In one of my favourite Whatsapp chat groups, we often find ourselves debating topics ranging from politics to artificial intelligence to Valentine’s day plans. Often, our debates about Ghana orbit around problems with ‘the system’ and ways we can solve them. No system has been spared our wrath; we’ve taken swings at the political system, educational system, healthcare system, the media, and any institution that’s unlucky enough to come to mind. Of course, after roundly panning the status quo, we move on to bandying ideas about how to improve things. It’s an interesting exercise, because no matter what brilliant solution anyone comes up with, we manage to punch holes in it till it’s either unassailable or no longer useful. At the end of one such debate, someone suggested that it was our duty to change the worldview of our youth, so that they can finally make the changes we want so badly. Being a big fan of youth empowerment conferences, I was quick to throw my support behind this suggestion. On the radio, in conference halls and even in church, I’ve heard motivational speakers say the same thing: the future belongs to the youth. The youth will change everything. The youth will save us all.
And then it struck me…that I’m 21. And all the people I’d had similar conversations with were also in their twenties. We were young, we were healthy, we were educated and we had had access to more resources and information than any generation before us. And here we were, speaking about ‘the youth’ in the third person.
I remembered the song we sang as schoolchildren, Arise, Ghana Youth, for your country, and the irony finally hit me like a brick. Rather than jumping up, getting my youthful swag on, and shuffling off to change the world, I felt despair. I despaired to think that I too had joined in the cycle of transgenerational procrastination that leaves everyone worse off at the end. I despaired to think that in all my self-righteous criticism of the status quo, I had become part of it. In hoping that someone would come along and solve our problems, I despaired to discover that I had become our problem.
In the throes of my existential crisis, I noticed something else. All the motivational speakers we had ever flocked to listen to, with their glossy hair and shiny shoes and quotable quotes, didn’t really care about any particular young person in the audience. The youth to whom they sang their odes were not a people, but a concept. Nameless, formless, but infinitely capable, this magical cloud of youth would waft over the country like an elixir and make everything perfect. As far-fetched as this construct sounds, I think we all recognize it in ourselves. We invoke it every time we say “I will do it tomorrow”. And I suspect that you, too, realize that for all its potency, this future alter-ego of ours is woefully unreliable.
Quickly, I consulted the wisdom of history to temper my pessimism. Young people around the world, from Tiananmen, China to Soweto, South Africa have risen up, fought bitterly and even given up their lives to make the world a better place. Young Ghanaians have by no means sat on the sidelines; look around, and you’ll see the early waves of a cultural revolution washing over our society. Considering the fearless protests of Occupy Flagstaff House, the insightful thought leadership of Barcamp Ghana, the unblinking scrutiny of Odekro, and the critical (yet beautiful) writings of Circumspecte, there is plenty to look forward to.
The only fear which remains unallayed is that, at this pace, we might end up with a Ghana which contains pockets of excellence but cannot quite claim excellence itself.
A Ghana where we have silos of world-class service but no overarching world-class reputation. A Ghana where we boast of certain universities instead of our education system, certain hospitals instead of our healthcare system, and certain heroes and heroines instead of our people. Yes, some successes have shone through the interstices of failed systems, but why settle for a bespeckled future when the full brightness of the sun is within our reach?
There is much work to do, and it would be unfair to blame our unwarranted belief in the youth for all the problems that remain unsolved. Mediocrity, apathy and mass amnesia continue to drag both our people and our institutions down. Case in point, weren’t we just angry about Abigail Diko, the 21-year-old KNUST student who passed away in Korle Bu? How about that time they tested an Ebola vaccine in Ghana without informing the public? I may be wrong, but I bet these cases vanished from our memories when some committee promised to look into it, rather than when there was actual reform. But I digress. Other issues notwithstanding, I believe adopting the right attitude towards the youth is the first step, or at least the easiest one, on the path towards correcting the infamous ‘Ghanaian mentality’ that pervades our society. For the sake of our youth, we should set up better schools, organize more conferences, have more meaningful conversations…
Or, once and for all, acknowledge that the youth doesn’t actually exist. There is nobody to pick up after us. At best, the next generation will only complain about the mess we leave in our wake, like we are doing now and our forefathers did before us, until the buck stops at “If the British hadn’t colonized us.” Alternatively, we can drill it into our minds that there is no Second Coming of the Youth, and begin to live, lead, work and serve like we are the last generation that will ever tread Ghana’s soil. We can run like we are trying to win the gold medal, instead of slowing down to pass the baton. We can live to fight another day by actually finishing the fight.
If you must insist that there is a youth, then let us address actual young people instead of a faceless crowd or some concept floating in the ether. We have no right to speak about education in our political manifestos when children in Kperisi and elsewhere are lying on the dusty ground to study.
Many organizations have already set the ball rolling, but I believe anyone of us can push this agenda forward with a little effort. Get your alumni group together to build a library, donate books or hold a mentoring session. Organize a technology fair, a quiz, a competition, or even a talent show. If you think the youth of today don’t like to read, give them books and teach them how. If you believe they are our future leaders, sit with them and teach them about leadership and public speaking. If you believe they will fix the healthcare system, take them on a tour of a hospital and show them what needs fixing. And if none of these things are within your ken, do whatever you do with a level of excellence that the youth will thank you for. If you can’t work with them, at least give them something to work with.
Personally, I refuse to wait for the youth. I choose to believe in my generation. I choose to believe that we are the change that we wish to see. If ever I am forced to leave things to the youth, due to old age or incapacity, I want to at least make sure I leave them a Ghana which looks less like a palimpsest of failures and more like an unfinished masterpiece.
Perhaps the Arise Ghana Youth song isn’t so ironic after all. I’m still not sure who the children are singing to, but I am at least certain that I am singing to you.
“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton.
Lyndon Sam is an aspiring social entrepreneur and thought leader. He enjoys writing, connecting with people and creating platforms for discussing big ideas.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of Circumspecte. Photo Credit: Ahaspora