Young and African – Is it Possible to Forge Change?

UPDATED August 20, 2019 07:07 am .

Francis Cordor
August 20, 2019 07:07 am

Oppression, censorship, extreme poverty — just three (of many) seemingly unsolvable problems afflicting the African continent. While some may view efforts at change as futile, the human spirit is strong and resilient. Many young Africans are taking matters into their own hands, making a positive impact and helping to shape their future.

For example, Sudan has a long history, dating back to ancient times, of oral poetry. The Sudanese people, especially women, have long used words as more than just a mode of expression, but of resistance to colonial governments and local rule. According to a paper published by Indiana University, The Role of Oral Poetry in Reshaping and Constructing Sudanese History, women used oral poetry to help prepare men for battle as well as to invoke national feeling. These words often led to decisions to wage war. Numerous examples from history exist including this poem from World War II:

Ya Hitler a1 Almani

Wa Mussolini ya Tilyani

Kurseek ma bejlis Tani

Yatla’ qirish brani

ma beseer hina


Oh, German Hitler

Oh, Italian Mussolini

Your Chair will never ever stay again

You are just like

a foreign piaster

with no value in our market.

While you might think that a poetic tradition that helped shaped a country and its people would be celebrated and cherished, this isn’t necessarily the case in Sudan today — at least from the government’s standpoint. A recent article published on BBC News, Letter from Africa: How Poetry is Taking on Censorship in Sudan, discusses the current state of oral poetry in Sudan.

In a nutshell, you have a heavy-handed government that wants to control the country’s media and cultural institutions. Spontaneous poetic outbursts, which were once common on the streets and university campuses, are now discouraged by a strong police presence, scrutiny, threats, and raids by the National Intelligence and Security Services (which has the authority to disband public gatherings). Poets, such as Al-Saddig Al-Raddi who is considered one of the best African contemporary poets, have been censored and imprisoned for their political voices.

Coercion and censorship have an uncanny way of backfiring, and this appears to be the case in Sudan where spoken word poets have moved off of the public streets to the underground — and that underground has a much larger audience thanks to social media. Sudanese spoken word poetry is shared across any number of social media channels including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and YouTube. A young Sudanese music producer is actively remixing Haqeeba songs with poems on SoundCloud. His collection, Briefcase, has been played more than a quarter million times so far.

Young Africans from Sudan are keeping tradition alive, while finding their own voices, despite censorship. History shows that this rich tradition of resistance has the power to effect change.

Meanwhile, in other parts of Africa, young people are tackling other problems. Extreme poverty in Africa means that many Africans live in slums. Crime, open sewers, garbage everywhere, and lack of access to clean water are but a few of the many facts of life for slum dwellers.

If you grow up in a slum in Africa, you probably also lack access to education, right? This virtually guarantees the cycle of poverty will continue. Kennedy Odede, who grew up in the largest urban slum in Africa, is determined to change that with his organization Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO).

Kennedy was inspired by his mother and leaders like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. He believed that great, systemic change can come from within — and he did something about it by tackling one issue affecting slum dwellers: gender inequality.

SHOFCO’s mission is as follows:

We believe in the urban poor; in their strength, resilience and capacity to create a better future. Through grassroots leadership, we link schools for girls to community services for all, building vibrant, gender equitable communities where all are able to realize their full potential.

While the underground poetry movement in Sudan and Kennedy’s decision to solve a specific problem both came about organically, organizations are working throughout Africa to help spur change with their interventions. For example, SAWA World Solutions, which currently has centers in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Sudan, offers disenfranchised youth living in extreme poverty “practical skills training, innovative experimentation and educational tools for local simple solutions for self-employment and improved standard of living.” According to SAWA’s website, 41 percent of youth that learn a solution, replicate it within one month of learning it from Sawa World.

Africa has the world’s youngest population and significant obstacles to overcome. Can words make a difference? They have before, and they will again. As the saying goes, the pen is mightier than the sword. The same can be said of oral poetry. With a blend of tradition, education, opportunity, and natural resilience, we believe that, yes, it is indeed possible to be young, African, and a positive force for change whether by words, actions, or both.

Featured Photo: Courtesy of  Sara Elhassan

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