While there is a lot of talk about the potential of African youth, finding a job in a saturated market has become next to impossible. We must break this vicious cycle if a catastrophic future is to be avoided. By Winnie Odinga
A few Fridays ago I had a group of my friends over. It was the Friday night after the 14 Riverside terror attack in Nairobi and we wanted a quiet evening in. We were seven young women, all over the age of 25 but under the age of 30. Among us we had a combined seven undergraduate and seven Masters degrees, there were two doctors and an aerospace engineer – but none of us had formal employment. Not for a lack of trying; but I’ll come on to the reason for it later in this column.
What struck me as interesting during this particular gathering were the responses to my question, “Yo! Just how easy is it to become a terrorist?” I asked this question because at the time, the faces of the terrorists were plastered across all TV channels and social media sites. One point the Kenyan news belaboured was that the terrorists were not of Somali origin (an unfortunate, widely held stereotype of the terrorist in Kenya) but were actually of Kenyan ethnicity.
This fact was a point of discussion whispered in buses, neighbourhoods, clubs and bars. What’s happening to our young people? What we were bearing witness to was a reality that as a continent we need to address. In the past few years we have watched Europe pay dearly for ignoring this growing reality. There is massive radicalisation going on among our young people and it’s happening on a larger scale and faster than we think.
Back to the conversation with my friends. “Joining that thing is too easy. People think it just happens in the streets, [but] I can go online right now, find a website and by morning I’ll be on a plane to my future,” was one response.
“At this point, if I have to go and be rejected at one more interview, I’ll have to start thinking outside the box,” another quipped sarcastically.
Both points weighed heavily on me but reading between the lines, all I could see was a reality that affects millions of young people on this continent – a dramatic sense of hopelessness so acute that even terrorism seems a viable option.
We have all heard the political rhetoric about how this and that government will deliver jobs. We’ve accepted that political routine for exactly what it is, a routine.
Pragmatic New African person
In my last column, I wrote about just how pragmatic the New African person really is. The New African has moved from believing everything (or anything) that comes from politicians and has hit both the virtual and actual streets in search of jobs. They have shown up prepped and prepared for every job interview. They have impressed all HR reps and CEOs. They have modified and re-modified their CVs ad infinitum.
They have browsed thousands of job ads in their country and now are looking beyond borders. They wake up in a panic in the middle of the night and go online on their phones and swipe through professions they are more than qualified for.
The news recently highlighted modern-day slavery being experienced by Africans in the Middle East. That news may have been shocking for western media but is a devastating common occurrence for young Africans looking for some sense of upward social mobility.
Boats full of West Africans trying to get to Europe capsize daily in the Mediterranean Sea. I recently watched a group of Eritreans that had trekked through the desert and sailed through the sea to travel to Yemen. The journalist asked them if they knew there was an ongoing civil war and they said they didn’t care.
This New African (NA) has resorted to pleading with strangers on LinkedIn to just look at their CV. This NA has given up, tried again, prayed for, drunk, danced, exercised and done everything short of drawing blood to get employment – which is as difficult as getting a scholarship to Harvard. Many may apply but only one will get in. Their unemployment is a topic at family gatherings, they are always being introduced to ‘friends’ who might help.
Basically, they have done the search, research and are prepared. They do all this and don’t even get a text message informing them of their fate. After an interview they spend the next few weeks mustering up the courage to contact their potential new employer and are strung along with empty phrases like, “It’s looking good, I’m pushing,” only to be let down in the end. One is lucky to get even this kind of response.
Due to the high number of job applications, companies make young people compete and jump through hoops in interview processes and don’t even honour them with a reply of yes or no. There is also the job trap: “Come in for an internship and we will see in six months.” Two years later you are still carrying the boss’s briefcase from his car.
It is unfortunate that commonality in Africa is usually experienced in negative terms. Lack of services, corruption, poor infrastructure, etc. Each country has its own problems and they usually tackle them individually as nations. However on this particular point, African youths are screaming in a unified voice, “GIVE US JOBS!”
New model needed
There is a hashtag on Twitter used by Kenyans called #IkoKaziKE, which is a job search tag. If you’re lucky and your story is compelling enough to go viral, the Twitter community comes together to support you and shares your application around. Quite a number have found jobs this way. Complete strangers supporting each other online. But much more of this community spirit is needed.
Africa for too long has invested in an economic model that does not grow beyond providing raw materials. There is enough money and jobs in the value chain. Instead of minerals and agricultural produce being exported raw, let’s set up factories and refineries which will create engineering, managerial, accounting, IT and millions of satellite jobs in the chain.
We must sprout beyond the colonial model of grow-to-sell. Catastrophic unemployment is the symptom of a diseased society. We cannot have talks about talks about talks any more, we have to build and invest, and to move to plan B. NA