and truly grasp what is happening. That is the only way to champion realistic hope for the beautiful country of Rwanda.

Rwanda owns its facts along with its future!

A Surprising Link Between U.S. Military Drone Attacks and Africa’s Unemployed Youth

According to a Stanford-NYU joint report entitled Living Under Drones, the United States military has been using unmanned and remotely controlled aerial vehicles (drones) for targeted killings since 2004.

droneThese drones are a component of the US military’s fight against extremism and terrorism around the world, particularly in terrorist “hot spots” like northwest Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen.  Despite objections to their use due to numerous killings of innocent civilians, there is no indication that the US will abandon drones as a strategic weapon against violent radicals around the world…at least not anytime soon.

In January 2012, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) held a conference in Kigali, Rwanda called Preventing Youth Radicalization in East Africa.  The conference brought together representatives from 11 East African countries as well as the US and the UK to discuss strategies to mitigate the impact of violent extremist organizations in the region.  The region is facing what some politicians have called “a ticking time bomb” in that as high as 60% of the population is under the age of 25 and as much as 75% of these young are unemployed.  That is a significant and troubling statistic to contend with.  Troubling for East Africa’s growth prospects, for sure.  But what about spill over?  27_1_youth_opp_3Many other African nations contend with high youth unemployment, lack of opportunities, and large numbers of educated young people who find their toil in the secondary and tertiary educational systems unrewarded.  According to McKinsey Global Institute, by 2040, Africa will be home to the largest working age population in the world – over 1.1 billion!

Being of “working age” and, yet…not working.  And then we have a continually widening income gap.  The African Development Bank’s Briefing Note on Income Inequality (2012) and a Business Insider article both indicate that the top 6 most unequal countries in the world are in Africa.380_76799682income-inequality

It’s easy to see how there is concern within governments and among external observers that these indicators could lead to widespread discontent among disaffected young Africans who may become targets for terrorist and extremist ideologies proclaimed by organizations known to be hostile to the United States.

And if history is an indication, the brand of terrorism that invites the full might and power of the US military is one with overt anti-American ideologies.  What we might see in the coming decades is a slight shift in counter-terrorism efforts, such as drone strikes, from the well-known hotspots (mentioned earlier) to the African continent.  This has already started to happen in Somalia against groups like Al-Shabab.  Unfortunately, this may translate to terrible collateral damage and an all too familiar cycle:

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To be clear, I am not trying to be an alarmist…just laying out logical potential situations based on current events and trends.

But the reality is that the future for Africa does not have to be this morbid.  The large and expanding population of youth should be looked at as an opportunity for a transformation, not an invitation for military conflict.  In fact, this demographic trend could usher in the type of advancement we have seen in Asian countries.

How?

The demographic dividend.  In a later post, I will talk about how African countries are urgently trying to realize the continent’s potential demographic dividend to ensure a better tomorrow.

Pay attention to the bottom line: Developing and providing opportunities for Africa’s human capital, particularly the youth population, is a high stakes affair.  It is on the top of the priority lists of just about every government and external stakeholder…the US included…

My own passion is to contribute in the effort to develop Africa’s “Youth Capital”.

I hope to work with many others of like mind.