Young Zambian teens pull together in service program

October 25, 2007
Young teens join to recite a poem at the launch on 6 October of 38 new "junior youth" groups in Sinazongwe District in southern Zambia.

SINAZONGWE DISTRICT, Zambia — The Tonga tribe has lived in southern Zambia for hundreds of years, and members are proud of their longstanding traditions and strong social codes. But leaders say some of the customs are eroding - young people, for example, no longer seem to respect the elderly.

A new program involving hundreds of young teens working in small groups may help change that - and simultaneously help the youngsters get along better with each other.

"The groups have started with helping old people in the community," said Siankuku Sabantu, a local fisherman.

"This is something that sometime back was normal but in recent years has stopped. Now the youth have again started helping old people by drawing water for them, gathering firewood and cleaning their homes," he said.

The groups are part of what is known in the Baha'i Faith as the Junior Youth Program, a worldwide effort to help young people aged 12 to 15 - "junior youth" - make good moral choices in their daily lives.

Thirty-eight groups have formed in the Sinazongwe District, and they had their official launch earlier this month. They join another 130 groups in other parts of Zambia that comprise as many as 2,000 participants across the nation. Some are members of the Baha'i Faith, but as many as three-fourths are not.

Chief Sinazongwe, a Tonga tribal leader and also a Baha'i, believes the program - where youth offer service to others as well as studying a text - helps give the young teens a "sense of nobility."

"The youth are better behaved," he said, "and a lot of people are noticing it."

"This program," he continued, "is helping them to see what values are important. They are finding a sense of self worth, and realizing that they are important."

Chuungu Malitonga, a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Zambia, has been monitoring the development of the Junior Youth Program for the last two years. What's happening in Sinazongwe is not unusual, he said.

"From the beginning the program asks the junior youth to look at themselves in the context of their societies," he said. "It encourages them to take ownership for the conditions of those societies.... It doesn't take too long for the program to produce the type of results we are seeing in Sinazongwe."

African drums added to the festivities at the launch of the Junior Youth Program in the Sinazongwe District of Zambia. Slideshow
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African drums added to the festivities at the launch of the Junior Youth Program in the Sinazongwe District of Zambia.

In Zambia, the youth groups meet at least once a week, often on the weekend.

"The two major activities at the moment are study of a text and a service project," said Mr. Malitonga. "They have also undertaken some outings but this is not a strong component yet."

The groups - most have about a dozen members - usually meet in their village, under a tree or in a small hut, for study sessions of two hours or so, using a text specifically developed for the program.

The first book they use tells the story of a young girl and her older cousin who comes to visit for the school holidays. Together the girls discuss their hopes and possibilities for the future. The story is designed to help youngsters develop moral foundations to guide their decisions and direct their actions.

For the service component, some of the activities are planned and some are spontaneous.

"Recently there was a funeral in the village and the members of the group gathered all the firewood and drew all the water for the bereaved family," said Mr. Sabantu. "Another good service they are offering is to maintain a clean environment around the borehole which is the only source of water in the village."

In some villages, the youngsters go to rural hospitals, visit patients and help clean.

The entire Sinazongwe District is rural, with most villagers making a living by fishing - the area abuts Lake Kariba, the largest manmade lake in Africa - as well as farming and herding.

Olivia Hamoonga, 15, a Christian, is one of the participants in the Junior Youth Program in the Sinazongwe District.

"I feel that my reading and comprehension skills have improved since I joined the group," she said. "Also, in our group, we pay a lot of attention to respecting yourself and respecting adults, and to offering service to society."

Each group is helped by a trained animator, or facilitator, many of whom are themselves young, only a few years older than the members.

In their training, animators learn techniques to help the young teens develop their spiritual and intellectual capacities and prepare them to perform acts of service in their communities.

Tobias Siavwapa, 21, a goat trader in the Sinazongwe District, is one of the animators. A Christian, he said he joined the program because he sees the world changing rapidly and worries about the youth.

"I see many youth doing things that are not beneficial to them such as smoking and drinking. I heard about the junior youth idea, and I knew that it is at this age that a difference can be made," he said.

"Being part of the group helps the youth learn to do things that are good for their lives and learn to serve the community. I see this when they help people, fetching water and wood for old people."

In only a few months, he said, he has seen some of the youngsters change.

"At first some of the youth were very naughty and a little disruptive. Others had serious reading and writing difficulties," he said. "But even after a month of work, I can see behavior improving and their reading and writing becoming better."

Chief Sinazongwe says the program helps the young people develop a sense of responsibility.

"This is their land, their country, their environment," he said. "They are now learning to take care of these things. They are the future leaders. If they do not learn to do these things, who will do them when we are gone?"

Mr. Malitonga says one reason the program is successful is that the groups promote interaction between members on one side, and the older youth who often serve as animators on the other side. The younger ones look up to their older helpers, he said.

The careful balance between the two components - study and social action - also is a key to success, he said.

"It is not enough to just give the participants the theory," Mr. Malitonga said. "The program really encourages them to put this theory into practice and be of service to their community."

Mr. Sabantu - who is a Baha'i and has lived in southern Zambia his whole life - said since the program started he is noticing more harmony among the youngsters. Boys in the area, he said, spend most of their time in small groups tending cattle - groups that sometimes behave like small gangs and get into fights with each other.

"An immediate change that came from these classes has been the cessation of the fights among the herder boys who have joined the groups," he said. "There is also more interaction among them, more harmony. The boys and the girls are also working together in the community, not just in school."