Youth and Public Space

For over 20 years, youth from Mathare have been working to create safe and positive spaces for their community. The majority of this effort has been based in Mlango Kubwa, Mathare, where, together with a local group called Mathare Environmental Conservation Youth Group, has built a vibrant youth centre in the community. Recent awardee of the prestigious UN-Habitat Scroll of Honour Award 'Kaka' (Swahili for Brother) have harnessed an insatiable thirst for development to positively impact the lives of thousands of young Kenyans. 

(Kaka planting trees at the youth centre)

Hundreds of youth now gather at the centre everyday to meet one another, escape from negative social influences, and engage in constructive activities. Providing a space and positive environment where younger generations can grow has been the biggest reward of all.

When looking back from where it all started, it seems miraculous the progress that has been made. Thousands of hours were spent writing emails, proposals, concept notes, editing videos and photos, all with the goal of promoting youth development. The hours spent outside in the hot sun banging away with hammers, saws, shovels, digging through tons of municipal waste to clear land for the centre (and finding some of the most horrific things imaginable) in order to transform ideas into reality. It was all worth it. As Kaka, the community leader of Mlango Kubwa says: "Even if I die, this centre will still be here to help the community.”

(Youth built ‘Slum Soccer’ on reclaimed public space in Mathare)

Around the world, young people are in their communities trying to foster leadership, bring development and create a future where the young have a sense of hope.
In Peru, hundreds of youth load onto buses only to get dropped off at a basketball court where they choreograph amazing dances and forget about the difficult conditions and challenges they face while growing up. In Palestine, they hold art therapy classes in a refugee camp where teenagers depict the army coming at night to arrest the entire family and burn the house down. In Rwanda, rural youth turn up in the thousands to engage in 'Umuganda' where they spent the day cleaning and landscaping their community.

Unfortunately, nowadays, it's almost impossible for young people to go anywhere or do anything if they don't have money to spend. But, unless community spaces have the right leaders inside, the spaces remain just that, space. How the character of thousands of young people, congregated in an open field, can be transformed so positively, goes to show that space isn’t as important as the activities themselves.

                                                                         (Members of MECYG)

Just to give some perspective: there are 1.8 billion youth living in the world today-the majority in low-income countries. 200 million do not attend high school. In Mathare, 60% of young people are unable to finish high school. The lack of educational opportunities creates a population of youth who reluctantly languish in poverty without hope for the future. Over 30% are unemployed and the 45% who are self-employed face economic uncertainty. These young minds, who have the power to change the world, are left to fight for survival in extremely difficult conditions.

Young people need access to training and programs in order to transform their adventurous and innovative ideas into positive community change. Opportunities for skill development, certified educational programs, guidance and expertise would not only improve their economic livelihood, but would benefit the most vulnerable members of the community and society as a whole.

                                                       (Youth event at Slum Soccer)

Youth deserve a seat at the fore front of every social sector from technology to governance, from sports to health care. Including their participation in building the fabric of society, will help raise generations of proud and thoughtful community members who, instead of feeling like a burden on society, will make a positive impact. As we continue to help these positive spaces grow, it’s imperative to appreciate the capacity of the bright minds who are more than capable of becoming the leaders and change makers of today and tomorrow. Because youth are 25% of the world, but are 100% of the future.

Watch the new MECYG video!

(Nathaniel Canuel is a Nairobi based Youth Activist and Videographer who has been building youth-led spaces and covering youth development for over 10 years)


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