05/14/2013 05:39 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2013

Young Africans Speaking Up

Estelline says her participation in performances of her local culture club "helps the audience, especially those who became orphans because this shows that they are not alone."

She adds, "while laughing they forget their past. And maybe they forget what things they were planning to do, bad things to do to maybe those who killed their fathers."

In their performances, members of the culture club are teachers of the community. "When I am performing I am happy," says Estelline. "I thought that all the spectators were seeing in me an image of an intelligent girl who is transmitting a message and who is going to perform and to work for the future."

Estelline is a 23-year-old who lost both parents in the genocidal violence of her native Burundi. She is quoted in a new book entitled, Speaking Up and Talking Back? Media, Empowerment and Civic Engagement Among East and Southern African Youth, the latest in a series of scholarly yearbooks published since 1998 by the International Clearinghouse on Children, Youth and Media at the University of Gothenburg (Sweden).

Speaking Up and Talking Back is the outcome of a research project entitled "People Speaking Back? Media, Empowerment and Democracy in East Africa," which focused initially on Kenya and Tanzania. The book "brings together 21 researchers from Northern Europe and East- and Southern Africa contributing to reflections about media, empowerment and civic engagement amongst African youth in processes of social change and democratic transition."

Rooted in the field of communication studies, the book draws especially on theory and research concerning "communication for development and social change." Democratic progress, the researchers agree, is not a matter of communication from Europeans to Africans or from older to younger generations. African youth must be engaged in meaningful communication with each other and with their societies.

In her chapter "Makamba Culture Clubs: Towards Communication for Reconciliation," Nikita Junagade discusses "culture clubs" organized by the Adventist Development Relief Agency in Makamba, the southern province of Burundi. A tiny country in east central Africa, Burundi lies immediately south of equally tiny Rwanda, the site of a 1994 genocide in which over 500,000 people (out of a population of 8 million) were killed in 100 days.

Burundi has its own politics but shares with Rwanda a tortured history of Hutu and Tutsi identities, violence, mass killings, exile, and return. The culture clubs were intended to "improvise and collectively compose sketches, songs and dances, as well as poetry or traditional Burundian drumming performances, on issues related to peace and reconciliation."

In addressing the general topic of peace and reconciliation, individual clubs functioned freely. Clubs "chose their medium of expression and had complete creative freedom ... without a facilitator of any kind." They served as spaces of encounter, healing, identity reconstruction, and critical consciousness.

Communication for social change, writes Junagade, "is principally about creating a space where people directly affected by an issue can get together and engage in dialogue." Through such dialogue, "people determine who they are, what they need and what they want." Communication is horizontal rather than vertical; people are "drivers of their own change."

Combining communication for social change with reconciliation theory, Junagade proposes four dimensions of what she calls "communication for reconciliation." The first is "looking back at the past." The second, "looking within oneself," involves the reconstruction of identity. The third, "looking at others," concerns relationships, trust, and "mutual identity renegotiation." Finally, "looking towards the future" involves envisioning and moving toward an interdependent future.

Charlotte, a 35-year-old farmer and founding member of a culture club known as Twiterambere, said, "Before I entered the club, I had a strong vision of the other group different from mine. But nowadays, my life has changed, I am open as we have to live together sharing this land, we are brothers and sisters."

Charlotte sees the performances of her club as the outcome of a collective creative process. In her words: "We are discussing, not quarrelling, not someone imposing himself."

Junagade concludes that the Makamba culture clubs address all four dimensions of communication for reconciliation. Other chapters apply communication for development and social change to a variety of other issues in diverse cultural contexts. Intellectual freedom fosters peer discussion, collaborative expression, and deliberative democracy.

As for Estelline, the club functions as a substitute family: "These women are replacing my parents. They helped me very much in showing me how I could feed, look for shelter for and clothe my sisters."

Estelline may be talking about her biological family but her point is general. For young Africans, as for everyone, intellectual freedom is crucial to identifying, and looking after, one's brothers and sisters.