How Kenya's future leaders found their voice

Zipporah with two other women inside the doorway of her store
24 February 2017

Colorful clothes in modern styles hang by the entrance to Zipporah’s store. Little more than a stall in a shopping centre in Nyeri, Kenya, it holds a surprisingly wide selection of women’s clothing. When a customer arrives, Zipporah and her assistant pull out dress after dress until they strike on something impossible to resist.

At just 23, Zipporah is part of a generation of young Kenyans Mercy Corps is helping to develop economic and leadership potential. In the years since Zipporah has joined Mercy Corps’ youth programme, she has become a serial entrepreneur, opening two clothing shops and a cybercafé, and farming on her family land.

It’s something she never thought she would have the opportunity to do before she connected with Mercy Corps. “I felt isolated,” Zipporah explained. “Bearing in mind that I didn’t come from a wealthy family and only the wealthy get wealthier in Kenya.”

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Disaffected young people and instability

Annette in a white t-shirt with several people gathered in the background
Mercy Corps’ youth program provides young Kenyans like Annette, 23, who traditionally lack opportunities for civic engagement, with knowledge and skills to give them ownership of their future. “When we are empowered with the ideas we will be able to push this country ahead where we want it to be," Annette says. ALL PHOTOS: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

This sense of fatalism and lack of social mobility, paired with ethnic rivalries, were huge factors in the deadly civil unrest that broke out after the 2007 elections in Kenya. In the months following the disputed election, a wave of violent protests killed more than 1,400 people and displaced 600,000. When the dust settled, it was clear that — incited by corrupt politicians and local leaders — disaffected young people had perpetrated much of the violence.

Kenyans under 30 make up 75 per cent of the country’s population. But that demographic weight didn’t translate to political clout. There was a deep sense that young people’s voices and concerns were not represented in the political life of the nation.

Additionally, unemployment was, and still is, high for young people, so just when they are on the verge of adulthood, a huge portion of Kenya’s population feels pessimistic about creating a productive future.

With this mix of demographic despair as a backdrop, Mercy Corps set out to engage Kenya’s young people in their communities and empower them to create opportunities for themselves. With young people and local mentors, Mercy Corps developed a system of youth bunges, the Swahili word for parliament.

A group of people smiling and talking to one another
A bunge in Naivashu gathers for a meeting. This group performs drama, dance and spoken word poetry to local audiences to raise awareness about community issues like drug abuse, domestic violence, AIDS and peace between local tribes.

Through the bunge system, groups of 10-15 young people gathered to identify the biggest challenges in their villages and towns. “The input of the young people was to identify what they really wanted, what challenges they had or have, and look for solutions,” says Zipporah.

The bunges sought to address issues like gender-based violence, drug abuse, environmental degradation and unemployment. Mercy Corps connected them with mentors and training to help them reach their goals. Soon the groups started small collective businesses and advocated for change in their communities.

Mirroring a government structure, the local groups sent delegates to county-wide bunges, and from there to the national bunge parliament, amplifying the voices and concerns of young people along the way.

“Politicians initially saw … the empowerment of young people as a threat,” says Kibaki Wilson, a colleague of Zipporah’s on their county bunge council. “The county is accountable to the young people now because we have this platform.”

From local bunge to national government

A group of people smiling and applauding. charles is at right.
Charles (right) was the first president of his village bunge and an early supporter of the bunge system. "It creates leaders,” he says.

For Charles, now 31, the bunges provided an opportunity to recreate some of the future the post-election violence stole. He had plans to go to college in 2008, but his family lost everything when the violence broke out.

“I never even thought of my future because I was thinking of what to eat, where to sleep, and who to be with at that time,” Charles says.

When Mercy Corps started working in his hometown of Naivasha, Charles immediately joined. “They said they would offer trainings, leadership trainings, economic trainings,” Charles recalled. “It was something unbelievable to us.”

Charles became the president of a youth bunge in Naivasha, and began to work with local county officials to advocate for young people. Today he is an advisor to Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, on youth issues.

Developing economic power

Youth watering and caring for a crop
Members of a youth bunge work in the greenhouse they started. The group grows five different types of bamboo, which they want to sell locally and use to restore the area’s lake and river banks.

Black mesh fabric shields row after row of bamboo shoots from the hot Kenyan sun in a long greenhouse. A handful of young men and women water the baby plants and pull small weeds. They belong to a bunge in Naivasha, a group of 15 people who pooled their resources to start this plant nursery business.

Patrick, 24, manages the project. He says the group’s vision is to introduce five different types of bamboo to the local market. Homeowners can plant them as decorative landscaping. The bamboo can also be used to help restore the lake and riverbanks in the nearby Lake Naivasha basin.

Mercy Corps connected the group to mentors and business training, as well as a grant that supplemented the group’s investment for startup costs. Right now they have 4,500 seedlings growing, but they have plans to scale the business up to grow 50,000-100,000 seedlings, creating income for all the members of the bunge.

Art and community change

Young people in matching red pants, black shirts and patterned vests performing a dance
Young people practice a dance performance during a bunge meeting in Kapenguria.

In a culture as rich in music and dance as Kenya’s, it isn’t surprising that many bunges use art to achieve their goals. In Kapenguria in the Rift Valley, a group of adolescents create and perform song, dance and theatre to get local people to think about social problems and change behaviour.

“There is a lot of energy,” says Annette, 20, of her performing group. “Like in this county, it’s usually known for FGM [female genital mutilation]. In our group we have had skits, we have acted on FGM, peace, malaria, anti-social things like drugs. It’s all from the youth. We are trying to change society, through acting and dance.”

One of the group’s leaders, Richard, says the voices of the young people are having an impact on local traditions. He points to his own village as a success story: known for practicing FGM, he says no girls in his nearby village have been circumcised since 2013.

Stronger together

Zipporah smiling with several other people standing in background, also smiling
The bunge system has given young Kenyans like Zipporah a voice in their community they didn’t have before. Zipporah feels so empowered she now has her sights set on local leadership.

Tens of thousands of young people in central and western Kenya have participated in the bunges facilitated by Mercy Corps. The national elections of 2013 were widely viewed as a test of whether young people would again react violently to the election results. They passed without incident, a result attributed in part to work integrating a vast generation of young people into the life of the country.

Though there are still many challenges for young Kenyans, the bunges give them support and a platform in which they can work together to build the future they want.

“When the youths are empowered it’s like the whole nation has been empowered, because we are the future of this country,” says Annette.

Her businesses are thriving, and Zipporah, the entrepreneur from Nyeri, has been elected to treasurer of the national bunge parliament.

It’s an honour that still surprises her. “I never knew I would be in a position to lead,” she says. “And every day I get challenged with whatever is going on in the society, and I feel if I am not the change, who will be the change?”

Now she’s become more interested in leadership. Her goal is to run for countywide office in her local government in elections this year.

“I think our generation is going to change Kenya,” she says with a smile.

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