In a country where young people are an underprivileged and often cynical majority, Nanre Nafzinger trains teenagers to design and implement practical projects for social change.
The New Idea
Hope is a rare commodity for the young people of Nigeria, who have seen terrible war and social upheaval throughout their formative years. Nanre builds hope among Nigerian youth by giving them the chance to lead social change initiatives that yield concrete results. She runs an intensive leadership training program, starting with an intensive summer camp and culminating in year-long projects designed by youth. Now in its third year, her effort draws teenagers from schools across the country, as well as recent graduates of secondary schools. By building a critical mass of motivated and caring young people, Nanre prepares Nigeria’s youth to lead a broad national movement toward sustainable, peaceful democracy.
Africa’s most populous nation is a nation of young people whose childhoods were filled with war and social upheaval. Fully 43 percent of Nigeria’s 137 million citizens are younger than fifteen, and 1 in every 5 is between the ages of 15 and 24. These young people, who must soon fill the ranks of leadership in business, government, and civil society, have grown up amid terror campaigns, economic collapse, and all-out civil war. Bearing the scars of these traumatic experiences, young people often find themselves unprepared to apply creativity, persistence, and unwavering ethics to help their country’s new democratic system take root.
Education and employment systems in Nigeria offer scant opportunity for young people to develop the skills they need to lead their country toward better times. Public school teachers continue in the tradition of the colonial period, forcing children to sit still, speak when spoken to, and blindly follow the dictates of their elders. With unemployment floating around 28 percent and many Nigerian families on the edge of starvation, young people channel their creative energy into scams and roadside thievery to secure money and food. Few local opportunities lead to a mass exodus of talented young people: children of privileged families get out of the country at the first opportunity, seeking education in Europe or the U.S.; and enterprising young people of lesser means find ways to emigrate illegally. Lacking investment in their country’s future, the young people who remain often fall victim to apathy and cynicism.
Attempts to provide young people with the opportunity to take positive roles in their communities are limited at best. Nigeria maintains a mandatory national service corps for university students, but it is poorly managed and only reaches roughly 4 percent of young people. The program forces young people to serve rather than encouraging them to lead of their own free will. Nigeria still lacks effective mechanisms to inspire young people to take ownership over the health and success of their communities.
Nanre reaches promising young people in their penultimate year of secondary school, drawing them into a set of activities that build skills of collaboration, problem analysis, and presentation. Engaging in dialogue across lines of gender, race, and ethnicity, her young leaders design and carry out social change initiatives in their schools and communities.
Supported by her organization Linking the Youth of Nigeria through Exchange (LYNX-NIGERIA), Nanre reaches out to potential recruits through a network of participating schools in seven cities across Nigeria. Program liaisons at each school distribute applications and guide interested students through the initial stages of applying. Their active role in the recruitment process saves time for Nanre, but more importantly, it sets a pattern of collaboration with school administrators that becomes a crucial resource for young leaders as they design their projects for social change.
To ensure maximum impact, Nanre and her colleagues carefully select participants from a large pool of applicants representing each of Nigeria’s major regions, as well as the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja. They balance participants according to gender, and make sure to include young people from a diverse range of ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. LYNX-NIGERIA accepts at least two participants from each participating school to ensure that no student is alone, that every young leader works as part of a collaborative team.
Once her committee has crafted a promising group of participants, Nanre begins their intensive training with a three-week summer leadership camp near Abuja. With guidance from peer counselors, participants share opinions about their society, talk through possible solutions, and learn the rudiments of community action and involvement. They learn trust, self-confidence, and teamwork; most importantly, they begin to build close ties to the other motivated young Nigerians, building off of each other’s inspiration and commitment.
At the end of the camp, trainees from the same state identify areas of need which they would like to work on in their home states. In the past these areas have included democracy and human rights, health, peace and conflict resolution and the environment. Students then return to their schools and form ‘LYNX Clubs.’ These clubs go through an in depth process of planning community projects. First, they conduct a needs assessment of their respective communities, then they come up with an action plan, implement the project and then evaluate the project by returning to the community when the project was implemented. The participants are assisted by a trained LYNX volunteer who meets with the students on a weekly basis along with the assistance of an in school coordinator. Students use their own creativity and innovativeness to come up with projects that are both practical and grassroots based. They come together to design and work out practical projects for social change. Students return home for the coming school year ready to implement their projects over the course of the school year. Nanre partners each student with a program coordinator and an in-school counselor who work with the student all year to help the project realize its full potential. Though the coordinator and counselor give regular advice, they make sure to allow their student the freedom to learn from his or her own mistakes. Nanre visits each school twice each year to monitor progress, brainstorm project strategies, and help craft solutions to logistical problems.
As the year-long projects come to a close, LYNX-NIGERIA mentors guide students through an evaluation phase. Students reflect on the accomplishments and flaws of their projects and at the same time gain firsthand experience in designing and implementing tools for project assessment. They present the results of their evaluation to their mentors and to members of their community, often shocking adults with their commitment and insight. These results often exceed anyone’s expectations: for example, a peer education project on HIV and sexuality resulted in a state-wide club involving more than a thousand students.
Students look forward to the final step of the LYNX-NIGERIA program all year. During the summer after their projects are implemented, students come together for a reunion in Abuja, where they share stories, presentations, and good times with their peers. At the reunion, Nanre inducts her students into a nationwide network of alumni, encouraging them to remain active and help secure future leadership efforts for young Nigerians. She is starting an alumni newsletter called “Youth in Action” to keep her alumni informed and to strengthen the connections between them.
The LYNX-NIGERIA program began its third cycle in August 2004 with seventy teenagers, a roughly 40 percent increase in enrollment from the year before. Nanre recently founded a parallel program for young people who have already completed secondary school and are either looking for jobs or awaiting enrollment at university. To support the growth of her organization, Nanre is assembling its Board of Directors, drawing from the entrepreneurial young people who have graduated from her programs. As LYNX-NIGERIA expands, Nanre keeps infrastructure light, focusing all efforts directly toward the service of young people.
Nanre Nafziger grew up in Jos, in North-Central Nigeria, where she went to an exceptional missionary school that fostered a spirit of community action among its students. As a fourteen-year-old, Nanre taught former sex workers to read and write as part of a larger rehabilitation and literacy program. She later organized classmates to support an orphanage through weekly visits and fundraising initiatives. As a student government delegate, she led an effort to revitalize a dormant program for the deaf based out of Jos University Teaching Hospital.
After high school, Nanre headed to the United States to continue her education for what would be a six-year stint away from Nigeria. At Boston College, her social situation rapidly changed: where most Africans viewed her as white, most Americans now considered her black. She identified with her Hispanic and African-American classmates, and soon became involved in volunteer programs serving minority neighborhoods.
She had entered college with an interest in medicine, but found her social science coursework more fascinating than biology and chemistry. Sociology in particular attracted her attention; she craved classes that could train her to deeply probe social problems and craft practical solutions. To supplement her coursework, she sought out intensive volunteer experiences that would lay the foundation for her work in Nigeria, exposing her to the nuts and bolts of organizational management and development. In particular, she drew lessons from City Year, a national citizen-led program that engages young adults in a year of full-time community service.
Determined to translate theoretical knowledge into practical policy, Nanre studied at University of London, focusing on health policy, planning and financing. She received her masters degree in the year 2002.
During her time abroad, Nanre maintained strong ties to Nigeria and took up research assignments during college and graduate school that focused on problems back home, especially those relating to teenagers and young adults. In 2000, she founded Linking the Youth of Nigeria through Exchange along with other Nigerian students, and began crafting the curricula and networks that would support its first trainings. She returned to Nigeria in 2003 to direct the organization full-time.