Recently, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation chose not to award its $5 million prize for achievement in African leadership for the third consecutive year, due to a lack of suitable candidates. Contrasting this discouraging news, a recent Gallup poll found that 14 of the world's 15 most optimistic countries are in Africa. While pundits debate the source of that optimism, I know that much of mine comes from the new generation of young African leaders emerging from communities across the continent.
Some of the most exceptional examples of young leaders I have come across recently are from Kenya. In response to the election violence in Kenya in 2007-08, Global Communities and its partners PeaceNet and Kituo Cha Sheria are implementing a USAID-supported conflict mitigation program called Kenya Tuna Uwezo ("we have the power" in Kiswahili). The program focuses on the informal settlements of Nairobi which were hotbeds of post-election violence and where crime and gang culture are endemic.
For the last 18 months, the team has worked to unite communities formerly at odds, uncovering the sources of conflict, resolving them, and redirecting energies towards peace-building and political changes that benefit the community. The members of the communities involved in this program demonstrate true leadership qualities - they act with commitment and a selflessness that manifests itself in service to others. The young leaders taking part in this program are role models for their peers - and their national leaders - and have extraordinary stories to tell.
Take Rose Mbone, now in her mid-20s, who was a teenager living in Korogocho settlement when she found out she was pregnant. The baby's father, who was involved in gang activity, was shot and killed only two months into Rose's pregnancy. Rose lived with her grandmother, mother, and her two brothers; once the baby arrived, the burden to provide for everyone in the household was too much and her brothers got involved with local gangs. Rose assisted with their lifestyle, smuggling her brother's gun and providing him with it when it was needed for a crime. When her brother was arrested and sent to prison, Rose assumed responsibility for providing for the family and increased her own involvement in crime.
Eight years later, her brother returned from prison. Soon after he was shot to death trying to carjack someone. He was carrying the gun that Rose had helped him hide.
Her guilt over her brother's death began to turn Rose against the lifestyle she had commenced. She became the leader of a local performance group dedicated to peace. Seeing her evident leadership skills in that group, the Global Communities team asked her to become involved in Kenya Tuna Uwezo and provided her with training in peace promotion. Today, her involvement and commitment continue to grow and she is one of the most effective peace champions in the program. Rose has dedicated her life to turning other young people away from a life of crime and fearlessly approaches the most hardened criminals in Korogocho to encourage them to change their ways.
Dan was already successfully using the radio and internet to get his message to other young people, and had established a sizable audience through the Langata Peace Network, an organization of youth groups working for peace that he founded. Now he writes a blog about peace, and is involved with a local radio program that features interviews with him and other peace-builders. Most recently, Dan, along with several other of the peace champions from the program, had their voice heard internationally when they spoke out after the Westgate Mall tragedy to call for a peaceful response to the massacre and to the communities of Kenya to avoid retaliation.
Today, Dan has an expanded platform from which to spread his message and is honing his skills as a leader. He is also learning how to become involved at the grassroots level to recognize conflict and serve as a mediator.
Rose and Dan are just two of the many young leaders that Global Communities works with and has assisted through the Kenya Tuna Uwezo program. There are many more natural leaders in Kenya and countless across Africa. Our job has been to partner with them and provide them with training and opportunities to thrive, but the leadership in these communities comes directly from the youth themselves. Their stories are remarkable but I am sure the stories of their future will be even more remarkable. They truly exemplify the principles of leadership, and they give me much optimism for the continuing peace efforts in Kenya.
So while the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announcement conveys a bleak message about some aspects of Africa's politics, there is great reason for optimism in that continent. Even amid the most dangerous, crime-ridden informal settlements of Nairobi, there are emerging leaders and new voices supporting peace, cooperation and working to bring their communities to a better future.