African academy empowers youths
Girls in Uganda learn how to teach others to realize their visions, create jobs and wealth in rural areas.
Drumbeats pulse through the soft afternoon breeze. Teenage girls sing in unison, ululate, then sing again, cheering on their fellow student-athletes as they play long games of volleyball and netball. Baboons pluck at people's pant cuffs before scampering off to the next bit of mischief.Skip to next paragraph
It's a field day here at the campus of the Uganda Rural Development and Training Programme (URDT), where girls learn how to take hold of their own future, teach their parents key skills, and make "Yes, We Can" more than just a campaign slogan in a faraway land.
These girls might not know it, but their small school is being watched as a potential model for transforming poor, war-torn African nations.
With a median age of 15, Uganda has the world's youngest population, according to a 2008 World Bank report. It also has the highest youth (ages 15 to 24) unemployment rate: 83 percent. It's common to find 20-somethings with law and business degrees stocking supermarket shelves. To break the cycle of poverty and war in places like Uganda, some development specialists now say that people don't need fancy degrees; they need to gain practical skills to create their own income – in the countryside – so they won't flood urban slums or join militias. The answer, they say, also lies in helping people learn how to maximize the assets they already have, and in changing the culture from "hands-out" to "can-do."
"Youth unemployment is the most critical problem Africa faces at the moment," says Calestous Juma, a Kenyan professor of international development at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "If you find something that works in Uganda, it will work elsewhere in Africa."
Mr. Juma stresses that the focus must be on creating jobs in rural areas in order to prevent the overcrowding of cities that is emerging as an enormous problem throughout the developing world. "If you are only confronting youth unemployment in the cities, you have already lost half the battle," he says, adding that rural polytechnic schools like URDT are crucial. "The key thing is skills, skills, skills."
Enter Mwalimu Musheshe. In 1987, the former political prisoner cofounded URDT. The program began as small-scale projects to improve the lives of villagers making less than $1 a day. Now it includes an institute for microentrepreneurs, an educational radio station that reaches more than 2 million people, a school for girls, and a polytechnic university for women.
"The same factors that lead to war are the things communities can [fix] themselves, but they haven't been shown how," says Mr. Musheshe. "We ask people: 'Why don't you have clean water?' They list all these external factors, but they forget to list themselves. We help them understand that they are the No. 1 resource."
It's difficult to feel as though you're a No. 1 resource when your illiterate parents make less than $1 a day. But girls from families who make more than that need not apply to URDT's high school. It's only for the poorest of the poor.
Oprah Winfrey's Leadership Academy for Girls, it's not. Unlike that campus in South Africa, which opened in 2007 with a $40 million donation from Ms. Winfrey, there's no "wellness center," no 200-thread-count sheets or yoga classes.
URDT is decidedly modest by comparison, but not modest in the scope of what it aims to do.
"If you can change [the local district of Kibaale], you can change the whole of Uganda and Africa," Musheshe told the girls during a recent lecture. He sees the work of URDT as part of an "African Renaissance" that begins with rebuilding the "mental infrastructure" so Africans can believe they can achieve whatever they want in life, but only through their own creativity and effort.