As Malawi commemorates International Day of the Youth this week under the theme â€˜Building a better world, partnering with youths,Â Ephraim NyondoÂ rekindles the memories of Youth Week, and wonders if its end also killed youthsâ€™ relevance to society.
He recalls he was only eight in 1991, wearing a short and sitting on the floors of Standard Three at Luwazi Primary School in the northern Malawi district of Nkhata Bay.
Twenty-one years have passed, but Martin Kamanga remembers everything about participating in the Youth Week, then.
â€œThere is a road that connects Luwazi Seventh Day Missionâ€”where the primary school isâ€”to the M5 Road. It is about 12 km. The road is crucial because it connects Luwaziâ€”an island community, to the outer world.
â€œI remember during Youth Week, my mother instructing me to carry a hoe to help in the maintenance work on this road. Although I was young, I still recall the joy and fun that a number of us had in working together for the good of our community. We never heard complaints coming from locals because of the road. It was always in good condition,â€ he says.
Three years later, the Youth Week project was curtailed. Kamanga, however, was too young to understand the effect of the decision on Luwazi Road.
â€œIt was only when I reached Standard Eight that I started to notice that the road was not in good condition. There was a time we heard that we would not receive notebooks and pens because a government vehicle carrying them failed to negotiate the bumps and potholes on the road,â€ he adds.
These days, when he travels home to Luwazi, Kamangaâ€”who is now a resident of Zingwangwa, Blantyreâ€”canâ€™t help but wonder why the Youth Week was curtailed.
â€œThe road is in a terrible state. It would be very unfair to wait on government to maintain this small road when youths could do the work in the past.
â€œWe took pride in contributing to the development of our nation. Nowadays, it is common to see youths just staying idle, waiting for government to implement every development project in their areas,â€ he says.
It is not just Luwazi Road which is in a poor state. Most feeder roads in the countryâ€™s townships are potholed, bumpy and have drainages filled with foul stagnant liquids and carelessly disposed of garbage.
Zingwangwa, the township where Kamanga resides, is a good example.
â€œRoads in Zingwangwa used to be clean and in good condition during Youth Week times,â€ says John Amos, 37, a resident in the township, adding: â€œWe were mobilised to work, but we had fun.
â€œBecause of that, we grew up with a spirit of self-help without always pointing fingers at the city council or government. In fact, we also jealously guarded against vandalism of bridges and such things.
â€œThe challenge we face today is that most youths no longer feel they have a responsibility to develop their country.â€
Self help spirit
According to Ignasio Malizani, senior lecturer in human geography at Mzuzu University, the Youth Week was a self-help initiative coordinated by government through the Youth and Culture Department.
â€œCommunities were engaged in the construction of social infrastructure such as classroom blocks, clinics, postal agencies, community halls, roads and bridges, shallow boreholes and small-scale irrigation schemes,â€ he writes in an article titled Community Development:Â a Cross-Examination of Theory and Practice Using Experiences in Rural MalawiÂ published in Africa Development journal.
He adds that between 1976 and 1985 about 6 723 projects were completed countrywide.
Mwanza Central MP Nicholas Dausi, a former member of the Malawi Young Pioneers who organised the Youth Week and also one of its beneficiaries, adds: â€œYouths were taught different entrepreneurial skills with a purpose of instilling a spirit of self-help and hard work in them.â€
Unfortunately, the dawn of democracy in 1994 saw Bakili Muluziâ€™s government abandoning the National Youth Week initiative. The argument was that the military wing of the then ruling party, the Malawi Young Pioneers, mobilised people forcefully to participate in government initiatives, including the Youth Week.
â€œPrimary and secondary schools were required to suspend classes for a week or more to participate in public works projects,â€ writes Malizani.
But the abandonment of Youth Week has created, as Kamanga noted, a generation of unpatriotic youths.
For this reason, youthsâ€”who constitute over half of the countryâ€™s population estimated at 13.1 million, according to the 2008 Population and Housing Censusâ€”have remained conspicuously missing from the development platform.
This is why some youth activists in the country argue the Youth Week was a great tool for development.
â€œIt united and empowered all youths in the country in pursuing development activities,â€ says Suleman Atupele Chitera, one of the countryâ€™s youth activists.
Steve Iphani, a Lilongwe-based youth activist, concurs with Chitera that the week made youths relevant to society, to have a sense of patriotism.
Dausi says what the Bakili Muluzi government could have done is to remove the para-military aspect of the initiative and rework the development part.
â€œThey should not have abandoned it like that. Now the youth are all over like beggars, with no talent, no employment,â€ he says.