We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa and the young people around the world — you, too, can make his life’s work your own. Over 30 years ago, while still a student, I learned of Nelson Mandela and the struggles taking place in this beautiful land, and it stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself, and it set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today. And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man. He speaks to what’s best inside us.
We read this excerpt from Obama’s speech in the big kids’ meetings on Thursday, the young people of Africa. Everyone was stilled. “It is so touching,” said Andrew. Smith quoted what Mandela said about courage not being the absence of fear, but the facing of it. We all hovered on the edge of tears, feeling the weight of possibility.
Our work in this project is about trying to find ways to live into what’s best inside ourselves. That our week here coincided with Mandela’s memorial was serendipitous.
All week, the Niki students have been working in teams to develop community service projects. The “spirit of Nikibasika,” said Tina, our social worker, inspired. “It is not about these kids, but what they can do for the community. The spirit will get even bigger when they are grown, when you are done here!”
Lisa had the brainwave of having the kids develop leadership projects this week, a satellite version of what the older ones do in the three month leadership program they do with our partner, the amazing Kibo Foundation. We set them up in mixed teams on Monday and asked them to think about who they might want to help with a community service project.
(Team 2 – Jethro, Dan, Kagame, Beth, Angela, Joyce and Desire)
We were blown away when we met with them on Tuesday and every team had identified a community to help and a set of creative, deeply empathetic goals. Helping the street kids of Kasese, volunteering at the local hospitals, teaching the children of a nearby village who don’t go to school, helping the elderly.
We coached them on setting realistic, specific goals, and gave them an outline for a basic project plan. Name of team, name of project, goal, steps, timelines, roles, impact.
(Brenda N presents for her team, “People’s Hope”)
They presented their plans yesterday, and we were utterly blown away. These are all high school students (the university students are on campus this week), and each group had a comprehensive, insightful, meaningful, inspiring plan.
More than the plans, though, it was the insight. The need for the elderly to “feel loved,” by visiting and talking with them and providing practical support like cleaning and slashing (keeping the grass cut). To improve health through helping scrub at the local hospital, to help the sick who have no family while in hospital.
What strikes us over and over is their understanding of empathy, seeing themselves simultaneously as role models and as the same as people in deep need. They talked about helping street kids “feel we are all one,” about approaching people “without arrogance.” The see the need all around them. “We feel the urge,” said Phionah. “We owe them something. We have to be a part of them — feel what they feel.” They talked about asking questions, doing research, finding out what people need.
Some of the projects were about short term help, but some of the students innately understand longer term community development. One project focuses on the children in Rebecca’s village, to help them learn cleanliness, basic English, how to talk to others, team games, how to resolve conflict, along with helping the whole community understand the rights of children. They plan to talk to the parents about children’s rights where they see need.
These young adults straddle many worlds. During these presentations, the rooster wouldn’t stop crowing loudly and pecking at a hen right beside the presenters. At one point, randomly, two goats from the neighbours bounded onto the porch and into the kids watching. They understand about bridging between what they have and people who have nothing.
“My village is my witness,” said Rebecca. “My home inspires me. They have the team spirit. When you come with a new thing, they will go to it because they believe in me, they trust me.”
In other words, the students at Nikibasika are already seen as leaders, and have integrated the notion of community service into what they see as their role in the world. When they talked about expected impact, they talked about the effect on the community, but also the effect on themselves. “We get pleasure from helping those people,” said one. “We learn cooperation and empathy.”
“We have zeal, commitment and sacrifice,” said Innocent, several times. “Our plan is to do this for two years, with some hope of doing it for the rest of our lives.”
“We are the future Nelson Mandelas,” said Phionah.
I believe them.