The African Roar: Youth Leadership in a Global Pandemic

5 Mar 2021

Ayesha Farah is the Campaigns Officer on the Youth Leaders for Health programme.


The Youth Leaders pose for a photo at the kick-off training in Addis Ababa, January 2020. Image: HFFG

January is a month frequently associated with new beginnings, but for the Youth Leaders for Health - 25 young advocates working across three African Countries - it marked the beginning of the end of their advocacy journey with the programme on ending malaria and strengthening health systems. The Youth Leaders programme, coordinated by RESULTS UK in partnership with Hope for Future Generations (HFFG) (Ghana), HDT (Tanzania), CISMAT (Sierra Leone) and WACI Health (a pan-African organisation) has ignited in the young people a sense of duty, unbounded commitment and total determination to lead their communities. I was thrilled to join the programme in January 2021, and three months has shown me they are in fact already powerful agents of change and a force to be reckoned with. Here I will walk you through where the programme is at now and some of my highlights.

A challenging environment


Youth Leaders Jennifer (left) and Rhoda (right) at refresher training in Accra, October 2020. Image: HFFG

The programme kicked off last January with a training event in Addis Ababa, with our 25 Youth Leaders travelling from Tanzania, Sierra Leone and Ghana to become equipped with the tools, skills and knowledge needed to make positive impacts and advocate for the prevention of malaria. Soon afterwards, the world as they once knew came to a halt. In 2020, at the very beginning of their journeys, our Youth Leaders, like the rest of the world, were facing a global health crisis – COVID-19. The pandemic left them to grapple with two challenges:

1) A new emerging threat to already existing health crises in Africa, namely malaria in the context of fragile healthcare systems.

2) A return to the drawing board and finding new ways to campaign and advocate for change in this new climate and unknown territory.

Very quickly the Youth Leaders realised that their leadership in helping prevent the former was very much down to how they would handle the latter.

COVID- 19 almost brought the NHS to the brink here in the UK. It also highlighted the pre-existing cracks in the fragile health care systems of our Youth Leaders’ respective countries, and the importance of countries’ ability to procure equipment for hospitals and health workers, of having enough beds on a ward, of having a robust diagnosis and testing systems, investing in research and development for treatments, and being able to access a hospital quickly that has enough skilled health workers.

Adapting and reigniting passion

It was in this context that I joined the team in 2021. The Youth advocates had been adapting to these challenges for over a year and were now looking ahead to what the legacy of their work would be.

As Rosemary from WACI Health, who has been a mentor to the Youth Leaders put it, “COVID-19 came at a time when the Youth Leaders wanted to shake tables. However, the quick change of circumstances unleashed their innovation and ingenuity”. The advocates have adapted their advocay in many ways amidst the pandemic, but what stands out is their creation of a truly original campaign – a musical drumming theme that has since become the anthem for the movement and the program; Malaria, the beat continues.

 

The New Year was my first official encounter with the Youth Leaders and partner organisations in a meeting where they shared how they felt about the journey so far and envisioned what the final ‘home- stretch’ would look like, as the programme ends this month. My role became clearer in that moment, as I listened to what leadership and change meant to each of them.

Emerica, Youth Leader in Sierra Leone said she “felt good about the journey so far and the circumstances have really improved our career and ways of thinking”. Lightness from Tanzania echoed similar sentiments: “The journey so far has been amazing to watch and see the commitment, engagement and determination of my fellow youth leaders in bringing about change.” Finally, Rita from Ghana very poignantly pointed out that “although the programme will finish on paper, the beat and advocacy will live on long after.”

The Youth Leaders have already begun planting the seeds for the next generation of ending malaria advocates, as you can see in this tweet from the end of last year.

 

I have been taken aback by their absolute commitment and passion to drive change in the world, and all united by one final goal: to go out with, in their words, a bang!

The ‘bang’

Next came the first advocacy moment of 2021 - a Twitter storm on Valentine’s Day. The Youth Leaders filled social media channels with a simple message: Roses are red, violets are blue as malaria continues the beat must continue too. Very quickly their messages and TikTok video picked up traction and lead to the engagement from health care ministers, UNESCO and perhaps most successfully President Biden’s elected lead on Malaria, Dr Raj Panjabi, who acknowledged the Youth leaders’ efforts and stated “in the fight against malaria – and for health equity – we are never too young to lead”.

Reeling from this success, the Youth Leaders catapaulted straight to their next upcoming moment – International Women’s Day. They are working on creating a visual project that challenges us to acknowledge women as leaders, decision makers and implementors in the fight against malaria. For now I will say watch this space!

Finally, their last action and moment of the year will coincide with the last week of the program – World Happiness Day on March 20th. This will be a short film that follows the stories, trials and celebrations of our Youth Leaders as they reflect, look back and embark on their journeys as leaders both locally and globally. Their final roar – for now.

To keep up with the Youth Leaders on social media, follow them on @Africa_yl4 and search for #TheBeatContinues or follow our partner organisations on @YL4HGhana, @YL4HLeone @HFFGat20, @WACI_Tweets and @hdt_tanzania.

Ayesha Farah

Campaign Officer, Send my Friend to School and Youth Leaders for Health

Ayesha Farah has a Bachelor's in History and an Msc in Public Policy. Before joining Send my Friend to School she was the Vice President of a Somali Youth Organisation that is dedicated to helping the Somali community both in the UK and Somalia on issues ranging from maternal health care to...

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