YOUTH: Young. Organised. United. Talented. Hardworking.

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***This blog originally appeared on SDI's blog.***

By Skye Dobson, SDI Secretariat

“Poor people have me. Rich people don’t need me. If you eat me you’ll die. I am worse than a demon. Who am I?”

This was the riddle Rogers, a youth member of the South African SDI Alliance posed to youth from across South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and India at the opening of a peer-to-peer exchange held in Cape Town, South Africa for youth activists last week. He put his phone on the table and said that whoever solved the riddle in 3 minutes would get the phone. To honor the riddle, I will tell you the answer at the end of the blog.

Unfortunately the phone deal has expired.

“As a girl, I’m always told things happen because of fate. But it’s the things I do, not luck, that determine my fate. So we must forget about fate, and move forward” — Shikha, India

The exchange was inspired by the youth activism of Prayasam, an Indian organization founded in 1999 to enable children to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. When Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), an international network of slum dweller federations in 33 countries, learned of Prayasam’s work and the shared strategies used to organize communities to profile and map their settlements as a starting point for negotiations with authorities, it was agreed that the two organizations would do well to promote peer-to-peer learning between youth members and other youth groups trying to make change in their settlements. With support from Sundance Films, SDI, Prayasam, The Community Organization Resource Centre (COURC), and SDI hosted a 6-day learning exchange for youth from informal settlements in Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, and India.

“I taught myself how to share and how to love. The River of Life showed me you can solve your problems as a group.” — Lucky, South Africa

A River of Life exercise on the first day – led by the Prayasam youth – kicked off the exchange and supported reflection by the youth on the highs and lows of their lives and their goals for the next three years. The youth drew and presented their personal rivers to the group. The stories were touching, referencing hardships such as the death of family and friends, early pregnancies, gang membership, and lost opportunities owing to a lack of financial resources. On the high points of their rivers, however, they explained the pride experienced when they got into or performed well at school, found spiritual direction, became members of youth groups, and took part in exchanges with other youth both locally and abroad. While their highs and lows were described in individual terms, it was fascinating to note that their aspirations for the future were almost entirely group-centered. The youth spoke of wishing to bring their communities together, of wanting to empower their peers, about increasing the membership and impact of their youth groups, of setting a good example to children, and of advocating for the rights of the young and the disadvantaged.  This exercise set the stage for the youth to engage each other more openly. Instead of the standard introductions of formally structured peer-to-peer learning, these introductions stripped the process down to authentic fundamentals: Who am I? Why am I here? How did I get here? It was clear that the process was as much about answering these questions for oneself as it was about sharing it with others.

“The film showed that you’re never too young to make change”—Sefiso, South Africa

A key inspiration for the youth exchange was a film called The Revolutionary Optimists, which follows Amlan (founder and Director of Prayasam) and three of the children he works with, as they become agents of change in their communities. The film not only captures the incredible work of Prayasm’s children, but the realities of life in Indian slums.  On the second day the youth were able to see the film at a community center in Langa as well another from Uganda, The Boda Boda Thieves, which captures some of the realities of life in Uganda’s slums. The feedback from the youth was thoughtful and insightful. They were quick with their praise for the Indian youth and concluded that one is never to young to make change in his/her community. They expressed the similarities they saw between conditions in India and their own countries – particularly related to poor sanitation, teenage pregnancy, and child labor. They joked of the celebrities in their midst! From TheBoda Boda Thieves film they concluded youth must be very careful when it comes to peer pressure and a desire to get money quickly. They all had stories about youth who had succumbed to peer pressure and “gangsterism” and they made references to the contributing factors. They discussed the importance of reaching out to parents so that they can support their children to join youth groups and take part in productive afterschool activities as an alternative.

“Statistics might be different from experiences” —Sibo, South Africa (Sizakuyenza)

A unifying strategy across many of the groups is the collection of data by youth in order to plan for change and negotiate with other actors – often the State – to implement solutions. Both Prayasam and SDI affiliates profile slum settlements, but their approaches are slightly different and the youth were able to share and reflect on each others strategies, achievements, and challenges. In the spirit of Learning-by-Doing, the youth went to a settlement in Nginalendlovu in Khayelitsha anda settlement profiling exercise which was facilitated by community members and supporting professionals in the South African SDI Alliance. Half the group used GPS devices to map the boundary of the settlement, while the other half conducted the socio-economic profile with the local community, while trying to squeeze into all available shade under the awnings of shacks. Rogers, a youth member from Kwazulu Natal administered the questionnaire with infectious enthusiasm and finesse.

Community members were guided to discuss and generate information on their settlement, from the origin of its name, to issues of tenure security and services, to the biggest challenges facing the community. From the discussions it was clear that the community is unsure of the land ownership, but that rumors of Church ownership circulate. They say they face eviction threats, but that they have no intention of moving anywhere so don’t bother themselves with it too much. They expressed major concerns with water supply, flooding, and crime, but they were unanimous that the biggest threat to their community at present comes from rats. One gentleman explained that his cat was eaten by a rat and that children are attacked and one child’s hand was bitten off. It is important to note that a problem with rats was not amongst the check boxes on the questionnaire. This highlighted Rogers’ skill as a profiler and the need to allow sufficient time for communities to make less structured contributions throughout the profiling process. The community was eager for the compiled information to be returned to them and the discussion about their issues to continue so that they can begin to generate solutions.

“…everything in nature has its own reason.”— Rogers, South Africa

The reflections from one of the youth on his visit to Path Out of Poverty (POP) on Goedgedacht Farm visit were so poignant. Through a long term, holistic, programme, POP builds confidence and skills in rural youth and offers opportunities for self advancement and for making a real contribution to their own communities. Rogers said he was “blown away by POP” and that he learned “everything in nature has its own reason. You can learn from nature if you’re patient. If you watch it, it will teach you.” One could argue the same is true for these youth, who clearly have so much to teach the world about their realities and how they believe change is possible. Within them, like nature, the solutions can be found for many of the world’s ills. Salim, one of the Indian youth, said the way poems and song are used to “manage the kids” at the Goedgedacht Farm will really help him to strengthen his leadership at the preschool in his community, while Kamalika from Saldanha was inspired to go back to her community and work with small children.

“They come in wrecked and leave as a piece of art”— Sibo, South Africa

On Wednesday the youth visited Sizakuyenza to see youth projects, including a recycling project, health services, and a women’s home called House of Smiles. The local federation designed Sizakuyenza to serve as a basket of services for the federation saving groups and their wider communities. The recycling initiative (Solid Waste Network) provides employment for youth and supports the municipality to keep the area clean. Many of the youth from South Africa and the youth from India were particularly interested in the waste project, as they have plans to operate waste management businesses of their own.

At House of Smiles the youth asked many questions about the women who live in the shelter and whether they were safe from their husbands once inside. They were interested to hear about the close relationship the center maintains with the police and the confidence they place in them. Many of the youth harbor suspicions about police, but the House of Smiles team has developed a close working relationship with them, which makes their premises and inhabitants feel secure.

In the afternoon a youth choir by Ubuhle Bendalo, a youth group of about 90 members based in Makhaza, Khayelitsha. The group meets most days after school and uses the performing arts to develop each other’s artistic skills and address challenges in their community. The song, dance, and poetry were moving and had a number in the audience trying to blink away tears. The youth in Makhaza work hand-in-hand with the local police to fight crime and youth participation in gangs. A police officer gave testimony that the settlement has been transformed by the presence of the group. For SIkha, from Prayasam, the afternoon with Ubuhle Bendalo was the highlight of the week - she was infected by the group’s vibrancy and wanted to take that energy and vibrancy back home.

“At first I was not about to swim. I don’t know how to. But when I heard those guys explaining, I decided to try”— Allan, Uganda

Thursday was a day of physical exertion! The day began with some training at the Future Champs Boxing Gym in Philippi and ended with surfing in Muizenberg. The two events highlighted the powerful role sports can play in the process of team and community building, the humbling and unifying effects of learning something new, and the power of fun in managing some of the stresses of daily life. Manish, from Prayasam, was inspired to take some of the tools of the Future Champs (boxing) and Waves of Change (surfing) programs back to the Sports Academy he is part of in India.  Many of the youth had not seen the ocean before. Many could not swim. Yet, they surfed! They laughed in the “salty water” with their faces plastered with white sunscreen and fearlessly took on the challenge.

“And to those who sent me here: I will make you proud” — Sifiso, South Africa

On the final day of the exchange the youth had a reflection on the week and all agreed they had become family. With sincerity they told each other how much they would miss being together and pledged to stay in touch and provide continuous support via social media as much as they can.

And the answer to the riddle? It’s “nothing”. Poor people have me. Rich people don’t need me. If you eat me you’ll die. I am worse than a demon. Nothing.

Though the riddle was a whole lot of fun, the week’s exchange made it very clear that poor people don’t have “nothing” at all. Though poor, the youth showed they have authenticity, compassion, innovation, and commitment to improving their own lives and those of their communities. Exchanges such as these will inspire changes within individuals and communities in ways we cannot possibly predict. But, this is the exact strategy (as much as it sits at odds with increasingly logframe and indicator obsessed NGOs): Bring the people together and let them create new knowledge, develop their own insights, reaffirm their own value, develop new strategies, and then figure out how to implement.

“I am not the same person I was before I came here” — Patrick, Kenya